Tal Afar district, Iraq
“Listen up,” the 1st Platoon, Charlie Company platoon sergeant addressed his men over the radio. “I know it feels shitty to leave men behind. We’re going to hook up with first section and come back out as soon as we refuel, and battalion says they’ll send more help and a fuel truck soon. Stay sharp so we can come back and find them. One-five out.”
Staff Sergeant Walsh was fighting to stay awake in the lead vehicle. They’d been out for almost a day with no down time, and he was running on cans of Rip It and caffeine pills.
“You doing okay, Jones?” he asked his driver over the intercom.
“Roger, Sarn’t,” the private replied promptly.
“What about you, Hunt?”
“Still kicking, Sergeant,” the gunner drawled.
A few minutes later, Jones said, “Hey, Hunt. Can you light up the road? I think I see something.”
Hunt switched on the huge infrared flashlight mounted on his M2HB machine gun and asked, “How far?”
“Just keep it a hundred yards out or so,” Jones said, slowing down. “I could’ve sworn I saw something big in the road.” The night was poorly lit; clouds had come out, and there wasn’t much ambient light for his night vision to work with. The view in his monocular was grainy and dark.
A minute later, something flickered across the road.
“What the hell was that?” Hunt asked.
It flickered back across from the opposite direction.
“Are you seeing this, Jones?” he asked.
“I see something,” Jones said. “But–” he gasped and slammed on his brakes, but it was too late. They’d just crested a small rise in the road, and beyond it, the road was gone, replaced with a gaping hole.
“Oh fu–” Hunt said. He was cut off as the gun truck sailed into the hole and smashed into the far rock wall at thirty miles per hour.
The driver of the second vehicle stood on his brakes when he saw the lead truck disappear. “What the fuck?” he yelled. The vehicle came to a shuddering halt no more than ten feet from the edge of the hole.
Sergeant Foster called over the radio, “This is one seven. One six just drove into some kind of huge hole, over.”
The gunner of the second vehicle craned his head around to look over the left edge of his turret and gaped at the huge hole in the road.
“This is one five. Say again, over,” the platoon sergeant replied.
“There’s this huge hole in the road,” Foster said. Before he could say anything else, the gunner on the truck behind them opened fire, and Foster released his radio key.
“-act left, contact left!” another voice cut in immediately.
Above Foster, his gunner snapped his eyes back to his sector, covering the right side of the convoy, and had just begun to aim his machine gun at the strange vision he saw when a bony spike slammed into his throat. He dropped into the turret, gurgling, and his attacker followed.
The night desert air filled with screams, curses, and gunfire as the attackers swarmed the convoy.
In two more minutes, the desert was quiet.
Lucas froze one step into the central chamber where they’d left the extra packs and their sergeant’s body. A chill crept down his neck.
Weller’s body was gone.
Where it had been, there was just a smeared pool of blood and some shreds of fabric. A single bloody handprint was on the cave floor next to the congealing blood.
Lucas had seen some strange things, things that weren’t supposed to exist. He’d run into several bug nests before—the soldiers had no idea what the big creatures were, but they weren’t normal mammals or lizards, so they just called them “bugs”—and had been part of prolonged firefights involving at least two terrorist wizards. He had even supported a combat exorcist team on two terrifying missions a few months earlier.
He’d never seen a shredded body just get up and walk away. He quickly thought back to what he’d learned about magic in the last several months.
He didn’t really understand how it worked, but from what the wizards he knew had said, it was supposed to be very difficult to directly manipulate the human body. Like, a wizard couldn’t just decide to stop another human’s heart unless he was willing to put a massive amount of energy into it and risk killing himself in the process.
Possession was possible, but usually required consent on the part of the possessed, an invitation in, whether wholly intentional or not. He’d also seen the works wrought by necromancers—he shuddered at the memories that thought raised—but they invariably cut apart the bodies they used and made new creations out of the pieces, mixing and matching parts. That was one way to get around the human body’s resistance to magical manipulation.
But there was only one body here, he thought.
Either something big had moved Weller’s body, Weller was possessed by a powerful demon that could shrug off having its human vessel killed, or there was an incredibly powerful necromancer in the tunnels with him.
Or something worse I’ve never heard of.
Lucas retreated into the tunnel a few paces, and fumbled to pull out and attach his PVS-14 to his helmet with his left hand, keeping his rifle up. If something more dangerous than bugs was in the tunnel system with him, he wanted to go dark.
“Shit, come on,” he whispered, almost inaudibly.
He was relieved when the mounting bracket snapped into place. He switched on his second headlamp—it had an IR filter—and turned off his white light headlamp. It was pitch black for a moment before he flipped down his night vision monocular and turned it on.
He yelled and ducked as something flew straight at his face. He felt something hard clunk off his helmet and hastily took several steps back, slipping on the curved stone where the tunnel walls met the floor.
A man-sized shape blurred out of sight, back into the central chamber. It moved incredibly fast. Lucas fired two bursts into the chamber out of reflex as he continued to backpedal, trying to feel his way along the narrow tunnel without tripping. He kicked something with his heels several times, and it clattered behind him on the rock.
He paused when he made it around a curve, so the main chamber was out of sight. A chuckle echoed through the tunnel.
“Which one of you is that, I wonder? It’s not Johnson. I can sense him.”
The voice was strange. It sounded like a movie vampire; deep, urbane, with a slight Eastern European accent.
“Who the fuck are you?” Lucas asked.
“Ah, Lucas. You were always such a pain in the ass.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.” Lucas carefully lowered his carbine and let it hang from its sling, then groped in the large pouch on his right side, his mine pouch.
“Why, I’m your Sergeant, Specialist. Your team leader.” There was a funny skittering sound on the tail of the reply.
Lucas swore silently. He only had one mine left. As he withdrew it, he said, “Yeah, you’re probably not. We put about forty rounds in Weller after that piece of shit stabbed Johnson. So who are you really?”
“Idiot. Bullets can’t kill me now.”
The longer Lucas stood there talking, the more nervous he got. There was something seriously wrong, and whatever he was talking to, he didn’t want to it face alone.
He pulled the adhesive strip paper off the mine and knelt carefully, preventing his carbine barrel from banging the floor. He affixed the mine to the left tunnel wall, about knee height.
“Yeah, why’s that?” he replied, wanting to keep “Weller” talking.
“I’ve been given gifts, Lucas. I’m special.”
Lucas paused in the middle of arming the mine and spotted a knife on the floor of the cave.
“You sound like enough of a tool to be Weller, anyway.” Lucas said, momentarily distracted. The knife was odd-looking. It was thicker than a normal steel knife. It looked like an old stone-age knife he’d seen in a museum once. It was also stained with something dark. Blood, he realized. It was the knife Weller had used on Johnson.
“Shut up,” the voice snarled, and tightened into a whine. “I’m looking forward to finishing you. Always undermining me, questioning my orders.”
Maybe it is Weller after all, Lucas thought. The voice was different, but the petulant tone was just right.
Lucas awkwardly leaned over and picked up the knife, and wedged it blade-first into one of his magazine pouches. He finished arming the mine and took several hasty steps back. The mine was equipped with an infrared optical sensor, and after ten seconds it would detonate if anything came within its narrow field of view.
“Going somewhere?” the voice asked. Whatever it was had heard his footsteps.
“Yep, I’m bored of your whining,” Lucas replied. “Maybe you are Weller. If so, whatever else is in there with you picked a damn poor shell to occupy. See ya later, loser.”
He didn’t move immediately, but withdrew a frag grenade, pulled the pin, and chucked it around the corner. Then he turned and ran.