Lewis aimed the binoculars at the far right flank of the enemy. To his left more than two dozen armored giants strode toward him with enormous, swinging, six-foot strides. Sweet Jesus, I can’t believe that’s marching at me. Through the glass, their armor looked crude and finely made all at once.
Unlike the knight’s armor or any armor from Lewis’ own history, the giant’s armor was blocky. Made of flat plates without a hint of curve, the faceted construction gave the armor the look of the old nighthawk stealth fighter. Enchanted like every other nightmare that had come across the veil and thicker by far than the armor worn by the goblins; it was proof against almost anything he could throw at it.
Almost. 105 mm armor-piercing, discarding sabot tank rounds did the job. But they were fresh out of those particular rocks. The replacement giant chief, if that’s what he was, strode in front of the mass of giants. Black-armored and looking pissed; but considering what we did to his predecessor, that’s probably justified. Lewis made a quick count. He turned to face his command group.
“Down to 28 giants.”
“Is that a manageable number of giants, sir?” Coleman asked.
“We’ll find out directly, corporal. Burke’s out of everything but canister. And almost out of that.”
“They’re gonna figure out right quick that we don’t have any more sabot rounds,” Pethoukis said.
“Their fear slows them. That is enough,” replied the Prince calmly. The Prince was right. The giants were lagging behind the advance of the trolls.
Van Buskirk looked to the Prince. “Sir, pardon my asking, but if they beat you out there, how do you expect you can shove them off hard enough that we can bug out without them corncobbing us?
Lewis started to reprove him, but the Prince waved him back. “Thomas, this is a council of war. All questions should be heard; heard and answered.”
“Peter, we were surprised by the presence of giants. Never have we seen them in such numbers. I even asked Father Pietr. In all our history, there is no account of giants fighting together in this manner. A bad omen, perhaps. But their assault on Odo spoiled a perfectly good plan.
“Without my dear friend on my left, I could not pin the enemy as I had hoped. We pushed the goblins back, then the trolls. We made our way here, covering for Odo and his men as they pulled back from the giants.
“We could have wheeled back to the west, but that would have left both you and your comrades in the Snake River brigade sorely exposed to the attentions of an enemy we had not entirely defeated; and for too long. Instead we thought to regroup here, where we could more quickly provide for your defense, and have some hope of doing the same for your army.
“I thought it best for this reason: if we can get the enemy pinned down by their own numbers advancing against a defensible position, such as this one, we can grind them. All we need is to hold for a short while, and we will catch them.
“Our prudent retreat will put fire in their bellies. They will think they have the advantage. They will not.”
Burke spoke up, “Your highness, we roughed the giants up. But we don’t have the ammo to do it again. Even if I had a full loadout, I couldn’t take out north of two dozen giants.”
“Lieutenant, we will deal with the giants. We will hit them, hit them hard enough that they will flee and not return. Then we can retire from the field in honor, with your Colonel Brogan and his men.”
A half-mile out, ordered ranks of trolls stepped up the pace. Even from this distance they’re scary as shit, Lewis thought. Nine feet tall and menacing; armed with halberds longer than I am tall. Five or so minutes, and they’ll be on us.
A hundred yards of mounded sand were the walls of the fortress he was about to defend. Along the ramparts were the men of his company, resplendent in burnished armor looted from the dead. The men of the Prince’s royal guard were interspersed with the Marines, easily picked out by the style of their armor and the ease with which they carried their swords and lances. That, and the lack of firearms. His men still carried their M4s and SAWs, out of place now amidst the medieval ironmongery.
At each side, pillars of black stone anchored the line. Beyond the boulders to the left and hull down behind the sand were Burke’s Strykers; three infantry combat vehicles and three mobile gun systems. On the right huddled in the middle of a stand of boulders were a handful of humvees mounting M2 .50 cal machine guns and mk 19 Grenade Launchers. There, the line bent back to the south, following the edge of the hill. There stood the soldiers and Marines of van Buskirk’s company, waiting for the advancing red-armored goblins.
“We’re good on ammo, at least. Three units of fire for everything but Burke’s guns,” Pethoukis said quietly.
“I guess the Saudis are good for something, after all,” Lewis said softly.
Lewis clambered up on a small boulder behind the center of his line. He raised his voice and shouted to his command, “Marines! Today the armies of darkness are coming for us again. We are going to stand on this fucking hill and the enemy is going to have two choices: come and die, or run.”
“There will now be a blessing. Father Jerome?” The captain turned to Hierodeacon Jerome and Father Pietr who were waiting behind. “Keep it short, rev.” Lewis dropped back to the sand.
The slender priest mounted the rock in Lewis’ place. He made the sign of the cross and he spoke; Father Pietr’s clear voice provided the translation. “Lord, make straight our path. Grant us strength for the trial ahead. Grant us courage and make us steadfast. Grant us victory, if that is your will. In these things as in all things, we praise and glorify you. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; unto ages of ages, Amen.”
The priest made the sign of the cross once more. Lewis felt a warmth grow in his chest. The warmth flowed out through his body, a sense of strength following it. He was light, bouncing on the balls of his feet. He was fast, strong, and his mind raced. Holy shit, this feels good, he thought. The enchanted armor he wore was lighter than any normal armor could be, and what weight it retained was better supported and better distributed than the heavy issue gear with its kevlar and ceramic shock plates. Now, it seemed he wasn’t even wearing it. Attendance at St. John’s back home would be a lot better if Father Adam could do that.
Lewis looked at the thin line of men before him. Tiredness was banished, and fear gone. They were confident; they were ready. Behind him, Chen and a group of privates stood, waiting to bear messages since the radios had all shit the bed. Runners and messengers, how fucked up can it get? Best be sure, he concluded. “Chen, radio check.”
The small private turned the volume knob up, and was rewarded with a squeal of feedback. He turned it back down. “Check every couple minutes, private. Father John said he’d be working on the interference.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
“And stay close, private. When I need you, I’m going to need you bad.”
“Let’s begin.” Lewis walked up to the line, and unshouldered his carbine. Raimond waited in his golden armor. Lewis took his place between the Prince and Baron Siegfried. Pethoukis was on the Baron’s other side, and to the left of the prince stood Arp, massive in his plundered goblin armor.
The trolls were closing the distance, marching steadily and remorselessly. Their heavy footsteps made a hollow echoing drumbeat on the sand. Nearly here. Well, we’re better equipped than last time. Let’s see what happens. He looked over to the nearest Stryker, where Burke stood in the commander’s cupola. Lewis shouted, “Burke, light ’em up!”
That was the signal. Burke opened up, followed by the machine guns of his platoon. The unmanned turrets of Burke’s Strykers seemed to move without human agency, controlled remotely by a crewman inside the vehicle. In seconds, every weapon at Lewis’ command poured fire on the trollish regiments.
Tracers, every fifth round fired by the machine guns, formed glowing bars washed pale by the setting sun as they burned downrange. Thick beams of fire erupted from the two ends of his line. Heavy fifty caliber machine guns, the redoubtable M2 ‘ma deuce’ and smaller M240 7.62 mm belched fire at the hulking troll lines.
Marines standing in the beds of the humvees walked the lines of tracers down the ranks of grimly marching trolls, searching for targets. The big .50BMG rounds were powerful, but against the heavy armor of the giants and trolls, they were useless. He might as well be firing at tanks. The trolls marched on undeterred.
The high rattle of the machine guns was juxtaposed with the steady thump, thump of the Mk 19 grenade launchers. Shooting a 40 mm grenade every second the thumper was a deadly effective antipersonnel weapon against human troops in the open. The weapons designers had not considered enchanted armor in their calculations. Explosions jostled the advancing trolls but did not slow them. Not even a little.
Behind him, Lewis heard the tonk of mortar fire. Sixty millimeter mortar rounds fell like thunderbolts on the trolls, digging craters and tossing the enormous creatures like a discarded child’s rag doll. Almost every time, though, the black-armored dolls stood again, and resumed their steady progress.
Pethoukis leaned back and shouted over the din to Lewis, “Mortar rounds are hitting. Are they slacking or is our mojo winning?”
“No fucking clue. Pour it on. Grenades and mortars, Pethoukis; maximum rate of fire. Give them some love.”
Pethoukis sent a runner back to the mortar teams, and gave a hand signal to the thumper gunners on the humvees. The rain of explosives on the trolls quickened. Here and there, a wounded troll limped out of ranks. The blast from the mortar shells made ripples in the troll formation, but like throwing a pebble in a lake, the water closed over the rifts in only a moment. Lewis raised his glasses.
Through the lenses of his binoculars the trolls seemed more monstrous, more menacing. He could catch a hint of the engraving on the armor, disturbing patterns that brought unwillingly to his mind images of writhing snakes and other, less wholesome beasts.
A troll standard bearer waved his banner, urging his compatriots on. He pointed the spear-tipped banner at the hill, and at that moment a grenade hit his face straight on. Fucking lucky shot, Lewis thought. The grenade exploded at the instant of impact, overwhelming the magic that gave the mighty helm is unnatural strength. The troll’s head disappeared, but his body remained standing for a moment, long enough for the troll in the next rank to snatch up the flag and step forward.
Lewis dropped the glasses. He glanced left and right, gauging the mood of his men. The men on the line calmly serviced targets. They leaned forward as they fired, absorbing and controlling the recoil with practiced ease; firing single shots aimed through smart phones and digital cameras crudely mounted to the rails of their carbines.
The strength that suffused him, flowed through them too. The fear was still there, but held somehow at disstance. I should be more afraid, he knew. Like the first days running from the goblins back in Ramadi. Then, the terror was raw and wild; restrained only at great cost of will. He didn’t know how he’d kept going. No other choice, really. Was it that simple?
The massed fire of Marine M4s and squad automatic weapons was striking home. The only problem was it wasn’t even scratching the paint. The combined efforts of Lewis’ reduced company was doing fuck all to slow the advance of the enemy.
“This is fucking useless!” Pethoukis shouted. The Marines on the line kept up a steady rate of fire. Lewis could see sparks jetting off the black armor of the trolls, but to even less effect than the big .50s. The trolls marched unperturbed, like some nightmarish civil war regiment.
The trolls passed the first marker, 150 meters out. The crusaders, who until that moment had stood motionless and waiting, drew their bows as one let fly a volley of arrows. The black flight of missiles arced up, over the flat lines of machine gun tracers and seemed to pause for a moment at the apex of their trajectory before plunging down.
The arrows, uncanny as before, found their mark. Several trolls dropped like stones, arrows jutting from pierced visors or almost invisible gaps in their armor. A troll officer sprouting five arrows from his heavy breastplate, swept his halberd down snapping the shafts of the arrows. His boots snapped the broken arrows as he marched forward.
As the crusaders drew for a second volley, Lewis looked to his right flank, where van Buskirk’s company faced the reformed red regiment. The long-armed, barrel-chested goblins marched steadily into withering fire. The Marine Lieutenant deployed his troops to fire by volley, enhanced with fire teams of marksmen equipped with jury-rigged cellphone sights. As Lewis had learned back in Iraq, accurate fire could defeat the lighter goblin armor at close enough range. Van Buskirk’s mortars hit harder, too; concussion waves from the 60 mm rounds crept through gaps in the armor to reverberate inside the body cavity. Goblins died bleeding from eyes, nose and ears without a scratch on their armor.
The enemy drums beat faster as they cleared the 100 meter marker. The goblins doubled their pace, and the trolls rolled into a loping quick-step. Pethoukis glanced back and forth, estimating. “Trolls gonna hit first,” he said.
Lewis raised his weapon. With his off hand he unlocked the iPhone. Crosshairs appeared on the screen, and he took aim. The Theodolite viewfinder was already cranked up to 4x magnification, rendering the running trolls like a grainy old 16mm home movie. He placed the crosshairs on the black mesh of a troll’s eye slit, and squeezed the trigger. The round left a silvery streak on the black-enameled helm and the troll’s head jerked back. But didn’t drop. He kept firing.
Lewis burned through the mag with steady, rapid, aimed fire while a small part of his mind counted down from thirty. He dropped the magazine, rotated his weapon 90 degrees and slapped in a fresh mag. With the same motion, he worked the charging lever brought the weapon back in battery.
The trolls cleared the 50 meter marker at a run. Lewis felt a tugging sensation as a mortar fragment caught his carbine sling, nearly slicing it in half. He heard a musical tinking sound as the last of the small shell fragments hit his armor. The mortars should have ceased firing at a hundred meters for fear of inflicting casualties on friendlies, but magic armor protected them from friendly fire as well as foe.
At twenty-five meters, the thumpers also silenced; just as they were beginning to have some effect. The heavy tread of the troll regiment was unnervingly loud, and the deep and unintelligible war cries made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
Lewis heard Pethoukis yell, “Hit them now, Burke!” But the command was unneeded. Before he finished his cry, the big 105s rang out; firing their final rounds of canister. A myriad tungsten balls, fired at an oblique angle across the troll line of advance, scraped the front two ranks off the enemy formation.
The sharp smell of blood filled his nostrils as thousands of projectiles sought and found weak spots in black enameled troll armor. One troll on the edge of the blast, arm upraised and bearing an immense axe took at least a dozen balls in the side. It’s enchanted strength overwhelmed by the sheer speed of the projectiles, Lewis saw the steel armor crack in a spiderweb around each point of impact like a windscreen hit by a rock.
One of Lewis’ men dropped, felled by an unlucky ricochet. His face hidden by the armor, Lewis couldn’t tell who it was.
The third rank trolls suddenly found themselves the first. Staggered by the carnage, they slackened their pace, slipping on the noisome remains of half a hundred trolls. Wounded trolls, missing arms and legs and leaking blood, scrambled back; fouling the steps of those still standing. Still they staggered back to a run, screaming at the top of their lungs.
Lewis’ Marines had time for a final volley, joined by the Crusaders firing arrows flatly across the two dozen yards between the two opponents. The Stryker’s turret autoloaders tossed three-foot long empty shell casings behind and rammed home new rounds. Burke aimed again for a final fire. Firing almost parallel to the Marine’s line, the big guns projected three intersecting cones of destruction, converging at a point right before Lewis at the middle of the line.
Again, a sleet of humming projectiles savaged the charging trolls. The standard bearer dropped screaming, his black armor webbed with white lines emanating from a dozen finger sized holes. Blood gushed from the rents in the armor.
Corpses littered the ground as did less recognizable forms, scrambled by grapeshot. Trolls in the center of the blast were knocked sideways, caught by a wind of tungsten and steel and propelled bloodily into the unwounded. Trolls scrambled to clear the windrow of the dead, but the devastation of those last two salvos had finally slowed the advance. Blood soaked into the sand.
Lewis let his M4 drop. Pethoukis shouted to the Marines on the line.
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Continue on to Chapter Twenty-Eight.