The Demon of Tal Afar – Ch. 5

“Got anything yet?” First Lieutenant Andrew Cortland yelled back at Philip Dare. The wizard was sitting in the seat behind the platoon leader, eyes closed, probing with his mind.

“I just picked up the missing men,” Dare said distractedly. “But I can’t get anything from the others.”

Dare had given every man in his section a sort of passive magical transponder, really nothing more than a brass medallion. He’d imprinted the medallions with a spell that allowed him to link his mind with the lump of metal and see what was going on around it. It was an untraceable way of keeping tabs on the soldiers he was responsible for protecting, which had come in handy on missions where silence on the objective was particularly valuable.

“You mean you can’t locate them, or what?”

“No, I’m getting the medallions,” Dare replied, opening his eyes. “But there’s just nothing around them. It’s like they’re in a cave or box or something, instead of with the men.”

“So what about the guys we’re looking for? Where are they?”

“Near a road, south of some mountains, looks like. No real landmarks. For lack of a better term, reception is kind of fuzzy. I can see where they are, more or less, but I can’t hear anything.”

“Because of the distance?” the officer asked, curiously. He always wanted to know more about how the magic worked. He’d studied computer science in college and become an officer through ROTC. When Dare had suggested thinking about programming as a logical analog to constructing a spell, Cortland had been very keen to learn more.

“No, that’s not it,” Dare said, shaking his head. “I couldn’t get them at all until about ten minutes ago. I’m not sure what it was, some kind of magical interference I’d guess.”

“Shit,” Cortland muttered. Dare more read his lips than heard him over the roar of the diesel engine. “So we might be running into another wizard?”

“Could be,” Dare said, shrugging. “But that’s what I’m here for.”

The lieutenant didn’t look very reassured. He’d asked Dare about magic quite a bit on the FOB, but because the two sections of the platoon often worked independently, they hadn’t worked together on missions much.

“Well, keep trying,” Cortland said. Dare gave him thumbs up and closed his eyes, falling back into the semi-trance state he used when scrying.

Dawn was breaking by the time Lucas and his team made it to the road. Johnson had claimed he could read the stars, and Lucas had trusted his guidance to keep them on track.

There were no vehicles in sight. Far to the east Lucas thought he could make out a smudge of smoke, but that was all he could see in the rocky desert. And it looked like a sunny day, unfortunately.

“How are you guys feeling?” he asked the others. It had been a rough climb down in the dark, carrying so much weight. Johnson had the worst of it. The spare weapons were strapped on his pack, and his hands were zip-tied in front of him.

“Thirsty,” Johnson said.

“Ready for some sleep,” Farro replied.

“Well, we can all drink a bit. Hell, we should probably just hang out here. The little bit we’ll walk before someone comes along won’t matter much.”

“Can’t stop yet,” Johnson grunted. “The turnoff we took to get up there is farther that way, I think.”

“Crap,” Farro muttered.

“Alright. We’ll rest for a bit, eat and drink a little, and move out.”

Shortly they were walking again. They didn’t talk much; they were all too worn out to waste the energy.

After about twenty minutes, Johnson said, “This is where I think we need to be.”

Lucas looked around, and saw nothing that looked like a road up into the hills.

“There’s nothing here,” he said. “What are you talking about?”

Farro had taken a knee, panting slightly, and took off his pack to rummage in it. The day was already warming up.

“I just… know we’re supposed to be here,” Johnson said, shaking his head slightly.

“Come on, man, you’re hallucinating or something. Farro, get up, we’ve gotta keep moving.”

“Alright—Shit, oh shit!” Farro yelled. “Something’s grabbing my leg!”

Lucas spun toward him, rifle raised, just in time to get blindsided by Johnson’s bull rush.

The larger man knocked him off his feet, and he gasped in pain as he landed hard on his left elbow. His whole left arm immediately went numb, and he awkwardly tried to scramble to his feet while holding his carbine up to block the kick Johnson sent at him.

The kick never connected, because at that moment the ground caved in, and they were falling.

Lucas gasped in pain again as he landed amidst the rubble. His pack spared him the worst of it by spreading out the impact of the sharp rocks against his back, but he saw stars as his head snapped back, helmet cracking hard against the ground.

It took several seconds for him to figure out how to sit up, laying awkwardly on his pack as he was, and his head swam as he did. Several quick pistol shots on his left jarred him into full alertness, and he snapped his carbine up in that direction, where he saw Farro wrestling with a very thin, very tanned… mummy?

It had Farro on his back and was trying to strangle him, while Farro had his pistol barrel against the thing’s ribs. He pumped half a magazine into it, apparently to no effect. Farro shot twice more and Lucas saw dust puff from the mummy-thing’s back, while the bullets zinged against the stone wall and roof.

Lucas struggled to his feet, unsteady in the rubble, and vaguely realized they were in some kind of stone room. He got clear of the rubble, stepping onto a tile floor, and took two long steps toward Farro. He booted the mummy-thing as hard as he could in the shoulder, and it sailed away. He staggered and fell across Farro, who yelled in pain at his arm being jostled. The creature had weighed much less than he expected.

“You okay?” he grunted, rolling off his friend and pulling him to his feet by the handle on the back of his armor.

“Yeah,” Farro rasped, his face chalk white except for a bloody lip. “I landed on my arm. I think the other bone broke too.”

“Shit. Where the hell are we now?” Lucas asked. He looked around at the mostly empty room. The mummy-thing had disappeared from wherever it had landed, and Johnson lay in a heap on his side on the floor, unmoving.

The room was carved into the bedrock of the desert, and was about a hundred feet long and forty wide. It was lit only by the hole in the ceiling that they had fallen through, which was about ten feet by fifteen, and at least fifteen feet off the ground. There was no obvious way out, except…

Lucas frowned. The opposite end of the hall held an open door, flanked by carved stone pillars. The pillars were in shadow, but he could see they were decorated with paintings, though he couldn’t make out what the paintings depicted.

A low, flickering light shone through the door, barely visible with the glare of the sunlight shining above them.

“God dammit,” he muttered. “Out of the frying pan, into the fire, it seems.”

“What’s up with Johnson?” Farro asked. He was struggling to open a blister pack of ibuprofen with one hand.

“Here,” Lucas said, helping him. “I’m not sure what happened. I think he might really be possessed by something. He led us into a trap, and he attacked me right before we, uh, dropped in to visit whatever this place is.”

“Jesus, man. Don’t quit your day job,” Farro chuckled weakly. After a pause, he asked quietly, “We’re fucked, aren’t we?”

“Can’t tell,” Lucas said, simply. “We might be able to walk right out of here.”

“Come on, man,” Farro said, a note of anger in his voice. “I can barely hold my rifle and Johnson is going nuts, to go with that knife wound in his back. You’re the only one who can fight, and that’s not going to keep us alive.”

It was true, of course. But Lucas squelched the feeling of hopelessness that threatened to well up inside him.

“What choice do we have but to keep going?” Lucas asked. “I can’t even ditch you guys. How the hell am I going to get out of that hole?” He jerked his head in its direction.

Farro didn’t have an answer for that, and Lucas thought for a few minutes in silence, keeping his eye on the door.

“Okay, here’s what we’ll do,” he said. He outlined the plan he’d come up with, and Farro agreed reluctantly.

“Sounds like you’re going on a suicide mission to me,” Farro said.

“Let’s hope not.”

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