The Faithful advanced. The Grand Host, bestirred at last, come to put an end to the last remnant of the world of reason.
They wouldn’t have looked so impressive, from a distance. Ten thousand or so people, trudging steadily westward. The old world had single structures, stadiums and such, which could accommodate so many. It’s military forces had been ten times as large.
They had few weapons. Few vehicles. No uniforms, no obvious supplies. Their appearance, to be frank, resembled a refugee column far more than it did an invading host. They seemed an insubstantial threat, dusty figures toiling forward, chatting, laughing and singing with one another as they came.
A few things gave the lie to their harmless appearance. The great shield which had once defended their fortresses was the most obvious. It stretched a few hundred meters over the heads of the Host, descending to earth a similar distance around them. It was fashioned of translucent blue light, but those who watched knew it had turned aside every weapon ever pitted against it.
The colossus was another. The woman who went by ‘Zilla’, who had feigned leadership of the Grand Host, strode within it. She stood as tall as a skyscraper, the dome a mere blur about her lower legs. She took a step every minute or so, and still kept easy pace with the remainder of the column.
And there were, of course, countless other smaller incongruities. Here a woman absently juggled fire. There another spat forth an endless procession of reflected images, her quantum selves surrounding and shielding those near her. Miracles, of course, but such were only to be expected when Gods went to war.
Their adversaries were not impressed.
The men and women of the Intervention Groups had always known this day would come. It would not find them unprepared. They moved smoothly into position, followed paths long planned and drilled into their collective psyche. There was no panic, no terror.
Their foes might be Gods, but that was nothing new to the defends of the Union. They had faced Gods. Their gifts might prompt respect, but it was that of a skilled hunter towards noble game. Gods were nothing to fear, to these men. They were the operators of a deicide machine, grown unsurpassably efficient over the course of decades.
In truth, they didn’t even think of themselves as warriors. These were soldiers of the old world. They sought no glory, lusted for no plunder. They were technicians, employees, professionals. They would follow the procedures that time and experimentation had proven sufficient to all previous tasks, and hope that they would do so once again.
And so as the Pantheon marched forth, the Union shrank away. The Intervention Groups didn’t give battle during the long hot morning of their enemies advance. They were barely even sighted, their lithnetic skiffs bearing them back and away at appalling speed as their foe came forward.
They had to be careful, had to triumph. The Fourth Army was the official defenders of the Union, and it had a force strength that was greater than theirs, but no one in the Intervention Groups believed that. They were the veterans. They were the ones who had known war for all their lives. They saw the Fourth Army as a paper force, untested and untrusted, and they knew that only they could safeguard their homeland.
Let the enemy waste their breath on hymns, let them shriek at the cowardice of their foes. The soldiers of the Union would let their weapons speak for them, when the command came down.
But it didn’t come. All morning long the strange stillness held, with the Great Host marching forward at a languid pace, while the Union forces moved around them, taking and abandoning a succession of strongpoints as their orders moved them about.
General Greggs, the Union’s theatre CO, was in no hurry. The longer she delayed, the better SPARTACUS’ estimations would be. The Goddesses betrayed their capabilities with every stride they took, as profiles were matched to escapees from previous Hosts and intelligence reports. Delay could only help her.
Vampire, by contrast, was a fuming ball of rage. She’d been expecting an awesome battle as soon as they marched out, and this cockblocking was getting to her. Oroboros stopped her on two occasions from ordering mobs of Goddesses out from under the shield, pointing out that Zeus would not be forgiving of a woman who got his armies killed piecemeal.
Left to her own devices, Greggs would probably have let her enemy be for the entire day, maybe for several. She had little to lose by falling back, and there was always the opportunity for her opponent to err preposterously. That had always been the plan. The Great Host was to be chipped away at, to be gnawed from the edges as it floundered around in the barren landscape at the edge of the Union.
But this year everything had changed. Greggs was highly placed in the Obscurocracy’s hierarchy. She knew of the Army of Sunset, knew that the Host before her, vast as it was, did not partake of the Pantheon’s true power. She saw the hundred figures at the heart of it, clad all in white, and knew that she must strike before their master could join them.
A little after noon she gave the go order, and the battle was on.
The first the Pantheon’s warriors knew of it was the blooms of fire and metal erupting all along their shield. Distant drones had slipped over the horizon, unleashed their payloads and danced away. The hymns of the Pantheon were drowned out as a rolling blast rocked the Shield, a pounding, driving sound that swallowed up their words and gnawed at their spirits.
It went on and on. The drones were everywhere, released from the strange skiffs that could occasionally be seen, when a gap opened in the rain of death. Goddesses clutched one another’s arms, shouted with no effect into the endless roar, or lashed blindly out with their gifts.
Nothing got through. Bullets impacted on the shield, energy weapons reflected from it and explosive force was turned aside. It threw back the Union’s onslaught with obdurate indifference, a miraculous barrier utterly indifferent to the works of mortal hands.
Few within the Great Host were looking behind them. Their eyes were on the dome, wincing at each bright flash, screaming imprecations. They knew that this could not last forever, and strained their senses to pick up the first hint of its end.
But the end that came was of a different kind.
SPARTACUS could enable tactics that would otherwise be insane. The skiffs and blocks of the Union gave them a mobility that no one else could manage. Greggs’ plan took advantage of both factors.
The Shield of the Faithful was a known quantity. It had protected their forts for years. Greggs knew full well that the drones’ munitions would do nothing to it. Honestly, considering that these Ultras were survivors of previous battles, they would likely do little even if they pierced it. She was, instead, using these explosions as a matador uses a cape.
The relentless barrage drew the eye, smothered sound. It was overwhelming, awe inspiring. It was an excellent distraction.
Skiffs swooped in, invisible behind a curtain of explosions, and the Ultras of the Unions dropped down behind the enemy column and moved quickly out of the way of the next group to disembark. It was a display of awe inspiring precision.
Each skiff slammed into place, moving with utter disdain for the ordinary path of objects through the air, stopping just long enough for their precious cargo to leap onto the ground before zipping away. The troops in question were moving almost before they hit the ground.
In an appallingly short time, less than a minute, the Union had landed several thousand Ultras within a hundred feet of the back of the enemy shield. They wasted little time in making their presence felt.
The Shield, so sturdy against enemy fire, was useless against an infantry rush. Its creator spun around as she felt the enemy stride through it, shouted uselessly into the crash of noise and grabbed furiously at the Ultras around her, trying to make them understand their peril.
It was too late. Here and there a Goddess turned. Some lucky few had already been facing the attack, and others were wrenched about by more alert neighbors, but the by and large the Union achieved total surprise.
Union Ultras struck home, blasting their gifts into their enemies backs, leaping forward and snapping spines, tearing off heads. These Ultras had years of experience in the Intervention Groups, had faced down Host after Host and mastered their gifts through a hundred battles. Their impact was devastating.
Similarly vicious was the onslaught of their allies, as the Union’s human forces played their part. They had made do with guns and bombs for years, even as their tech had raced ahead. They’d fought and died without showing what their science could really do, all to prepare for days like today. Now the Pantheon learned at last what their foe had been hiding.
Strange fissures ripped into the Pantheon throng, folded lines of space tore through even hardened Ultra flesh, denying their enemies form any space to exist in. Burning lines of strange green foam flew forth, enveloping Ultras in its grasp and freezing instantly fast, depriving those captured of air and sight, locking their limbs in a grip like hardened stone.
It was a shattering impact, Gods toppled like wheat, divine Forms exploding, hymns turned to screaming agony. The Pantheon forces, caught unaware by this strike, cried out and fell, dying like rats as their foe wrought a fearful slaughter among them.
For long seconds the Grand Host could muster no meaningful counterattack. A sizable proportion of the Ultras still hadn’t noticed what was going on, the screams and blasts around them masked by the all encompassing fury of the Union’s continuous strike on the dome. Those who did turn about, often glimpsing an attack in their peripheral vision, were confronted by the next layer of Greggs’ strategy.
The Union’s attackers were wearing exactly the same kind of outfit that the Gods themselves had donned. Or at least so they appeared. A simple visual masking, crafted from the data collected during the mornings’ retreat, left the Pantheon’s forces gaping as they fell under attack from what appeared to be their own ranks.
As each Goddess turned they were confronted with a furious melee, as identical dusty figures tore into one another with Ultra powers. Some hesitated, screaming for explanations they couldn’t have heard even if they were known. Others lashed out, striking indiscriminately at friend and foe, desperate to secure their own lives, even if it meant destroying their allies. Still others turned and ran, fleeing away from the confusing scrum, desperately hoping someone, somehow, could reestablish their command structure.
The Union forces suffered no such confusion. Lenses in their eyes outlined their allies in green, their foes in red. They struck only at the Faithful, and they taught their ancestral enemies the old lesson. That those who came west would never return.
Any other Host would have broken then and there. Dozens, hundreds of casualties in seconds, Ultras falling to weapons never seen before, confused and shellshocked, SPARTACUS had calculated that the Host would flee.
But this wasn’t any other Host. This was the Grand Host.
The Goddesses who made it up might be confused, might be suffering, but still they were mighty. The Union’s Ultras were veterans, true, but their experience was in gunning down their foes at a distance, then mobbing those too hardy to shoot. Now they were toe to toe with Zilla’s finest, and they found for themselves the caliber of their opposition.
Overseers shouted and gestured, Ultras turned and stood. The Pantheon forces, bloodied and battered from the ambush though they were, didn’t rout. They spun about, sought out their foes and closed with them, striving to bring their gifts to bear against an enemy they still outnumbered, still overpowered.
SPARTACUS didn’t understand the enemy, not really. Its data had been compiled over the long years of attrition. It didn’t know Vampire, hadn’t considered that the enemy might fear their own commander far more than their foe.
Now the casualties began to mount on both sides. Union forces and Pantheon in a grinding Ultra scrum, as figures wrenched and tore at one another.
Greggs, however, had been expecting this. She understood something of what was coming. She knew that one strike, however well executed, could never break a throng of such size. She knew the deadly density of the Ultras in the center, knew a meat grinder when she built one. All was still as she planned.
It would have been nice if the enemy had shattered. She certainly wouldn’t have complained. But she wasn’t counting on it. She gave the order, and the second wave of skiffs raced forward.
The Pantheon, reeling and battered, had finally pulled itself into something resembling a line of battle. They were all facing their enemies, all moving and acting in something like unison, gestures and shoves functioning as a kind of rudimentary command network.
Their mob roiled and clashed with the Union’s lines, those most suited for close combat bullying their way back through their comrades to get at the enemy. They had been caught by surprise, but that was all over now. Now it was just the mob and press, just two blobs of Ultras lashing out at one another, and they had the numbers, still.
Then the Union’s second strike hit them, exactly like the first.
This one came from the front. Greggs’ second wave disembarked and penetrated the shield in the same manner as the other crew, and once again they caught Vampires’ forces with their backs turned. Once again the din of the bombardment and the general chaos of the Ultra brawl made the Grand Host slow to react. Once again the Union forces had the pick of their targets, and took full advantage.
Now the battle was joined in earnest. Union forces were all around their enemies, blasting away with exotic weapons and Ultra powers. The Pantheon forces reeled and struck, lashed out with their gifts. They backed away from their enemies, shrinking into the press of their colleagues as foam sprayed and space folded.
The Unions disguises were still active, and now they were even more effective. The Goddesses couldn’t just strike in one direction anymore, they were all but surrounded, and so the direction that someone who looked like a comrade was firing didn’t mean anything anymore.
If another Goddess hurled fire at you, was she an enemy? Or did she just think you were one? Or was she trying to hit some Union foe who was behind you? Internecine slaughter broke out, as Pantheon warriors entered instant cycles of retribution, striking down those who they’d seen take down friends, and so perpetuating mistaken identity into wholesale massacre.
I the midst of all of this chaos the Union achieved its real objective.
A sniper in the original band, carefully protected by a squad tasked to that purpose, finally got the shot that he’d been craving. He drew a bead on the woman who was at the center of the shield, turned a nob on the top of her projector, and blasted a beam of folded space right through the core of the Goddess.
The target tottered and fell, and the shield vanished away.
Instantly the Grand Host erupted. Explosions stitched across it, hurling Goddesses hither and thither, blinding and deafening those who could not be moved. Clouds of smoke and debris rose up, and the world itself seemed to come to pieces around them.
Once again, the hand of SPARTACUS was at work. The computer knew where every Union asset was, where every drone was firing. It calculated every shot, saturated the Great Host while entirely avoiding friendly fire, and the Union forces backed rapidly away, freed up from the brutal grappling by this sudden change in circumstance.
This was the plan of General Greggs in its entirety. This had been her aim all along. With the shield gone her drones could strike at will, and not just the ordinary drones, armed with conventional weapons.
Other drones had hung among them, waiting for their chance. These were armed with the same kinds of exotic weapons that the human forces had brought, and now they sited in and took their shots.
The general clenched a fist as she saw it all going to plan, as the projected casualties of the Grand Host rose above fifty percent.
The Grand Host, ha!
It had been growing for decades, had shaped the nightmares of a great nation, and now it would fall in the space of a single day of battle. A smile crossed her face, for the first time since the border alarms had first rung out.
It vanished a second later, as Vampire finally let the Brides take action.