The Demon of Tal Afar – Ch. 1

Northwest of Mosul, Iraq

“Another fucking bug hunt,” Lucas muttered under his breath, crouching over the remains of the creature his anti-personnel mine had splattered across the tunnel floor.

“What?” his team leader hissed. “Shut up, they might hear you.”

Lucas rolled his eyes and stood up, covering the tunnel entrance they hadn’t yet explored with his carbine. “Who? We haven’t seen anybody. And I think they would’ve heard the mine, Sarn’t.”

Sergeant Weller glared. “Go get Johnson and Farro. We need to keep searching.”

The specialist fought a brief internal battle, tempted to do exactly what his team leader had ordered without comment, but his conscience won. Keeping his eyes on the tunnel, he said, “Sarn’t, we shouldn’t split up now we know what’s in here. I’ve seen these before. My advice is to report back to the section.”

Weller scoffed. “Christ, Lucas. It was just a weird looking dog. Now move.”

“Your funeral,” Lucas said, brushing past Weller and moving back toward the central chamber where the other team members were waiting.

Farro challenged him as he approached the chamber, winding his way through the tunnel. “Sun!”

“Devil,” Lucas said, quietly.

“Come in,” Farro replied.

Johnson glanced over from his position as Lucas half-slid into the chamber. He was kneeling in the middle of the room, SAW bipod resting on a pile of their day packs, watching two of the four tunnels that led out of the chamber.

“What’s up?” Johnson asked.

“Patton back there wants us to join him and push down that tunnel,” Lucas replied, pointing his left thumb over his shoulder.

As the other two soldiers gathered their gear, Lucas walked to the tunnel they’d come in through, pulled his multitool out and gouged a large X in the soft rock wall next to the opening.

“By the way, a bug set off that mine,” he said, turning to the others and picking up his pack.

“And you left him?” Farro asked, aghast.

“I tried to warn him,” Lucas said, shrugging. “Come on. Let’s get back there before the idiot gets eaten. They’ll probably think we fragged him if we lose another team leader.”

Farro shook his head in disbelief, staring at Lucas.

“Yep, I know. So let’s stay sharp. Farro, you’re rear. I’ll take your pack once I’m up in the tunnel; I want you to be as quick as possible checking behind us. Johnson, you’re middle, and you get to carry dipshit’s pack.”

The other soldiers grunted agreement.

“Alright, let’s go. Take it slow.”

A few minutes later the team was approaching the point where Lucas had left their team leader. A dim glow that had to be coming from Weller’s headlamp illuminated the curved tunnel wall ahead of Lucas.

“Roll,” Lucas said, quietly, from around the last corner in the tunnel.

There was no response.

“Roll,” Lucas said again, louder. He shifted his M4 nervously.

Again, there was silence.

“Sergeant Weller, it’s Lucas. You there?”

More silence.

“Farro, keep covering the rear. I’m moving up,” Lucas said quietly as he stepped around the corner, rifle at the high ready, support hand thumb resting lightly on his weaponlight’s strobe switch.

The small chamber was unoccupied, but not empty. An M4 leaned against the cave wall, with a helmet beside it, lit headlamp pointed at the wall.

Lucas frowned, then hissed “Johnson! Cover ahead of me. Farro, stay where you are.”

Johnson brushed past him in the small chamber and took a knee. Lucas squatted down and picked up the helmet. It was Weller’s, alright.

“Well guys, our glorious leader has run off somewhere. Without his helmet or rifle.”

“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,” came Farro’s reply from back down the tunnel.

“He probably got dragged off and eaten,” Johnson said.

“Yeah, maybe,” Lucas said. After a pause, he continued, “We can’t look for him alone, and I’m not about to start shouting for him with bugs around. We’re going back to let the rest of the guys know what’s up. This is above my pay grade.”

He set the helmet back on the cave floor and stood up. “Same order of movement as before. Johnson, help me strap Weller’s carbine on my pack.”

Lucas slid back into the central chamber and swept the area with his weaponlight. It was still empty.

“We should mark the other tunnels, say they’re mined,” Johnson said, joining him. “Or do you want to recover those?”

“Nah, leave ‘em.”

“I’ve got it,” Farro said, pulling some chemlights from his vest and digging his notebook out of his pocket. “What time is it?” he asked, scribbling in the notebook and ripping the pages out. “Weren’t we supposed to report back already anyway?”

“1525, and yeah. About half an hour ago.”

“Damn. No way we’re making it back for hot chow now,” Johnson griped. “We’ll be here all night looking for that—” his voice cut off with a grunt.

Farro set his second note down under a chemlight and turned to face the others, then snapped his carbine up. “Contact!”

“Looking for that… what?” asked a deep, smooth voice. It was unnaturally loud.

Lucas spun to face the voice, and saw that Johnson was down, unmoving. Standing over him was an American soldier holding a bloody knife. He wasn’t wearing his armor, and his face was cast in shadow, even though their headlamps were pointed right at him.

“What the–” said Farro, clicking his weaponlight on. It was Weller, but different. His face was blurred, as if he’d been horribly burned, and his eyes gleamed red in the split second they were visible.

Weller recoiled from the light, snarling, and threw the knife at Farro. It sailed over his shoulder, and both soldiers opened fire.

Weller jerked and dropped to the cave floor, his blood spraying the tunnel wall.

“Farro!” Lucas shouted. “Cease fire!” The blast from their carbines was brutal in the confined space.

Farro had continued to pump bullets into the body of the sergeant as he lay on the floor. “Sorry, man.”

“It’s cool. Check Johnson, I’ll cover Weller.”

“What the fuck was that?” Farro asked, hauling Johnson clear.

“I’m not sure,” Lucas replied, “but he looks down for the count.” He kept his carbine trained on Weller’s center of mass while Farro checked on Johnson. Weller’s chest was shredded, and his left arm was barely attached.

“Johnson’s breathing, but he’s out. We’ve gotta get him out of here. That dick stabbed him in the back, might’ve nicked his kidney.”

Lucas cursed and fired one last shot into Weller’s disfigured face.

It was too much to try to haul Johnson, four three-day packs, and four weapons out at once. Lucas and Farro ended up strapping the extra weapons to their packs, and left Johnson and Weller’s packs behind.

It took almost ten minutes to haul Johnson back to the cave entrance. He was a big man, and they had to take turns dragging him down the narrow tunnel by the handle on the back of his armor.

Lucas wasn’t sure what it meant that Johnson wasn’t bleeding much. He had a nasty puncture wound that they’d dressed, but it was barely oozing blood. Was he bleeding internally?

“Gotta get you to Doc, man,” Lucas said to the wounded man. “I wish you’d wake up.”

Behind him Farro said, “I see the entrance. But it’s dark out.”

“What?”

“It’s dark. Maybe it’s raining.”

It wasn’t raining, and it was almost pitch black when Lucas dragged Johnson the last few feet out of the cave.

“What the fuck?” he asked the empty air, looking around. There were no vehicles, and no soldiers. The valley below the cave mouth was devoid of light. “Where the hell is everyone? Did they just leave us?”

Farro shrugged uneasily in reply and flipped down the red cover on his headlamp.

Lucas copied him, then glanced at his watch. It read 15:41. “What’s your watch say?” he asked Farro.

“Fifteen forty.”

Lucas stooped to check Johnson’s watch. 15:41. He pointed at the quarter moon peeking over the horizon. “It’s not fifteen forty. It’s gotta be near midnight.”

Farro swore. “What the hell are we into this time?”

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