The Demon of Tal Afar – Ch. 9

“What the fuck!” Lucas yelled at Dare, who had hastily raised a barrier of earth as cover in the road. Dare was muttering to himself as he improved their cover. It would have been quite amazing to watch, if Lucas had had the time to appreciate it.

A hail of bullets was striking their cover, and Lucas didn’t dare raise his head to return fire.

“I thought you said they were dead!”

“They are,” Dare said, pausing from his work. “They’re being controlled somehow. An incredibly masterful necromancer is my guess.”

“Yeah, whatever. Give us some firing ports, will you? Here and there,” he indicated two spots on the stone wall, by himself and Farro, who was sitting by Johnson’s still-unmoving form.

Dare willed the rock to take the desired form and hollowed out sections of the barrier, leaving narrow slits on the outer side but a widening edge toward the inside, like an arrowslit in a castle wall.

“We need some overhead cover too,” Lucas said. “Do you know what a normal fighting position looks like?”

“I’m on it,” Dare said. “Do your job.”

Peering out the firing slit, Lucas saw the ten soldiers were advancing, firing almost nonstop. The shooters stood behind the unarmed soldiers and were using them as cover. As he watched, one of the shooters ran dry and the unarmed man handed him a magazine over his shoulder. The right side of the unarmed man’s face was sooty with unburnt power from the muzzle blast. He didn’t even wince as the shooter began firing again, despite the muzzle being less than a foot from his face.

That—and the fact that he could see serious wounds on several of the unarmed men, who were bloody but no longer bleeding—convinced Lucas that Dare was right.

“What works on these things? Head shots?” he asked Dare. Farro was awkwardly trying to get his rifle lined up, and Dare, seeing him struggling, made a small rock shelf extrude across his firing slit to rest the rifle on.

“They’re not zombies like in the movies,” Dare said, shaking his head. “They’re just… puppets. You stop them by destroying them, by making them unable to move or fight. They’ll keep coming without heads, probably.”

“Can’t you just, I dunno, make the earth rise up and crush them?” Lucas asked, pointing at the wall Dare had made.

“I tried. Whatever’s controlling them is dampening magic around them too.”

Lucas muttered something obscene, then said, “Alright, Farro. Try to break their legs.”

He followed his own suggestion and began punching rounds into the puppet-soldiers’ legs and pelvises. It worked, and they fell to the ground, but they didn’t stop firing even though they couldn’t advance. The shooters just pulled themselves into new positions, using their unarmed partners as sandbags.

Worse, they had zeroed in on the firing slits and were starting to chew through the wall. Farro had been hit by a ricochet already, and without his ballistic glasses Lucas would’ve been blinded by rock chips when a bullet struck the edge of his firing slit.

Their position fully built—Dare had ultimately made a quarter-sphere shield of rock, open at the back, and excavated the ground as well so they could stand and use the firing slits instead of having to crouch—Dare himself had taken up the SAW and begun firing bursts through his own slit.

They ran through most of their remaining ammunition tearing the not-zombies apart. It became appreciably more difficult when there were only two left; they had to alternate popping up and firing, trying to break the shooters’ shoulders and arms or hit their weapons to disable them, and ducked back down to avoid the immediate—and increasingly accurate—return fire. Dare lost his left thumbnail to a lucky shot that ricocheted off his weapon and lodged in his armor before they hammered the last flesh puppet into submission.

“Anyone got a view into the hole?” Lucas asked, loudly. He wondered idly how close he was to becoming permanently deaf.

Farro’s answer was drowned out by the pounding blast of a heavy machinegun firing behind them. All three spun, raising weapons, and saw several Army gun trucks on the road, spread out, turret-mounted machineguns aimed at them.

“This is Lieutenant Driscoll, 10th Mountain. Drop your weapons,” boomed a voice from a PA speaker mounted on one of the armored humvees. “Drop them now, or be fired upon.”

Lucas stood stock still, staring at the nearest gunner. The soldier was aiming his M2HB 50 caliber machine gun straight at Lucas’s chest, no more than twenty yards away. The gunner’s face was cold and angry.

This is very, very bad, he thought. He knew how it must look. It looked to the convoy like they’d walked into a blue-on-blue firefight, and to make matters much worse, Johnson was still tied up, openly visible to the convoy.

“Lower your weapons, but don’t put them down,” Lucas said, quietly. “Dare, can you do something here?”

“Like what? Just tell them what happened,” the wizard said. He’d ignored Lucas’s order and set the SAW down.

“How the fuck do you think this looks?” Lucas hissed, not looking at him. “These guys aren’t like us, they’re just normal soldiers. Probably fucking pogues on a supply run.” Farro muttered his agreement.

He hadn’t noticed them at first, but there were a couple heavy transport trucks behind the humvees. It was some kind of supply convoy, so they probably were not combat arms soldiers, and they certainly were not up to speed on crazy magic bullshit that caused dead soldiers to act like infantry meat puppets.

“Ah, I see your point,” Dare said.

“Drop them, now!” the officer said again. “You have to the count of five to drop your weapons, and then we will fire on you. One.”

“Well?” Lucas asked.

“What about Johnson?”

“Two,” came the cold voice over the PA system.

“He’s coming with us.”

“All I can do is get us into that hole. I’m too tired to fight these guys, and I don’t want to anyway,” Dare said.

“Fine. Do it.”

“Three–what the!” the officer exclaimed. Dare had knelt and pressed his hands to the ground, and caused the bedrock to bulge up into a broad wall across the road. The gunners opened up behind the barrier, and Lucas ducked, having seen typical armor-piercing 50 BMG bullets punch through brick walls like they were made of paper several times before. But nothing penetrated.

“Come on!” Dare said, tugging his sleeve. “I need your help with Johnson.”

“How big is that wall?” Lucas asked, climbing awkwardly onto the road from the depressed fighting position.

“I wrapped it around them on the sides, they’ll have some trouble getting around it.”

“Dismounts won’t!” Lucas yelled as he hauled Johnson along the road with Dare.

“Have some faith. I’m not an idiot.”

Lucas expected to be shot in the back at any second as they hauled their friend toward the ramp into the earth. Farro had spent the time they’d taken getting Johnson hurling their packs down the ramp and securing the SAW, and was already down the hole.

They made it safely and collapsed, totally gassed, at the bottom of the ramp. Lucas rolled on his back and looked up at the open hole, but even as he did, it closed up. He could hear Dare muttering to himself beside him, and in seconds they were in near-darkness, concealed from the angry soldiers above.

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