A pair of dragon riders got behind Herod, boxing her in. She fired rockets behind her, but they went wide. With a grunt, Herod deactivated her thruster, hanging in the air for a moment before falling.
The dragons dove after her, getting closer… and closer… and closer… until Herod reactivated her booster and zipped upwards. The dragons were moving so fast they couldn’t turn. Her sword met the left dragon’s neck and she lopped its head off. The second snapped at her, so she turned 90 degrees and ran her blade along its side, leaving a deep gash along the side.
The second dragon would recover, but not instantly. Herod ignored it, instead rocketing upwards as fast as she could towards a red target. The rider was locked in battle with another legionnaire- untiil she flew straight into a bolt of plasma. The bird was killed instantly, the superheated goo eating through her armor and liquefying her flesh.
Snarling, Herod surmounted the dragon and jabbed her sword deep into the rider’s back. The Neighbor gasped and convulsed, then went still. She followed up by beheading the dragon from behind.
The pnuematic blade was sharp enough to cut through whatever you wanted it to cut, but each attack sent shockwaves through her arm. Her already-injured arm was bothering her more with every swing.
Nevertheless she fought on. She killed two more riders before spotting a unique rider at the center of the swarm. He wore dark robes and his flesh dragon was larger than the others, covered in elaborate ritualistic markings. A sheer mass of flesh served as an impenetrable barrier around him, hundreds of other riders flying in circles to protect him.
That had to be the leader. Herod considered risking an attack. If it worked she’d save the legion, and if it failed nothing of value would be lost. Before she could make a decision, her intercom lit up. “Good work,” Amalek’s calm voice said in her ear. “All legionnaires retreat and prepare for stage two.” Veteran birds had expected this announcement and were already at the peripheries of the sky battle. Herod was a talented amateur- she was right in the thick of it.
She ducked and weaved around draconic attacks and bolts of plasma. Others fell around her: a legionnaire got her leg seared off by a plasma bolt. Another got her flight module bitten off and she helplessly plunged to the ground. A third took plasma to the stomach and had enough time to scream in agony before she was incinerated.
Herod made her way out, and fired a few rockets to cover the escapees behind her. The dragon riders were coming after them in force, thousands of them. She and the others hadn’t put even a dent in their numbers.
But of the three hundred that Amalek had painted red, less than a hundred remained. They had done what they were sent to do. Now it was up to the might of the 119th proper.
Herod flew down as quickly as she could, dragon riders in hot pursuit. The Gawain was faster than the flyers, but only just. They glided into the caverns, the dragons in hot pursuit.
The tunnels were only large enough for dragons to comfortably enter in ones or twos. The enemy’s order of battle had grown fragile, the riders frenzied by the loss of their leaders. The disturbingly human cries of the monsters reverberated off the walls. The tunnels began to diverge into dozens of different passageways, and the legionnaires took whichever they could reach. Herod took the third from the left, flying over a line on the ground that only existed in her display.
The line was there to tell them where the trap was.
BEACON war camps were protected with perimeter grids. Anyone without the proper biometric signature would trigger an alarm. The grids could even deploy walls of hard light to trap intruders.
The moment a dragon flew over the line, a hardlight wall appeared instantaneously and vertically bisected it. The other riders slammed into the wall, dragons piling atop one another in a horrific twisting mass of flesh. Riders were crushed under the weight of their own mounts. The order that the enemy enjoyed disintegrated in a flash. Herod landed next to Lucifera, who was waiting at the base of the tunnel. “The trap is sprung, ma’am,” she said.
“Good,” replied Lucifera. “All units, attack!”
And like lightning, the 119th struck.
They had been camped out in the antechamber with all the carvings, waiting for the order to deploy. The hard light walls went down, and within an instant a barrage of rockets hit the massed flyers. Smoke and rubble rained down, as did chunks of the blown-apart bodies of flesh-dragons and Romeo riders.
The rockets stopped, and within an instant were followed with expanding rounds from Tamar and her Beowulfs. The high-speed bolts tore holes in the enemy like knives through sponge.
The riders had rushed into the caverns in great numbers, and again that worked against them in the enclosed space of the tunnels. There had crowded themselves out of a retreat, and the only direction they could possibly advance was towards certain death. Hundreds upon hundreds of riders were killed within seconds.
Amalek had deduced it. The ones he painted red were the ones with clipped ears, the leaders of the cult. Without these representatives of their living god present, the rest of the riders were little more than a frothing rabble.
Thousands of dragons and as many riders were turned to paste against the full force of the 119th’s weaponry. Herod kept close to Lucifera, who watched the scene intently from behind her expressionless helmet.
At last, there was a cry of “Cease fire!” and the cacophony ended. The smoke cleared to reveal that the tunnels were positively smothered in gore. There were no enemies left to shoot.
All this at the cost of a couple dozen legionnaires. “I’m running simulations now,” Amalek said through the comms thoughtfully. “The numbers show that we killed… between 4 and 5,000 riders. That means there are still thousands more outside.”
“But they can’t be more than a disorganized riffraff at this point,” said Sheba. “We ought to be able to clean them up without issue.”
“Not necessarily. We didn’t get the commander. They’ll soon reorganize and attack again- and this time they won’t fall for the same trick.” Amalek snarled in frustration. “Damn it. Damn it!”
“How did so many escape?” Lucifera grunted.
“It seemed most that followed us into the tunnel died- but a large contingent didn’t.” Amalek sighed. “I need to think of a new solution and quickly. They’ll hit us again within an hour.”
“I don’t see the big deal,” said Sheba. “We’re dug in and ready to be hit again, aren’t we? We’ll just-“
She didn’t get to finish her sentence, as a rumbling interrupted her. Then another. Then a third. “What the hell is going on?” Sheba demanded.
“They’re shelling us,” Amalek said hushedly as pebbles fell from the ceiling and clouds of dust were kicked up. “Dropping huge heaps of plasma on top of the caverns. In a few minutes they’ll begin to crumble, and then collapse, and then we’ll be trapped down here.”
“With no way out except directly into them,” added Ruth. “Fiendishly clever… if they can’t pull us out then they’ll make these caverns our tomb.”
“Then what do we do?” asked Lucifera. “Opening the door to suggestions.”