XII

Walsharno’s cry of warning snapped Bahzell’s head around, turning it towards the sudden threat erupting from the ground itself sixty yards behind them.

There was no time for thought. No time to analyze what had happened. There was barely time for the hradani to begin to curse his own complacency. To realize that this time, he and Walsharno had blundered straight into the Dark’s carefully crafted trap.

That this time, they were going to die.

He twisted in the saddle, fighting to get far enough around to land at least one blow, and then something thundered in the night.

* * *

The turret twitched slightly to the left.

The glowing swordsman and his horse might be between Houghton and the first monster, but the Marine had a perfect firing angle at the second one, and a corner of his mind noted that the horseman was well clear of his line of fire and outside the danger zone created by the 25-millimeter rounds’ discarding sabots. The sight’s reticle dropped onto the huge creature’s side, between the third and fourth legs on its right side, and Ken Houghton’s hand squeezed.

Tough Mama’s 25-millimeter cannon’s muzzle flash shredded the night as a three-shot burst of M792 HEI-T shrieked downrange, at over thirty-six hundred feet per second. The tracer rounds etched fiery trails across the horror-haunted darkness, then slammed into their target. Each round carried thirty-two grams of a high explosive mix which normally projected steel fragments and incendiary filler over a five-meter radius when they detonated, and the monster squalled as they exploded in stroboscopic fury.

It squalled . . . but it also whipped around towards Tough Mama. The detonating shells had punched relatively tiny holes through its spiny carapace before they exploded, then blown washtub-sized openings back through it as they detonated inside it and blasted wounds into the unnatural flesh and muscle beneath. Ichor and head-sized gobbets of meat burst from its side and streamed down its flank, but its hell-spawned armor was incredibly tough. The shells might have punched holes in it, might have inflicted enormous collateral destruction under the armor, but blasting through it had slowed them, kept them from punching deep into their target’s flesh before they detonated. It was obvious that none of the damage had gotten deep enough to reach its vital organs . . . assuming that it had any! Instead of going down, it shrieked in furious challenge, and hurled itself directly towards the source of a sudden pain.

Kenneth Houghton was a qualified master gunner. He knew exactly what he’d just hit that creature with, and the rational part of his brain couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Big as it was, it had to have gone down after taking three hits almost exactly at its center of mass! He didn’t care what it was. The kinetic transfer alone ought to have made sure of that, never mind the explosion, the incendiary effect, or the shell splinters. And even if it hadn’t gone down, the damned thing was almost as big as a frigging blue whale! It had to weigh at least fifty or sixty tons, and nothing that size could possibly move that fast! Especially not something covered with armor tough enough to stand up to a Bushmaster even for a heartbeat!

Fortunately, perhaps, his brain’s refusal to accept his eyes’ input had no appreciable effect on his bone-deep reflexes.

His thumb punched the button, shifting instantly from high explosive to armor-piercing, and he squeezed the trigger again. The M919 discarding sabot round left the muzzle with almost a third again the velocity of the high explosive round, and its fin-stabilized “long-rod” penetrator of depleted uranium could penetrate virtually all light armored vehicles and even some main battle tanks. It could also penetrate over sixteen inches of reinforced concrete or an earthen bunker wall three feet thick, which had made it increasingly popular in urban fighting, and this time Houghton held the trigger down longer. Twelve rounds smashed into his target, and if the demon’s carapace had been tough enough to limit the high explosive rounds’ effect, the armor-piercing was another story.

The creature staggered, shrieking, flailing its wings as the uranium lightning bolts drilled through its armor-and the flesh inside it- like fiery awls. It half-rose as the impacts hammered into it, but that only exposed its chest, and Houghton sent another six-shot burst hammering into the new target. The entry wounds were small; the exit wounds were enormous, and ichor exploded across the hillside. Grass hissed and shriveled under the acid spray, and the monster’s shrieks of rage turned into bubbling wails of agony.

This time, it did go down, but even then, it wasn’t finished. Its clawed feet scrabbled at the ground with unnatural vitality, heaving it back up, and a disbelieving Houghton put a fourth burst into the thing.

* * *

Bahzell and Walsharno didn’t have time to worry about where the thing attacking the second demon had come from, because the one they’d already wounded had been waiting only for its companion’s attack before coming at them again. Even as the second demon turned away, the first one came charging in again.

But it had been just as surprised as Bahzell and Walsharno. It hesitated for just an instant, as astonished by the LAV’s abrupt appearance out of the heart of Wencit’s glamour as the two champions had been when the spell activated behind them, and that gave them just long enough to return their attention to it.

It hurled itself forward, screaming an earsplitting war cry of pure, distilled rage, and Bahzell stood in the stirrups as Walsharno waited, waited, waited to the very last instant. The demon’s fangs glistened in the blue corona of Toman?k’s light. Bahzell could see clear down the huge, wet, slimy gullet, smell the stench of its fetid breath, and still Walsharno waited. He waited until it was obviously too late . . . then sprang aside with the incredible swiftness possible only for a courser.

The demon’s squall of fury changed pitch. It sounded almost querulous, as if the sudden disappearance of the prey it had been certain was as good as in its fangs was cheating somehow. But if that was the way it felt, it didn’t have long to savor its disappointment.

Toman?k!

The striking head overshot its dodging target. The demon was already swinging around, arching its sinuous neck to come back in a second, sideways strike, as Bahzell brought his blue-flaming sword down in a two-hand blow driven by the full, enormous strength of his shoulders and back and all the power of his Rage.

The sword landed with the sharp, clear “CRACK!” of an ancient oak, shattering in a vise of winter ice. But this crack was loud enough to be heard even by ears stunned by the LAV’s cannon fire, even through the deafening, enraged shriek of the remaining demon. Blue light glared like striking lightning, flashing back from the point of impact with a brilliance that etched the hillside, the trees, every individual blade of grass, with stark, blinding clarity, and the glittering steel sheared two-thirds of the way through a neck thicker than most men’s height. Ichor spurted, shattered splinters of scale flew, and the demon’s bellow died in mid-shriek, with the appalling suddenness of a slamming door.

The stupendous body slammed to the ground. Momentum carried it forward in a sliding, slithering sprawl, and Walsharno stumbled, almost falling, as the very tip of one dying wing flailed out and crashed into his shoulder. Somehow, the courser held his feet, spinning to face the hole from which the second demon had emerged . . . just as a third and fourth monster erupted from it.

* * *

Houghton’s jaw did its very best to drop as that blinding blue sword came crashing down. It had taken twenty-plus direct hits from Tough Mama’s Bushmaster to put down Houghton’s target, and this Bahzell of Wencit’s had taken one out with a single sword stroke?

But he didn’t have a great deal of time to think about the impossibility of what he’d just seen, because more of the hideous creatures were swarming out of the same opening. One of them wheeled, charging back at Bahzell and his horse; the other hurled itself directly at the LAV . . . and a fifth came squirming out of the ground behind it like a maggot, with its mad, glaring eyes already fixed on Tough Mama.

Houghton hoped like hell that Wencit’s friend was going to be able to handle the one headed away from the LAV, because he damned well had his hands full with the two coming his way.

The only good point-if anything about this could be called “good”-was that he didn’t even have to traverse. The closer of the two monsters came straight for him, almost as if it were trying to physically climb inside the cannon’s barrel, and he squeezed again. The uranium penetrators stabbed through the night like lethal meteors, and twelve of them punched their deadly way into the demon’s scaly chest and then out again through its spiky carapace. The monster shrieked in agony as its legs abruptly collapsed and it hit the hillside in an avalanche of mortally wounded hatred and fury. The LAV quivered as the force of that multiton impact was transmitted through the ground, and the dying creature slashed with one huge, talon-armed forefoot.

The claws sledgehammered into Tough Mama, raking savagely across her front right flank. She bobbed like a dinghy on a stormy sea, and Houghton’s helmeted head slammed into the bulkhead-mounted radio behind him as the LAV’s right front wheel was ripped completely away. It went flying through the night like a discarded hockey puck, and he heard the unearthly shriek of side armortearing-tearing like cloth-as the talons raked over it.

Mashita shouted something shrill, indistinct, and incredibly obscene over Houghton’s helmet earphones, and the gunnery sergeant smelled an indescribable hot-metal-and-acid stench as the monster’s blood showered across the forward deck and the front of the turret.

He didn’t have time to think about the inconceivable strength it had taken to rock the fourteen-ton LAV like a toy. The fourth demon was already lunging across the twitching, spasming body of its dying companion, and Houghton squeezed the trigger again just as the creature brought one foot down on Tough Mama’s deck. The LAV seemed to curtsy, sinking downward on its damaged front suspension under that incredible load, and the demon’s head darted forward, striking directly at the turret.

The nine-foot cannon’s muzzle flamed, spewing penetrators directly into the monster’s gaping maw at two hundred rounds per minute, and the top of the demon’s skull literally disintegrated as the fin-stabilized darts exploded through its brain. The striking head was driven up and backwards, and the monster’s bellows died in a hideous, whistling gurgle. It thundered to earth, falling directly atop its companion, and the momentum of its charging body rammed up over the LAV’s glacis and into the face of the turret with enough force to whiplash Houghton’s and Mashita’s heads painfully on their necks and drive the entire vehicle half its length backward despite its locked wheels.

* * *

Bahzell and Walsharno heard the earsplitting thunder of their mysterious ally’s incredible weaponry and the shrieks and bellows of the other two demons, but they dared not let their attention stray from the one coming at them. This one was different from the others. It had even more legs, yet it was marginally smaller and faster, without wings but with two complete sets of long, lobsterlike pincers. It was less cautious than the first one had been, too, as if it had decided its best chance lay in sheer speed and ferocity. Unlike the others, it attacked almost silently, saving its breath, and it reared high, keeping its head and neck out of the range of Bahzell’s sword as it struck at Walsharno with those man-long pincers.

The courser leapt forward, ducking inside the sweep of the outer pincers, trumpeting his own challenge, and the second set of pincers came slashing at him like knife-sharp shears of horn. Walsharno staggered as a glancing blow opened a long, bleeding gash across his side, but Bahzell twisted at the waist, bringing his sword up in a flashing arc that impacted on the demon’s forelimb from beneath. The glittering steel bit deep, half-severing the pincer, and the demon howled, slashing with all three remaining claws.

But Bahzell and Walsharno had gotten too close. They were inside the sweep of the outer pincers, and too close to the monster’s chest for it to see them clearly without bringing its horned head into the reach of Bahzell’s sword. It struck blindly at them, then crouched as it prepared to spring back and away from its tiny adversaries and regain fighting room.

The two champions had no intention of allowing it to do anything of the sort. Despite his deep, bleeding wound, Walsharno drove straight ahead, and Bahzell leaned forward in the saddle, leaned forward over Walsharno’s outstretched neck, riding at the thrust as if his massive, two-handed sword were a Soth?ii cavalry saber. The demon couldn’t see them . . . and as it crouched, it actually brought its own body closer to its enemies.

Bahzell’s sword punched into the monster’s scale-armored, massively muscled chest just at the base of its throat. Scales and flesh hissed, smoking as blue flames licked out from the penetrating steel, consuming the unnatural stuff of the demon’s flesh, and its shriek of agony was deafening. It twisted away from the intolerable pain, and as it did, it wrenched sideways on the blade, ripping the wound wider and deeper with its own enormous strength.

“Toman?k! Toman?k!” Bahzell thundered his war cry, and Walsharno’s whistling trumpet counterpointed his deep-throated bellow as smoldering ichor fountained across them in a stinking fan. The hradani’s sword yanked free of the ghastly wound as the charging courser swept onward, and he brought it down in an axe blow that slashed the demon’s remaining inner claw entirely off.

Walsharno’s pounding hooves carried them clear of their monstrous foe as the no-longer-silent demon reared up, hissing and screaming in pain. It writhed, its maimed forelimbs flailing, smoking blood spouting from its wounds, and Bahzell and Walsharno used the distraction of its agony. Walsharno’s forehooves dug into the smoldering hillside, plowing deep furrows through its torn and scarred turf as they braked his forward speed, and his rear feet flashed up in a piledriver blow to the demon’s shoulder. Despite its size, despite its weight, the monster went down, tumbling onto its side, and Walsharno recovered his balance, leaned back to gather his weight on his hindquarters, then pivoted and brought both forehooves hammering down on the side of the creature’s neck, just above the gaping wound Bahzell’s sword had torn.

The demon flailed madly, throat half-severed and half-crushed. It managed to jerk its head back up, fangs slashing, but it was hurt, weakened, clumsy, and Bahzell leaned aside in Walsharno’s saddle. The head darted past him, and that proved just as deadly for this demon as it had for the first one. The five-foot blade came slashing down one final time, trailing streamers and prominences of blue fire, and the demon gave one last coughing, grunting cry as the hammering steel severed its spinal column and sent it crashing to the ground in quivering ruin.

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