The Demon of Tal Afar – Ch. 6

Lucas had taken the time to strip the hard plates out of his armor before advancing deeper into the underground complex, so he was unusually light on his feet. There was no point in carrying an extra fifteen pounds when he was facing monsters who didn’t use guns. He just hoped the thick kevlar in his vest would help protect him against claws and teeth.

He took a deep breath and stepped through the dark doorway. He had his night vision on, and could see it was a small, empty chamber with two doorways on the side walls, surrounded by more carvings and paintings. There was no obvious source of the flickering light; it seemed intrinsic to the room.

Lucas already didn’t like what he’d found. Two doors, facing each other, and he could only face one at once. He felt incredibly vulnerable, alone in the dark; he was used to having friends to cover his back, and he was acutely aware how little he could actually see at once by himself. Especially with the narrow view the night vision monocular offered.

He didn’t even have any mines left to trip up someone who came through whichever door he didn’t pick first.

“Shit,” he whispered, almost inaudibly. Mentally shrugging, he took the left door. Instead of slicing the pie as he normally would when entering a door into an unsafe room, he took a calculated risk and stepped swiftly through and to the side, putting his back toward the corner, preferring not to leave his back exposed to the other door.

The room was furnished, but unoccupied. An old-fashioned bed stood in one corner, with bookshelves and a desk filling out the room. There was even a tapestry on the wall and a carpet on the floor. A layer of dust overlaid the furnishings, though the furnishings themselves looked in good condition. They were made of some kind of dark wood.

A huge, elongated animal skull hung from the wall over the desk. It looked like a funny-shaped horse skull, except with a sharply curved upper jaw, and was much larger than any horse’s head he’d ever seen.

It was a dead end. Lucas turned back toward the door, but paused and looked back at the desk as something caught his eye. There had been a glint of light, visible in his naked right eye. He turned his head several times back and forth experimentally, but couldn’t pick it up again.

The other door led to a long passage to the left, but turned sharply a few feet to his right as he passed through. He shined his infrared light down the long end of the passage and saw nothing but carved and painted stone walls before his light faded into the dark distance. Frowning, he took a few soft steps and looked around the turn in the passage. It was caved in.

“What the hell is this place?” he muttered.

He walked slowly down the hall, keeping his carbine up, and glancing back every few steps. The markings on the wall were strange, he couldn’t quite make out what they depicted. There were occasional unmarked spaces of stone as well, and he noted that the stones were irregular, not like bricks, but stones that had been cut to fit together like a puzzle.

The passage seemed endless. He paused and turned around fully, to check if he could see all the way back the way he’d come, and was startled to see the passage turned sharply away just thirty feet behind him. The door he’d come in through was there as well.

“What the fuck is this place?” he said aloud.

“It’s my home, Lucas,” the voice said from just behind him.

Lucas took a quick step forward and spun, firing two shots down the passage, but there was nothing to shoot.

“You can’t kill me in my own home,” something whispered. He felt its breath on his right ear, and lashed out, striking nothing but empty air.

“Enough with the parlor trick bullshit,” he said angrily. “Who the fuck are you?”

“Haven’t you figured it out yet?” The voice asked from down the passage. Lucas fired two more shots, to no result. His ears were ringing, badly. Each shot felt like a slap in the face in the small stone passage.

“Figured out what? That you’re pretending to be Weller? I didn’t like the guy because he was a know-it-all idiot who kept trying to get us killed through his stupidity, but you’re not him.” Lucas slowly backed up toward the door he’d entered through.

“Perhaps it would be more accurate to say he is part of me, now,” the voice said, behind him once more.

Lucas didn’t look back. He was alert for a trick.

Two steps later, he bumped into something solid but yielding, and inhaled sharply in surprise.

“Peek a boo,” the voice said, as he tried to spin to face whatever it was, throwing his elbow out. Something caught his arm in an iron grip, and he felt a hand against his back. Whatever it was picked him up and threw him through the air.

He somehow landed on his feet and stumbled to one knee. Thanks to his sling, he still had his weapon. “Fuck you,” he said, spinning to face his attacker and flipping his carbine to full auto. He paused as his monocular finally gave him a few of the creature that loomed twenty feet away.

It was a huge, muscular man, seven feet tall, but with a skull for a head. Not a man’s skull, but the odd animal skull he’d seen in the bedroom. The eye sockets of the skull twinkled purple in the dark, and shone brightly in his monocular. The… thing… was shirtless, but wore metal bands around its biceps and wrists. Flowing pants covered its legs, and it wore pointed cloth shoes on its feet.

Lucas opened fire, leaning into his carbine as he walked the bullets from the thing’s crotch up to its head. The last two bullets sparked off the skull. The wounds to the thing’s flesh didn’t bleed, and as he watched they sealed themselves closed.

“I told you,” the monster crooned, chuckling drily. “You can’t kill me in my home.”

He could feel the cold thrill of terror rising in him in the face of this skull-headed beast that could shrug off a full magazine of 5.56mm as if it was nothing. As he always did when the shit was hitting the fan, he locked the terror firmly away.

Reloading quickly, Lucas asked, “Why are you toying with us? Why not just kill us?” He fired a shot right between the monster’s empty eye sockets and saw the beast twitch for the first time. Was it irritated, or had that hurt it?

“I want you to know what I am,” the thing said. “And then I want to take my time breaking you.” It hadn’t moved since it threw him down the passage.

“Fine, so what are you?” Lucas asked. He fired two rounds into the thing’s skull, experimentally, and the monster’s arm moved in a blur as it swatted the bullets away.

“An old god, forgotten by most, but still worshiped,” the monster said. Its voice turned menacing. “A god of pain and suffering.”

“There’s only one God, and I don’t think he looks like you,” Lucas said. He fired about half his magazine rapidly at the thing’s head, then slid his left hand toward his vest as if reloading. Instead, he withdrew a frag grenade.

“It’s very rude, making all that noise when I’m trying to talk to you,” the monster said. Its voice took on a petulant tone.

“Why can’t I go down the hall?” Lucas asked, turning halfway toward the empty passage. As he did, he surreptitiously pulled the pin on the grenade and held it in his right hand, then turned back, looking questioningly at the monster.

As the monster began to reply, he released the spoon and counted. “Ah, yes, it’s a clever bit of magic, isn’t it?”

Ignoring the monster’s words, Lucas took a step and hurled the grenade at the monster’s skull-face as hard as he could when he reached the count of three. He ducked his head and went to one knee, but kept his eyes up long enough to see the monster snatch it out of midair.

Lucas ducked his head to put his helmet between his head and the blast and tried to make himself small. A moment later, he was nearly knocked unconscious by the blast of the grenade in the narrow space. It made his carbine’s muzzle blast feel like love taps, and his hearing seemed to turn off completely.

Standing unsteadily upright, Lucas saw the monster was down, the flesh of its chest torn to shreds, exposing ribs. One arm was missing entirely below the elbow, and the skull was cracked, eye holes dark.

He managed a staggering run past the monster’s body and into the small room he’d come from. He slid to a stop in the room as several tracers snapped past him, impacting the stone wall across from the door. He felt a sting from a ricochet hit him in the ass and he yelled “Friendly!” He could barely hear his own voice, and had no idea if Farro had replied.

Cautiously, he waved his hand in the open door, and then took a step out, jogging over to his friends.

His hearing was coming back quickly, so he could hear that Farro was asking him something as he knelt behind the makeshift barricade they’d cobbled together from the fallen rubble, but he couldn’t make out the words over the ringing in his ears.

“Grenade!” He said loudly. “My hearing is fucked, I can’t understand you yet.”

Farro used crude one-handed sign language to ask if enemies were coming, and Lucas shrugged. “I ran into some kind of skull headed thing and killed it, but I haven’t seen anything else.”

Lucas glanced back at where Johnson lay, unmoving, his ankles bound too. “Did he wake up at all?” he asked, looking at Farro for a response. The other man shook his head and shrugged.

Several tense minutes passed, and Farro kept pointing at the door at the end of the hall. But Lucas couldn’t tell what the hell he was pointing at. The doorway was empty.

The ground started to shake, slightly. Lucas could feel the vibrations through his boots. Frowning, he belatedly reloaded his carbine, replacing the half-empty magazine. As he did, he knocked a small Rite in the Rain notebook loose from his vest.

“Oh for Heaven’s–” he muttered, feeling like a total idiot. He pulled a small space pen from his pocket and indicated Farro should write what he wanted to say. He held the notebook for the other man, and read what he wrote.

Something big is coming.

The ground was still shaking slightly, and Lucas suddenly realized it must be footsteps. Footsteps of something freaking huge.

He looked back toward the door as Farro knelt back down behind the SAW, which was propped on the rubble barrier, bipod wedged into Lucas’s pack so Farro could swivel it slightly one handed without knocking it to the floor.

A hand the size of a manhole cover grasped the side of the door at the far end of the room, and the bits of stone broke free, raining to the floor as the thing pulled itself into view.

Lucas stared at the monstrosity in disbelief for a moment, then knelt to say a silent prayer. He crossed himself, then joined Farro at the barricade, prepared to die.

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