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Chapter no 19

Forgotten Ruin

The forward elements of the enemy were hitting our line at Phase Line Charlie along several points now. Sergeant Jasper was in communication with the captain and we were being told to continue to hold our position for the next few as the outgoing fire got heavier. Orcs were streaming through the forest above our heads as we hunkered down in the gully.

“Suck dirt!” shouted the sergeant as a sudden line of mortar strikes landed across the enemy front to both sides.

Down in the streambed we were ducking below the plane of outgoing fire from our teams along the line to our rear. Fire was being directed away from us toward the flanks, but we were still keeping our heads down. The SAW was being carried by Specialist Mercer, with PFC Soprano acting as the AG carrying reloads. Sergeant Kang was with me at the rear, and Jasper and one other Ranger were on opposite sides of the gully watching our flanks.

When the enemy came at us under a minute later, we were effectively fighting what’s called a “Reverse Slope Defense.” Before joining the Army I read a few primers on military tactics just to better understand what I was getting involved in. What I’d be a part of. Yeah, it was above my paygrade, but I’ve found a little knowledge can vanquish fear of the unknown. Now I was watching what I’d learned come into play.

It looked a lot different in the book.

Because we couldn’t poke our heads up beyond the gully for fear of getting hit by our own outgoing fire from friendlies, we had to defend the gully and kill whatever came into it until it was time to pull back to safety. The SAW was positioned toward the front of the gully where we expected the enemy to come from as they advanced along their axis of attack. We’d switched to night vision and were ready to go as, overhead, tracer rounds streaked and zipped off into the night beneath the crystal blanket of the universe night vision always showed you despite the mess you found yourself in down below. Sergeant Kang had placed his rucksack facing outward toward the perimeter with a Claymore mine mounted atop it.

We concentrated on our assigned sectors. Of course, I was watching everything as I was pretty sure I’d been given the least important sector to

watch: our escape route to the rear and back to Phase Line Charlie.

The SAW opened up in a short burst and I turned my head around to see the targeting laser dance along fast-moving rounds in night vision, ripping into five orcs carrying wickedly curved swords and small shields. Hot 5.56 rammed into heavy-browed orc heads and beefy armor-clad green scarred bulks bristling with axes and armor. More orcs came in behind those currently being cut to pieces, no doubt sensing the depression in the landscape and trying it as a route to sneak up on the enemy lines. Instead they got a nasty surprise from Mercer squeezing the trigger on the squad automatic weapon and Soprano directing fire.

Sergeant Kang nearby engaged something that looked like a cross between a small dog and a lizard. Bipedal. Humanoid, sorta. Carrying a small spear and a dagger that could have been the tooth from a megalodon shark. I’d see one in a museum once. The dog-lizard thing landed down in the sandy bottom of the gully and Sergeant Kang, who’d been watching the lip of the gully in his sector, saw it spring down and land near the SAW gunner and Private Soprano. Kang pivoted on his belly and double-tapped the thing with two rounds that sent it sprawling off in the dirt. When it landed, he shot it again and yelled at me. “Watch your sector!”

My sector, facing our lines, was a dizzying array of outgoing fire streaking through the shadowy green trees and bright crystals of stars revealed by my night vision. It was a lot to process. Especially the tracer ricochets that seemed to want nothing more to do with the battle and disappeared off into the universe.

I heard Jasper and the other Rangers open up from the flanks, but I watched our exit and made sure we didn’t get cut off when the time came to move. The rounds were moving so fast and close above our heads it felt like you could just stand up and they’d tear your head off and keep going off into this strange world of stars and night forever. I pushed myself deeper into the sandy bottom and waited for the order to move. Hoping it would come soon.

Three minutes of fighting like this, taking random spurts of enemy who seemed too overwhelmed by the fire from our lines to realize there were targets among them in the dry streambed, and then Mercer cried out, “Loading!”

The Rangers moved into a new posture to accommodate the reload. I

thought it would be a process and I knew it would have been for me. I was ordered to shift fire to Kang’s sector while Kang covered forward. I could see Soprano assisting. It was easier than I thought it would be. At the same time Mercer got a new belt fed into the ammo tray and that was when the first of the enemy cavalry came thundering down the gully.

These weren’t orcs.

They were human-shaped riders dressed in shrouds and armor. Like ghost riders. Hoods over their heads, they rode lean, bony, and gray or even dark horses. The first one came down the gully at a full gallop, following the streambed up from the south and riding close to the gaunt horse’s neck as the rider tried to avoid fire. He appeared around the bend farther down the dry streambed and Mercer had just pushed the ammo tray closed when the rider saw us and simply charged as if to ride us down, waving a long sword that shimmered in the night.

Mercer pulled the trigger release and started firing.

Rounds smashed into the weird horse and rider, but even though the beast screamed like something straight from a nightmare, it kept on coming straight at us. Sergeant Kang was engaging an ogre, a big mean one with a massive bow that was larger than anything I’d ever seen. The ogre, smashing his way through the trees above, had apparently leaned down over the gully to check and see what was going on down in here. The thing was easily nine feet tall, and it moved fast, its powerful muscles pulling the giant arrow it had nocked and ready to go back into firing position. It wore nothing but a tasseled kilt and high leather boots caked with mud and debris. A giant sword that was little more than a chunk of beaten pig iron hung from its belt.

Sergeant Kang squeezed a whole mag across the ogre’s bare chest. The thing didn’t seem like it much minded. It turned and fired its bow, sending an arrow right at Mercer, who swore and began to grunt hoarsely, attempting to control the sudden pain.

In the dark light of night vision, I watched the straight and true green beam of my targeting laser land on the looming brawny ogre’s brow as it drew another massive black arrow into its bow. I’d kept my MK18 on semi because I didn’t want to freak out and burn through more mags on full auto. I squeezed fast, but not so fast I couldn’t keep the laser right on the ogre’s upper torso.

Again it was the blur of combat, and while certain elements were hyper-real, I was also cognizant of two things at the same time. One, the arrow that had struck Mercer, which was about four feet long, had gone straight through his thigh and pinned him to the ground. I could see that in the foreground as I fired at the ogre, not needing to look through the sight but instead letting the IR beam settle each time I pulled the trigger. Allowing the targeting laser do all the work of finding where the rounds needed to go.

Meanwhile the rider and nightmare bony horse were still bearing down on the SAW gunner and Private Soprano. Mercer Rangered through the pain and kept firing, hitting the screaming horse and the dark rider trying to hide behind its rearing fear-taut neck.

At the same time, I was firing at the ogre as it nocked and pulled back its second arrow. One of my rounds must’ve climbed from upper center mass because the thing’s jaw suddenly exploded, spraying bone fragments and iridescent gore in night vision. The monstrosity dropped its bow and threw both of its mallet-like paws up to its face as it fell forward into the gully and broke its neck.

Yeah. I heard it. It was loud and clear. Like the dry snap of a big dead branch in a quiet forest on a lonely winter’s afternoon despite the battle all around us. Just like that.

When I looked back, I saw that Mercer had brought down the first gaunt horse and shrouded rider of rags and bones. This must’ve been the enemy cavalry’s scout, or their version of the point man, because more riders were appearing around the bend in the gully to the south, down along the enemy’s line.

The riders surged and Sergeant Kang mashed the firing device clacker for the Claymore. As if to say, I see your doomsday riders and raise you one M18A1 Claymore mine. The explosion devastated the sickly horses and riders, sending steel balls tearing through horse flesh, gaunt riders, and forest.

That was when we got the order to pull back. The line was shifting fire and the snipers had us acquired. And if that sounded like we were suddenly on Easy Street, the captain made it clear to Jasper that we weren’t.

“CO says the gully’s filled with tangos ahead of our position. Gotta clear it the whole way back, guys. Snipers supporting.” After this, Jasper

got us organized and moving.

What happened next was three hundred meters of pure nightmare.

With more riders still coming up the gully and Soprano now acting as the SAW gunner while Sergeant Kang went to carry the wounded Mercer, we gave up our defensive position in the wash and headed out the back door.

Soprano was firing short bursts into the riders as Kang and I dragged the wounded man after Jasper, who’d taken point. Sergeant Kang had managed to get an emergency tourniquet around Mercer’s leg above the wound; the arrow had been cut at both ends and left in. To his credit, Mercer didn’t pass out or scream bloody murder when they quick-applied a tourniquet and some clotting agent. He did promise someone he was going to kill them slowly someday.

It was a tight squeeze into the next section of the gully and we barely got Mercer through it. Something rubbed the wounded area and he arched his neck and back and it was all I could do to hold on to him until he went limp and finally passed out, his face and arms covered in cold sweat.

Kang shouted over his back, “Private Soprano! We’re leaving!

C’mon!”

More fire from the small gunner. A long burst and then an almost comical, “Eh, Sergeant! Hole up… I’m-a comin’.” He spoke like some awful actor doing his version of bad Italian-American.

We were holding the unconscious Mercer up against the side of the gully and Kang was telling the gunner to “Fall back, man” when the dark- eyed and smiling Soprano squeezed past us like it was just another day on the subway and not actually raining flaming arrows all around us while trying to thread the needle of making it through a combat front with both sides throwing everything they had at each other.

Then near at hand, some sort of ballistae had been moved up to fire on the hill. Sniper Hill to the north. We could hear their high and ominous twangs as the grunting and howling crews worked to fire and reload and then fire again at the Rangers on the hill.

Scusa,” murmured Soprano almost politely as he pushed past us while we held up the wounded man and he kept the SAW upright. “Hey Sergente… this-a count for Ranger School, right?” He laughed as he passed by. “’Cause-a I was due to go and all, Sergente, before we got to this-ah…

how to say… this… crazy place…” Mercer groaned and went paler.

Sergeant Kang replied in short, clipped tones. “Not now, Soprano. Save the accent and go forward. Sergeant Jasper needs you with him.”

I could hear Jasper and the other Rangers engaging up there, but I couldn’t see what was going on. Then the little gunner was off with the machine gun that seemed two sizes too big for him.

Kang slapped Mercer across the face, and not gently. “C’mon, Ranger! Don’t go into the light!”

But Mercer either didn’t care or simply wondered too much what that light was all about anyway.

“Let go of him,” Sergeant Kang ordered me, and I didn’t. But I did say something really stupid as suddenly ahead of us in the dark gully we heard Soprano open up hard on something that screamed like a horror movie version of a tentacled beast that lived in a pond. It was titanic and ear- splitting as Soprano hosed it with the SAW.

I said to Sergeant Kang, “We ain’t leavin’ him!”

Which was a stupid thing to say to a Ranger.

I didn’t see the look Sergeant Kang, who was Korean, and yes I spoke that one too, gave me. I’m sure it was pure wither. As in, if looks could kill I’d be cooling in some morgue on the wrong side of town.

“Rangers don’t leave anyone behind,” Kang muttered as the unconscious gunner fell toward him while he bent and in one smooth motion, so perfect it seemed choregraphed, he hoisted the limp Mercer up and into a fireman’s carry over one shoulder.

Then…

“Stay with me,” he grunted, hefting his rifle up.

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