Chapter Twenty

Thousands of screaming goblins charged the top of the sandy wall. As they hit the crest, the Claymores went off. Explosions rippled down the lip of the improvised fortifications, sending thousands of ball bearings into the face of the enemy. Again the goblins quailed before the explosive insult, but their discipline and the screams of their non-coms kept them moving forward.

Lewis cringed as he watched and his hand twitched, wanting to reach for his sword. God, this kills me, he thought, to have to just watch. He couldn’t estimate the casualties the goblins had suffered in the assault so far. They’d been cut down savagely, more so than he had ever managed with his limited means. But even if they’d lost half their number, they’d still outnumber the cav.

The first goblins cleared the crest, swords high and savage war cries on their lips. The national guardsmen had no defense against the swords of their enemies. For over a century, the US Army had depended entirely on weapons that killed the enemy at a distance. Even the bayonet had been set aside. They had no relevant training, no weapon to overpower goblin armor, and no armor of their own proof against goblins swords.

A few desperate troopers continued to fire, but at an arm’s length there was no way to aim quickly and accurately enough to kill a magically armored goblin who was faster and stronger. The big guns in the rear, the only guns that had even a chance of killing a goblin, could not fire for fear of killing more Americans than the enemy.

Machine gun fire from the Abrams and Brads poured into the goblins from the side, to little effect. The soldiers should be pulling back; the commander couldn’t be that stupid, could he? Why weren’t the armored vehicles pulling out? They’d be dead meat if they were attacked without infantry support. Fuck, Lewis thought.

The goblins pushed over the berm in a wave and were lost from view save for the tips of their banners. Lewis tapped Burke on the shoulder and pointed up the wadi. The convoy resumed its slow progress up the draw. The satellite maps they’d pulled off google showed that a shallow ramp cut through the north rim of the wadi about a quarter-mile to the west of where they’d entered it. That ramp would take them up and into the middle of the hill that was their destination.

The cloak still shaded them as they advanced up the little ravine. Lewis peered back to the battle, but it dropped from view, screened by the low rise of the ground to the north. Burke turned up the ramp, and as they crested the ridge, their slightly greater elevation allowed Lewis to see down into the cavalry position in the hills to the east.

Lewis cursed in horror as he saw the goblins had breached the perimeter. Bronze-armored monsters poured into the middle of the brigade defenses. Cavalry troopers ran madly across the sand toward the rear.

Oh, fuck, wait! he thought. The turrets of the armored vehicles were all turned inward

“Yes!” Lewis shouted, “Firesack!” He scanned the perimeter with his binoculars. Not a single trooper in sight. The tanks were buttoned up, some being attacked by goblins but so far seemingly unharmed. The infantry *had* pulled back.

“What?” yelled Burke.

“Look!”

The cav had pulled back through the middle of their own position, drawing the goblins in after them. Roughly constructed bunkers guarded by heavy machine guns received the fleeing troopers, and the machine gun fire was heavy enough to slow down the pursuing goblins. Since the goblins had attacked on a broad front without much depth in ranks, they filled the sack quickly once they crested the berm.

The 120 mm Rheinmetall cannons opened fire once again, creating a jagged spiderweb of flame as dozens of tanks fired. The cav had set their aim to create an interlocking field of fire, covering as much ground as their numbers and geometry allowed.

At the same moment, artillery shells began to fall. The 120 and 60 mm mortars, the big 155’s; every gun the brigade had dropped every round they could, as fast as they could into the very center of their own formation. The troopers had cover in the trenches and bunkers, though they must be taking a real pounding from the dozens of overlapping blast waves from the detonations. Out in the middle though, it was far worse for the goblins.

Artillery kills two ways; with very fast-moving fragments, and by the pressure wave from the explosion itself. The enchanted armor guarded against only one of these. Lewis had seen men in conventional Kevlar armor killed without a scratch where the blast wave from an IED had been focused and magnified by the armor plates he wore. The pressure wave went in wherever there was an opening and then bounced around on the inside. Anything hard and smooth was like a mirror to blast effects, and the inside of a full suit of enchanted armor must be like a circus fun house, Lewis thought.

So much metal was dropping on the goblins, all of it pre-registered fire on known coordinates. Nothing was missing, and the goblins were being turned to chum. Hellish.

The last ones in were trying to be the first ones out. Seeing this, the tanks adjusted their aim, shooting along the edges of the cauldron to keep the goblins in, like a baker scraping the dough off the edge of the bowl so the mixer could mix.

“Mary, mother of god,” Burke said.

Despite the fire from the tanks, there was no way they could seal the edges of the cauldron. Goblins fled, desperate to escape the nightmare of fire and steel within. They didn’t bother to do anything but run, dropping weapons as they fled. One group, though, pulled out in decent order, recovering their wounded as they withdrew. They scrambled over the berm going back the way they came, formed up as best they were able, and quick timed away from the cav.

“Unbelievable. It would take a lot to maintain order in the middle of that shit,” Lewis said.

“How the hell could they even hear orders?”

“I don’t know, Burke.”

“After they’re dead, sir, I’ll praise them to the moon. How badly did the cav get it before all that started?”

“Not sure, it looked they were able to pull most of the troops off the wall. Lord knows how many wounded they lost, that didn’t make it out.”

“Hard call. But they fucked the goblins righteous. That’s five or six thousand dead, right there in front of us.”

“I think the days of losing a few men to snipers and IEDs is over, Lieutenant. We’re back to Passchendale and the Somme.”

***

Lewis and his men took up position at the northern verge of the rocky area.

Here, like the hill the 116th had chosen, a sandy slope rose up to a small plateau about ten feet or so above the level of the general terrain. But unlike the other hill, large boulders protruded out of the sand at irregular intervals. The biggest of them, black and glassy, stood over twenty feet tall.

Lewis immediately set his men to digging entrenchments behind the crest of the shallow sandy ridge that meandered more or less from rock to rock along the northern edge of the hill.

He placed his Strykers at the corners, anchoring what would become his perimeter. Burke and the MGS trucks were on the far left, Random and the regular-issue vehicles on the right where Lewis’ company would meet van Buskirk’s. Lewis and his Marines faced north, and van Buskirk’s mixed bag of soldiers, Marines and airmen set up to east toward the 116th. His mortar teams set up further back in a hollow formed by several medium-sized rocks, as safe a position as he could find or make at short notice.

While the men cut at the dry soil with their entrenching tools, Evans mounted the tallest rock in the vicinity. As he’d suspected from the satellite photos, it was well suited as a sniper’s nest. It had a scalloped top that offered a rocky lip almost like battlements on a castle’s tower.

Private Chen came jogging over, holding the radio. “Captain, Kimball’s on the line,” he said quietly. Despite the noise of the artillery and pitched battle, everyone seemed to be speaking in almost a whisper. The magical cloud hanging over their heads had more than a little to do with that, he thought.

“Here,” Lewis said, reaching for the receiver.

Lewis heard Kimball’s voice, scratchy with interference. “Captain Lewis, I have the commander of the 116th for you.”

“This is Colonel Brogan. I’m rather busy right about now. Who are you and what do you want?”

“Colonel Brogan; Captain Lewis, 3/9 Marines. I command a Marine company out of Ramadi. When we got the word to bug out, we advanced to the rear all the way to Arar, fighting goblins the whole way.”

“Goblins?”

“That’s what we’re calling them, sir.”

“My comms sergeant is calling them Orcs.”

Lewis shook his head, and Pethoukis, overhearing, covered his mouth to smother a laugh. “Sir, whatever you call them, have you seen any on horses?”

“Excuse me?”

“Have you seen any goblin cavalry?”

“What? I don’t believe so. Are you going to get to a point any time soon?”

“Sir, we encountered another force on the way out of Iraq. They are enemies of the goblins. They claim that they have fought them for centuries on another world, and that they are descended from crusaders who crossed from our world to theirs through a gate, the same gate that the goblins just came through only 900 years ago and going the other way. Sergeant Kimball can brief you more.

“Everything I’ve seen bears this out. They want an alliance with the United States. I am trying to get them to the gulf and safe transport stateside. The embassy is led by their crown prince, Raimond, and right now he is moving himself and 500 horse cavalry around the rocky formations due west of your position. He and his force are magically camouflaged, and equipped with enchanted armor and swords.

“So, two things. If you see horse cavalry in armor with lances and swords, don’t fucking shoot at them. I have a mixed force of about 200 in the rocks. We have some light artillery and a few Strykers. We plan on spotting for the Prince as he wheels around.”

“You said two things, Captain.”

“Yes, sir. Have you been hit by dragons yet?”

“No. Are you saying I will be?”

“In all likelihood, Colonel. Because you’re there and we’ve seen dragons scouting. And, the plan that the Prince and I came up with kind of intends for you to be the anvil.”

“Well thank you very much, Captain.”

“To that end, Sergeant Kimball possesses a device. It is a magical device, and when it is triggered it will do two things. One, it will provide a measure of protection for your force. That’s the good news. The bad news is that will be very visible to magical means of detection. Which will make you the apple of the enemy’s eye.

“The Prince has substantial means at his command. But he still commands only a relatively small force. He needs them to be distracted in order to hit them with the greatest effect.” Lewis waited for the explosion.

“You intend fucking what? You would deliberately put thousands of American soldiers at risk because someone who claims to be from another world blows smoke up your ass? Is this the best the Marines can come up with? I will have you up on charges if a single man of my command so much as gets a paper cut. If someone dies, I will personally hunt you down and kill you. Slowly. Where do you get off playing games in the middle of a shitstorm like this?”

Lewis waited another moment.

“Well?”

Lewis cleared his throat. “Colonel Brogan, sir. Every scrap of information I have at hand tells me that the real target of the forces you are facing is, and has been from the start, Prince Raimond and his embassy. Us.”

“We just killed thousands of the fuckers. We’ll kill more. We’ve got a defensible position and ammo out the ass. They can only come up the bluff from the Iraq side of the border in a couple places,” Brogan said.

Lewis interrupted, “Begging your pardon, sir, that was a good trick with the firesack. Outstanding. How many times do you think they’ll fall for it? You need to face the fact: they will cut through you to get us. You know what happened to the 4th ID. You trained with them, didn’t you – were they a gaggle of boots on first deployment? I don’t think you are hoping for that outcome.

“We saw at least one dragon yesterday, scouting for this force. They will be here. And we’ve learned that goblins and dragons aren’t the whole story. There’s giants and wizards and who the fuck knows what else. If the enemy has decided that it needs to get through one isolated, unsupported brigade, it probably can.

“The Crown Prince is planning to pull your ass out of the fire. I strongly suggest, Colonel, that you cooperate. Allow Staff Sergeant Kimball to activate the device. I can signal you when our assault is about to happen. Kimball can give you the rest of the details.

“It comes down to this, Colonel. I’ve seen these crusaders in action. Just five hundred of them went through two regiments of goblins like they were a church fucking knitting circle. I trust them. They feel right. Hell, right now I trust them more than most anyone I ever met in the Pentagon, not that that’s setting a high bar for achievement.

“Let us help you Colonel. Activate the device, and hold your ground. And we’ll take them from behind.”

“Captain, I don’t know whether you’re an angel straight from heaven, or high as a fucking kite. Kimball says he hasn’t seen them fight, but he’s seen them spar and practice, and he corroborates your story. Shit. I can’t believe you’re putting me in this position, Marine.”

There was a long pause. Finally, “Very well, Captain. I will agree to your plan. But if you fuck up and I survive, your days are numbered in the low single digits.”

“Thank you sir. If I fuck up, you’ll have to take a number. I estimate that it’s another hour or so for the Prince to get in position. You’ll probably have another one, maybe two assaults if they move at the same optempo we saw in Iraq. Activate the device after the next assault. There’s not much we can do about the dragon, but I am told that there may be some pyrotechnics as the crusaders attack.”

“Alright, Lewis. I have things to do, now. Kimball, walk with me while I sort out this clusterfuck…” His voice faded, he must have just tossed the radio as he walked away.

“Well, part one went according to plan,” Pethoukis commented.

“I never thought that was going to be the hard part.”

***

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Continue on to Chapter Twenty-One.

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