Part One

“Okay. You’re right. We’re fucked.”

Captain Lewis spat on the dusty floor. He looked up from the map and out the window. Outside, the company was looking to the north at a cloud of dust. The dust cloud got closer every time he looked. Off to the right, around the corner, was another dust cloud. He couldn’t see it, but one of the last drones still up had tracked it for a couple hours. It got closer, too.

Sgt. Pethoukis looked up from his tablet. “Captain, lost the predator feed.” His lean face had a grimmer than average cast. “I saw fire right before it cut out.”

“Dragon?” the captain asked.

“Most like.”

“Shit.”

A hundred miles south of Ramadi, he thought. Three times we’ve tried to turn east, and each time we’ve been blocked. And now a fourth regiment of infantry was moving in from the east, and they’d get to the road south before he could.

“If they’re coming up the road from the east, that means they’re moving south faster than we are. And that means that they’re getting no push back from us. That is less than good.” God, those bastards moved fast – on foot, they were covering fifty miles a day or more. Through hostile terrain and crappy roads, even with humvees and trucks he couldn’t go much faster.

“Sir. Once we got the bug-out order, our guys would be using the highways. They’ll be moving faster than us.”

“True.”

Lewis swirled the flinty spit around his mouth a bit. He spat.

“Well, let’s prepare a welcome.”

***

Lewis looked at his company. They were tired. They were scared. He was tired and scared for that matter. He looked over to see Pethoukis coming back from the perimeter.

“All the claymores are in place. We didn’t have many left anyway. We’re as set as we’re gonna be.”

Lewis looked north and squinted at the dust cloud. “Fast as they’re moving we’ve got an hour and half, maybe two. Have everyone top off on water, get around some food.” And then we wait, he thought.

***

“Don’t see that every day,” Lance Corporal Jackson said.

“Shut up, Jackson. We do see it every day,” Pethoukis growled. Lewis sympathized with the corporal, though. The goblins or aliens or whatever the fuck they were were shaking out of column, forming a line of battle as he watched. There were near a thousand of them, about a regiment’s worth. He’d whittled them down a bit, but not as much as they had him. It was like something from the Civil War – or from Medieval times. His Marines clutched their weapons a little tighter.

“Evans!” the captain yelled. He rooted through his MRE pouch.

“Sir?” the sniper was lean and tall, with a week’s worth of dark beard.

“Service me some targets, Evans.”

“For what it’s worth, sir, no problem.”

Evans jumped up and ran into the shack. A moment later, the barrel of his .50 appeared over the eaves of the pathetic little sand brick hovel. Evans began firing. After every shot, Lewis heard a muttered, “Shit!”

Evans called down from his perch, “Fuck, sir. I’m still not hitting shit.” Same as before, Lewis thought.

Just one more mystery, even if tragically offensive to Evans. Lewis had seen him put five rounds through a quarter at 800 m. Many times. And here, he couldn’t hit a single target at half that range.

Lewis popped a smartie into his mouth.

The enemy dressed their lines. The sun, setting off to the left, glinted off the edges of their swords. Lewis had seen those swords go through Kevlar like it was paper. Mystery. This group, the one that had been chasing them south from Ramadi, didn’t have bowmen. But the regiment that hit them the second time they tried to turn east, to pick up the highway and get the fuck out of Dodge, had. He’d lost 26 men to – he didn’t have a better word for it – ridiculously accurate arrows. Arrows. The US was losing men to arrows for the first time since Little Bighorn.

He’d sent a small scouting party out to the east in a beat-up Toyota pickup. The blocking force was still fifteen klicks out. They’d have to keep an eye out now that the predator was down. At least he’d only have to face one regiment of bulletproof aliens at a time.

“Pethoukis. It’s time.”

Off in the distance, the war horns sounded. If you crossed a Scottish bagpiper with a werewolf and kicked him in the nuts, it might sound half as bad.

Fuck it, Lewis thought. Coleman’s right. They’re goblins right out of Lord of the Rings. Aliens wouldn’t fight with swords; they’d have lasers or some shit. Aliens would have flown here in space ships, not walked. And aliens almost certainly wouldn’t have those godawful war horns.

The goblins moved forward, double time, swords drawn and resting on their shoulders.

Of course Coleman still insisted they were really orcs, not goblins. Lewis had stopped paying attention to the argument when Coleman started talking about the etymology of Elvish words.

“As ugly as they are, they shouldn’t be that disciplined,” Jackson said.

“I wouldn’t introduce one to my sister. Let’s make them bleed,” Lewis replied. Thank god my sister’s in Miami, Lewis thought. Before the BBC out of Baghdad went off the air, they’d said that Oregon was gone, and there was fighting in a huge line from Denver to Cleveland, and then across and south to Baltimore. The President and Congress had fled Washington. Millions of refugees back home. Small wonder their wasn’t a helicopter to evac one worn down company at the ass end of nowhere. Shit. He needed to get home. They all did.

They had stopped at this little abandoned village when their last truck broke down. They still had humvees and buffaloes, along with a gaggle of pickup trucks he’d liberated in the mad flight out of Ramadi. Those were all parked on the far side of this desolate cluster of hovels, ready to move out. Lewis had decided to take a few hours to see if the truck could be fixed – it was carrying water and fuel he knew they’d need.

The only thing between here and Saudi Arabia was another hundred miles of desert. They were further than ever from where he wanted to be, yet they kept going south because every time he tried to move east toward Kuwait and a ticket home more of these fuckers appeared. And now he was about to be trapped between two rocks and a hard place. The truck was dead, dead, dead; and a half hour ago he’d had as much of its cargo as would fit distributed to the other vehicles.

Lewis heard the clack-clack-clack of the claymore trigger. Explosions downrange – dozens of the goblins were down. “Mortars!” he ordered. Thunk, thunk, thunk. Explosions rent the goblin line – Lewis saw the little toy figures of goblins tossed by fire and gray smoke – but they dressed ranks and kept coming. Another salvo of mortar shells dropped a half dozen more. Most of them just got up again. How can they survive mortar fire? The goblins refused to slow.

He could hear the guttural chanting of their officers keeping the time under the eerie howl of the war horns. God, he hated that noise. The ground sloped down from the village – mostly flat and sandy here far from the rivers. Dust, emptiness and more dust. The desert sun gave everything a sepia cast, like he was watching a western movie with an overeager cinematographer. The goblins came on, relentless.

“Prepare to volley fire” he said softly to Pethoukis. A week ago, he never would have imagined giving that order. But between the goblin’s damnable armor and Evan’s problems with finding a target – the only way to kill any of them was with massed fire across a front. Even machine guns were hardly worth a damn. Magic, he muttered in the back of his head. At least he could deliver volley fire faster than any civil war officer could have dreamed.

Pethoukis’ deep voice boomed out. “Company! Ready!

The Marines brought their assault rifles to their shoulders. “Aim!” Neither Lewis nor Pethoukis could remember the actual commands for volley fire. Lt. Nichols might have. But he took an arrow to the eye three days ago. They’d left the body by the reservoir.

“Fire!”

The sound was still strange to Lewis’ ears. He was so used to hearing the high-pitched popcorn pop of the M4 coming off in bursts. Fifty-seven of them firing at once, in unison, was just…odd. The goblins were now close enough that he could see sparks off their armor where rounds were hitting. They didn’t drop. Another round of mortar shells hit the line – perfect! he thought – and maybe ten more were down. One-hundred yards. The mortars would keep firing until the goblins were close. Danger close.

His Marines fired again. This time, he saw a couple fall – head shots, he knew, because that was the only way to drop them. Their armor just shrugged off 5.56 mm rounds. They might have been shooting BBs for all the good it did. You had to get them pretty much right in the eye, through the open slot of the visor. His troops were good – but still, asking for a perfect shot was asking a lot, even on the range, let alone in battle on a moving target.

He paced behind the line. His men were firing once every three seconds. Wait, he thought. He followed Jackson’s aim – another head shot. Jackson said, “Red Feather!” Lewis watched him aim at a goblin with a long, dark red feather sticking out of the top of his helmet. Another hit – but that wasn’t Jackson’s shot.

He tapped Jackson on the shoulder. “Corporal. What are you doing?”

“I’m calling the shot, sir. If we all shoot at the same guy, one of us might hit ’em.” He looked embarrassed. “It fucks with their mojo, sir.”

Lewis stared at the advancing line. Seventy-five yards. “Do it again.”

Jackson turned back to the front, kneeling behind a low berm of dirt and broken brick. He took aim, and called, “White banner!”

Another round of mortars landed behind the lead rank. Jackson and his fireteam fired at the goblin with the off-white banner hanging from a spear. Maybe he’s going to surrender, Lewis thought.

They waited for the order to fire. Four M4 carbines fired at one marching goblin – yes, the goblin flinched but he kept going. Lewis saw the round glance off the goblin’s cheek guard.

“Company!” Lewis roared. “By fire team, pick a target and fire at will. Jackson says if you all fire at the same one, it fucks with their mojo!”

The company roared. The steady pulse of the volley fire dropped out, and Lewis heard a cacophony of rips of four and five shots going off at once. Goblins started dropping, slowly, in twos and threes.

It’s working! A little, anyway. Fifty yards. He had to get the timing right… He looked to Pethoukis and nodded. Pethoukis bellowed, “Fall out!”

Immediately, Marines started dropping down from the low wall they’d built. They crawled back, out of sight of the approaching goblins, and started mounting up on the vehicles on the south of town. All with engines running, ready. The Marines still on the wall picked up the pace of fire. Two goblins at the center of the advancing line dropped, neat red holes right on the bridge of their noses. The chant and the howl of the war horns was intolerable. He needed a division of bagpipers to even the score.

The mortars dropped one more salvo, killing a half dozen, and their crews grabbed and ran for the trucks, throwing the big weapons on board and jumping in after. The first vehicles started moving out. Lewis and Pethoukis worked their way in from the ends of the line, tapping Marines out. They moved as fast as they could back to the waiting trucks.

Evans came down from the roof. The last team, Lewis, and Pethoukis backpedalled fast, firing as the goblins cleared the low wall.

Savage faces, dark skinned and beardless behind shining armor. Lewis saw three shots just bounce off the breastplate of the lead monster. Magic. Two goblins dropped with lead in the eye. Evans grunted satisfaction. Lewis hadn’t even heard the boom of his .50 Barrett rifle.

The goblins were running – screaming in frustration as they saw their prey slipping away, again. Lewis backed up, firing methodically. He dropped one goblin. It fell screaming to the dust. Evans’ big .50 boomed. Lewis felt hands grab and lift him, and like that the goblins were falling behind.

***

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Continue on to Part Two.

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