Chapter Twenty-Two

The dragon banked to the right over its goblin allies, turning in a wide circle for another strafing run. Tracers arced up from the machine guns of the 116th, to no effect. The Marines could hear the chatter of the machine guns and the buzz saw sound of miniguns echo across the desert. Lewis watched as an Abrams tank spun its turret and tracked the dragon. Boom! Fire gouted twice the length of the tank across the sand. Dust kicked up by the violence of the round’s passage billowed into the air in lazy circles on either side of the gun.

“Oorah! Hit!” Pethoukis yelled.

The dragon shrieked in pain, and the sound echoed across the sand. The right wing folded in. The dragon dropped, but before it had fallen a dozen feet the wing snapped back out, bat-like, and arrested the fall. The dragon gave two powerful flaps of its wings and resumed its course.

“Fuck!” Pethoukis cursed.

“Round went right through the wing,” Evans said. “I bet that stung a little.”

The dragon shrieked again, a high-pitched and piercing alarm klaxon from hell. It wheeled, turning right and aiming straight for the tank that had fired on it.

The goblins hit the top of the crest. On the goblin’s left flank Lewis saw a standard bearer, just a step ahead of his comrades, lower his short pike to impale a soldier firing full auto directly at his chest. Even from a mile away, Lewis saw through the binoculars the sparks of 5.56 mm rounds as they ricocheted off the enchanted crimson armor.

The bullets slowed the goblins not at all. A SAW gunner walked his fire down the ranks of goblins. The rounds, the same as fired by the ordinary issue carbine, did just as little damage as the carbines of the riflemen.

A line of claymores lit up, sending gigantic shotgun blasts of ball bearings into the charging goblins. The force of the explosions and the impact of the metal fragments knocked dozens of goblins down, but the they had learned from the last assault. Shields up at the last moment, their eyes were protected from the vicious blasts and the thousands of ball bearing projectiles hurled by the mines. Mostly unharmed, they struggled back to their feet in the loose sandy soil and charged upwards once more.

Lewis looked back to the dragon. Having learned caution, it wasn’t following a straight path. Now it bobbed and weaved like a boxer in the ring, swinging left and right as it approached the tanks. Twice the tanks fired again, missing.

“Now, dammit, now,” Coleman said.

“Kimball understands his orders, Corporal,” Lewis said. But in his head, he was saying exactly the same thing.

“Sir,” Evans said.

Lewis looked behind him. The wizard-priest, Archimandrite John, waited along with Father Pietr and Burhan.

“It is time, the Father says,” Burhan said.

Pethoukis smiled at Lewis, seeing his captain’s line appropriated. Everyone turned again to the battle.

The fire reached a crescendo as the brigade’s artillery again dropped a curtain of danger-close fire almost on top of its own perimeter. Half the rounds dropped, harmless, to the ground. Those few that detonated exploded too far up, raining projectiles to bounce harmlessly off the backs of the charging goblin regiments.

The leading wave hit the crest of the berm and charged over the top.

“Ara!” said Father John, quietly though his voice somehow penetrated the general din.

A yellowish glow appeared and hovered at the center of the cavalry brigade’s position, above an antenna-studded Bradley command vehicle. There it hovered for just a moment, before exploding soundlessly.

With distance, the glow faded almost instantly. But the progress of the outward wave could be seen, like the blast front of an explosion compressing the air and making a visible expanding ring around the point of impact. The insubstantial ripple passed through the men and vehicles of the Idaho national guard without effect. They seemed not even to notice.

The effect on their attackers was more profound. Lewis saw the standard bearer he’d watched a second before tossed backward as if he’d been hit by a giant, invisible tsunami. A half step and a half second behind him, the rest of the first goblin rank was pushed inexorably and violently backward, crashing into the ranks behind as all were swept away.

It took another second before the wave hit the dragon. The dragon went from graceful and malevolent flight to sparrow in a hurricane. Again the dragon screamed in rage as it was forced from its prey.

The 116th’s artillery fired for effect. Whatever enchantment had protected the goblins was gone. Shells once more rained down among them, exploding in their midst. The artillery cratered the field before them as the goblins struggled to withdraw. Every shell killed the closest outright, as even the magical armor was not sufficient to withstand jagged metal fragments moving at near orbital speeds. Further out, the armor shed the fragments but the concussion wave injured and disoriented. They stumbled, confused, to the rear.

Unnerved by the force that had repelled them at the moment of victory, they fled north disorganized and demoralized.

Corporal Coleman laid his hand on his sword, stolen from the goblins just days ago, but now as much a part of him as his M4.

“Sweet.”

***

While the red goblin regiments pulled back, more regiments continued to disgorge onto the plain from the draw in the cliff. There was some confusion as units jostled for space, and a few goblin riders could be seen riding back and forth, presumably relaying messages and orders.

“The Prince is getting close.”

Lewis looked to the left. He couldn’t see anything, but trusted Evans’ sharp eyes. The disorder in the goblin ranks had to be as visible to the Prince as it was to him, and he’d radioed the arrival of the Dragon. He’d done as much as he could, as little as that was.

“Captain! They’re de-cloaking!” Coleman said. Lewis looked back. The ground shimmered and small flashes of light, like miniature lightning, danced around an area now grown suddenly dim. A circular sheet of desert floor cracked and broke like shards of glass, and where there had been emptiness and sand there now stood a half-thousand cavalry in bright armor, bows strung and moving to the gallop.

Lewis had asked Prince Raimond why he intended to release the cloak before he hit. The Prince had replied, “I need them to have time to be afraid.” Now, Lewis saw the rightness of the Prince’s plan. Appearing a half second before impact would have startled the goblins. Appearing a little sooner gave them time to begin to panic, but nowhere near enough time to actually prepare.

The crusader horns played, a welcome relief from the sullen beating of the goblin drums and the harsh braying of their trumpets. The Prince had arrayed his forces in two equal-sized blocks. He led the right flank, on the southern side. Duke Odo in his black battle armor led the left. Through his binoculars, Lewis could see Gamez, radio antenna waving over his shoulder and looking desperately out of place on his horse.

Behind the Prince rode Archimandrite Theodore, besides Father John the only other full wizard in the embassy. His rich robes and his beard streamed behind him in the wind, but he held himself like a horseman. Hierodeacon Ambrose, John’s apprentice but nearly a full wizard himself, accompanied the Strategos. Both were backed up by a handful of lesser apprentices.

The sudden appearance of the crusaders sent a visible shock through the goblin regiments just above the draw. The westernmost of them, closest to the fast approaching crusaders, frantically attempted to shift front and prepare for the onslaught. But they had no time.

As they had at the battle of the village, the knights prepared their victims with arrows. Much closer to their targets than they were on that day, they aimed quickly and loosed. The first flight of arrows shot out, almost level to the ground with hardly any arch at all to their flight.

“The fucking arrows are aiming themselves,” Evans said.

“What?”

“They’re adjusting course. Like a guided missile. Dammit! I want one.”

Lewis snapped the binoculars up again, struggling to focus. The first volley of arrows hit their targets dropping dozens of goblins as the preternaturally sharp enchanted warheads pierced shield, helm and armor. Lewis waited for the next volley.

The crusaders were skilled bowmen. Seconds after the first flight flew, they had drawn and shot a second volley. Lewis marveled at the coordination required to draw, aim and fire an arrow while riding a horse at the gallop.

Watching the second flight of arrows, he saw it. They were aiming themselves; each arrow twisting, bobbing slightly in flight like a hawk tracking the movements of its prey. Nearly every arrow struck home, not a one could be seen sticking in the ground, though some were blocked by the shields and armor of the goblins.

“I will be damned,” Lewis said softly. Evans left for his sniper’s perch on the rock above.

So close were the crusaders when they unveiled, they had time for only three volleys. Hundreds of goblins lay dead and dying, an uncanny number of them with fletching protruding from helmets. Those left among the living were close to panic, their movements uncoordinated as the veteran file closers at the end of each rank desperately tried to restore order to the formation.

As one and to the call of the trumpet, the crusaders cased their bows and pulled their lances from the stirrup holders. Again the trumpets sounded. Leveling their lances, they spurred their horses to full speed. Lewis watched the golden-armored figure of the Prince at the head of his division. The tip of his lance shone in the sun, impossibly steady despite the full gallop of his horse.

The goblin regiment had little chance of preparing a proper defense even without the crusader archery display. Decimated by arrows, they had no chance at all. Prince Raimond crashed into their midst followed closely by 250 of his armored knights.

The noise was incredible, as if someone dropped a hundred kitchens’ worth of pots and pans all at once. The Prince’s lance drilled straight through shield and breastplate and into the heart of his target. The goblin arched its back in pain and shock and fell to the ground, pulling the Prince’s lance down with it.

The Prince let the lance drop, and the forward motion of his horse pulled it free from the chest of the already dead goblin. He spun the lance back into battery and skewered the next. When that goblin’s armor held the lance more firmly, Raimond just dropped it and drew his sword in a single fluid motion.

The goblins scattered, their formation riven in the first instant of fighting. Lewis leaned forward, hand upon his own sword as he watched. The Prince rode through the fleeing goblins, followed by his men. The knights of the kingdom cut through with lance and sword, meeting almost no resistance.

“Looking good, Captain,” Pethoukis said.

“Time to join the party.” Lewis picked up his radio. “Burke, let ’em have it.”

Meanwhile, Pethoukis signaled the mortars. Seconds later, mortar shells began raining down among the goblins further back from the engagement with the crusaders, adding to the confusion even if casualties were low. Nearly all the goblins at the top of the bluff, even all the way over to the 116th’s positions to the West, were in easy range of the Marine company’s mortars.

Lewis’ gunners walked their fire along a line back from the rear of the regiment now being crucified by the crusaders, and into the confused traffic jam of units uncertain whether to move forward toward the American cavalry or back toward the knights. Dusty black explosions tossed many, killed some; but everywhere disrupted the movements of the goblins.

To his left, Lewis heard a hum and whine as the Mobile Gun System Strykers rotated their turrets slightly, taking aim. On a video panel inside the big eight-wheeled vehicles, the gunners were centering targets in their crosshairs.

Boom, boom, boom! The three guns fired in near-unison. Loaded with canister, each gun projected a narrow cone of 3200 tungsten carbide balls at the goblins. The goblins running away from the knights and towards Lewis’ position ran face on into nearly ten thousand pieces of 00 buck.

The goblins were far enough out that the cannon fire didn’t have savage the same savage effect as the fire from the 116th’s Abrams had across the plain. Friction from the air slowed the projectiles enough that their armor was proof against the violence. Ninety-nine percent or more hit the ground or glanced harmlessly off armor, with a sound like a hard rain on a tin roof. Still, enough found weak points in armor or penetrated the open eye-slits of helms that dozens of goblins dropped bleeding to the ground.

The cannons’ autoloaders ejected spent casings and slammed new rounds into the breach. Again the barrels of the gun twitched as they hunted for new targets.

Lewis watched a goblin struggle to its feet, blood streaming from its helmet, only to be knocked down again by its comrades fleeing the knights behind. Once more it struggled to its knees, only to drop again permanently when a round from Evans’ .50 Barrett pierced his eye. It was disquieting to watch the head jerk as the bullet bounced around the inside of the helmet as he fell.

A surprise attack from the rear would be enough to rattle even a veteran unit. To be hit again from the side by Lewis’ magically concealed Marines as they fled was too much. The  regiment lost all cohesion and fled headlong as fast as they could in all directions. Most took the only open course, directly into the mass of goblins to the East; soldiers already reeling from the retreat from the assault on the 116th. Perfect! Lewis thought. Panic breeds panic and rout is contagious. Even troops that have not even been attacked can be routed, overwhelmed by fear.

Prince Raimond reined in his charging cavalry momentarily. They had lost momentum in the pursuit, and didn’t have space to build up to a full charge. The scattered remains of the regiment were not dense enough to offer many viable targets, either and Raimond surely didn’t want to disperse his men when there were still functional units not that far off.

Lewis heard the horns of the other division of crusader cavalry. He looked out, past Raimond, to where the Strategos Odo had led his knights in a charge parallel to his Prince’s. Like the Prince, he had cut a savage hole through the goblins before him. Lewis could see the wreckage strewn by his passage. Over a quarter-mile of desert goblins lay dead, dying, and bleeding from where Odo had first hit them to where even now they fled before the lances of Odo’s men.

He raised his rifle, and looked through the iPhone crudely mounted to the rail of his carbine. He tapped once to increase the magnification, and watched as the giants lumbered into a run.

Odo had pushed a few hundred yards further east than the prince, shattering a regiment of goblins and pushing them back to the cut in the bluff. Clearly, he intended to bottle up the neck of the draw where it reached the upper plain. There, a few men in powered armor could hold easily where the ramp was less than a hundred feet wide.

But that had also moved him past where the giants had stood. Why hadn’t he seen them?

Forty giants charged toward the rear of Duke Odo’s cavalry. They didn’t see them coming.

“Pethoukis, radio!”

***

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Continue on to Chapter Twenty-Three.

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