As I lie paralyzed on the floor of the tunnel, the screams and gunfire seem to extend for an eternity. Where I’d expect my shoulder to be on fire from the gashes gouged into it, I feel only a seeping cold that deadens the feeling in my entire body. I desperately try to move my limbs to no avail.
Maybe it’s not poison. Maybe when you hit that wall you just broke your damn neck. Now you get to wait until your turn on the dinner plate.
Suddenly the ceiling starts moving. It’s Sergeant Troy, pulling me backwards up the tunnel by my body armor.
“Come on, sir, let’s go! -huph- told you I’d -whuf- be pulling your a*s out of the fire if this thing turned sideways. Just didn’t -huh- figure it’d be so damn literal.”
I try to respond, but even my vocal cords won’t cooperate.
Got to be poison then. Broken neck wouldn’t keep me from talking. Wonder if its fatal or if the effects are just temporary. Wonder if I’ll get the chance to find out. God, how terrible. I might not even be able to scream while I’m being eaten.
We don’t make it very far. Troy isn’t in bad shape by any means, but trying to drag over two hundred pounds of dead weight uphill at any kind of speed is almost impossible under the best of conditions, which these most definitely aren’t. After only a few seconds, the last of the gunshots and moans briefly give way to a pregnant silence before the monster lets loose a triumphant roar. Its hunt is at an end. The now familiar sound of the creature’s movement starts again. Looking over me back down the tunnel, Troy sees it coming. Almost gently he lays me to the ground before raising his weapon and stepping over my body, positioning himself between me and the oncoming horror. The rumbling is impossibly loud; if I weren’t completely numb I could probably feel the very walls of the tunnel shaking. Troy begins firing.
“Hey, you ugly m**********r!”-blamblamblam- “You want him?” -blamblamblamblam- You’re gonna have to come through me, you sorry sack of s**t!” -blamblamblambla—click* “Dammit!”
Troy drops his rifle and transitions to his pistol but the thing is on him, tentacles wrapping around his waist and neck and lifting him into the air towards its slavering jaws.
“F**k you!” Troy empties the entire magazine into the monster’s face at almost point blank range. It roars in fury and reels back slightly before recovering, whipping my platoon sergeant like a rag doll and slamming him first off one wall, then the other, again and again. I can hear bones snapping with every impact. Finally it stops, and holds Troy’s broken body up to its massive head, suspended from his arms and held precariously above its open maw. Then, of all the unbelievable and fantastic happenings of the day, the most astounding occurs. The creature starts to speak. It’s voice is harsh, like a band saw cutting through metal, and sounds utterly wrong coming from such a being. Despite that, I have no problem interpreting its words.
“foolish mortal. you would stand against the Other Born of the outer Dark, we who have ruled this world since time immemorial? you throw your shallow life away. but fear not, your sacrifice is not in vain. indeed, this one hungers. your misguided courage will be most satisfying, your loyalty most savory. take pride, little morsel, in the sustenance you give your master.”
With that it begins to slowly lower Troy into its waiting jaws, taking obvious pleasure in the anticipation. I redouble my mental efforts but my limbs still won’t respond.
Dammit, no! Not like this! Not like this!
The word is like a gong, filling and reverberating through the air even though I know it’s only in my head. I feel a blinding heat radiating from my hand, pushing back the terrible cold of the creature’s poison. I realize that, incredibly, I’m still holding the stone. Somehow, the monster hears the pronouncement as well, causing it to pause and shift its gaze to me.“impossible! the Light is lost, the Sleepers no more!”
Suddenly, I can move again. I leap to my feet, the paralyzing numbness of a few moments ago already a distant memory. The relic glows with a terrible light, its raised center piece and markings burning as brightly as the sun. Whether through some reflex or from the mental nudges of the stone I raise the hand holding it toward the monster. The heat continues to build until it feels as though my entire being is filled with it, too much for me to contain, so much that I will surely burst if I don’t release it. So I do.
The entirety of the power coalesces in a tiny ball somewhere deep in my chest before shooting down my arm towards the stone. An enormous wash of flame erupts from the center of the relic and blasts the monster full on in its horrific face, its head catching on fire. The thing rears back to its full height, its mouth open wide in a silent scream of agony. The tentacles holding Sergeant Troy are neatly seared off and he drops bonelessly to the ground in a heap. I rush to my fallen platoon sergeant.
There’s no time to check and see if he’s still alive; we need to get out now before the thing recovers. Remains of the power still sing throughout my body and I pick Troy up and throw him across my shoulders as easily as I would a child. I begin running up the tunnel towards the entrance.
We just make the section near the entryway marked by the strange runes when my supernatural strength begins to fade. The open entrance beckons as I struggle towards it, every step harder than the last. Now that the strength of the relic has faded all that remains is an overwhelming exhaustion, even more so due to the extra energy I’ve expended already. My limbs are wooden planks that fight against my mental commands. Although my night vision goggles were broken when the monster threw me against the wall, the flashing lightning from the storm raging outside and the still present mental urges of the relic guide my way. The creature screams behind me.
“no. this cannot be! the Mother will not allow! Impudent child, I will feast on your soul!”
With a roar it throws itself forward in pursuit. I chance a glance backward and see it coming by the light of the storm and the glowing runes, its many legs churning terribly. Its eyes are melted and blinded by the fire, its rage the only thing driving it forward. It is moving far too quickly, gaining ground far too fast.
A last burst of effort sends me through the entrance and out into the howling storm before I stumble and sprawl to the ground, the dead weight of Troy’s body pinning me down. Desperately I try to roll out from under him, struggling to reach the detonator in my pocket. The creature is only fifty feet away down the tunnel when I manage to grasp the device, disarm the safety, and squeeze the trigger.
Sergeant Troy made his preparations well. Instantly upon activating the detonator, a deep boom emits from inside the entrance and the tunnel collapses upon itself. The creature issues a final scream echoing over and above the fury of the storm as I watch it buried by tons and tons of unfeeling rock. I have no way of knowing for sure if it’s alive or dead, but at least for the time being it won’t be able to follow us. It’s over.
With no time to bask in my victory I instantly turn my attention to my platoon sergeant. I slip the relic into my pocket before gently rolling him over while supporting his neck. I try to find a pulse. I feel a great swell of relief when I find one, weak but steady. His breath is shallow and he requires immediate medical attention, but Troy is alive. My driver Robinson comes sprinting up from the truck.
“Oh my God! Sir, what the f**k happened in there? Where is everybody?”
“We’re the only ones who made it. No time to explain, but we can’t stay here. We have to get Sergeant Troy back to the patrol base and get him on a bird to Speicher ASAP, then we can worry about the others. Help me get him into the truck with doc, then we need to call back and tell third squad to get a medevac inbound.”
“Roger, sir, but I think we might have a problem with that. I’ve been trying to call back for the last hour or so but can’t get any response. Think the storm might be interfering with comms.”
“Dammit. Ok. But we have to move. Help me get him up.”
We manage to wrestle Sergeant Troy’s limp body into the truck with my medic who immediately begins working on him.
“Jesus. He’s really bad, sir, but if we can get a bird in he’s got a chance. Might be tricky convincing higher to authorize one with this storm.”
“I don’t give a s**t about that. Keep working on him, doc. Let’s go, we’re wasting time. Everybody mount up. White light the whole way back, convoy speed is as fast as we can go without flipping a vehicle. I’ll keep trying to reach the patrol base on comms.”
Fortunately my earlier fears of getting a truck stuck due to the rain were unfounded. Whether by luck or fortune the ground is solid enough that we make it back to the roadway without any issues and are soon speeding along the highway back towards the patrol base. I continue to try to raise third squad left on guard but, just as Robinson said, the only thing I get on the radio is static. If we get back and I find they were screwing off I just might kill the lot of them myself.
We make the trip in less than half the time it took to get to the cave. Within twenty five minutes we roll through the gate of the patrol base. I jump down and run over to the truck with the medic to help lift Troy down on the stretcher and we begin to carry him inside.
“Think I got him stabilized, sir! We get a medevac in here within the hour, I think he’s gonna make it!”
I’m not as sharp as I usually am. Granted, I’m exhausted, a bit distracted by the events that have unfolded already this evening, and am currently preoccupied with trying to save the life of my platoon sergeant. Nevertheless, I’d like to think that I would have typically noticed how ominously dark and quiet the patrol base was, the telling lack of a guard at the entrance or of anyone to greet us as we came in, but for some reason these things don’t register. Needless to say I am completely surprised when the bomb goes off.
“Wake up, Mulasim Michael.”
A voice urges me out of the blackness. I have no idea how long I’ve been out. Surrounded by armed militants, I’m tied to a chair. Looking around I see I’m inside my command post, the radios and computers stacked in a smoking pile of metal and wires. Across from me Robinson and Sergeant Troy are tied to chairs in a similar fashion, my platoon sergeant still unconscious. Next to them stands Tahir al-Qassim. Robinson is awake and has obviously been tortured. Shallow cuts cover his body and he moans to me through a mouth of mush, his teeth unwillingly removed.
“Suh, suh, thuh kill da othuhs! Thuh sad thuh gonna…” -BANG-
Tahir draws his pistol and casually shoots my driver in the head. My head is swimming.
“Tahir, you f*****g animal, what did you do? What the f**k did you do?”
The thug smiles. “Ah, Mulasim Michael. Do I really need to explain this to you?” He leans forward, stinking of sweat and blood. “I. Hate. You. You Americans think you know what is best for my country. You know nothing. I would do anything, anything at all, to rid myself of all your kind. I would go so far as to go into the desert searching for a beast, a legend, at the barest chance that it might help me drive you out of my home.” He steps away and walks over behind Troy. “Marring the runes holding it in its prison was easy enough. The necessary sacrifices to engage its services were… distasteful I suppose, but I have many more men and I would offer up a thousand children if it means the power to be done with the American occupation once and for all.” As he is talking I’ve started trying to work my hand free into my pocket where I can feel the relic still sits.
If I can only get it…
“You were supposed to die in that cave, Mulasim Michael, yet here you are alive and whole.” He strokes Troy’s head, pulling it back by the hair and baring his neck. “Had the ifrit managed to end your pathetic existence I would never have had to resort to these more direct methods.” With his other hand he removes a large kukri knife from his belt. “Alas it was not to be. Fortunately I have no problem getting my hands dirty from time to time. Death to the infidel.”
My squirming hand grasps the relic at the exact moment Tahir plunges the knife into Troy’s throat. My vision goes red with rage.
The power fills me instantaneously, somehow even greater than before, a star gone supernova appearing in the space where my heart should be. An explosion, as closely related to the earlier bomb blast as a hurricane to a raindrop, obliterates the chair I’m strapped to, the room, and everyone in it. They have no time to cry out, no time to even realize what is happening. The purifying fire is indiscriminate and complete in its destruction.
I collapse to the ground, the ruins of my command post around me. The roof is mostly gone along with the walls. The still falling rain washes over me and begins to put out the smoldering wreckage. Blessed blackness calls and my mind, exhausted from a night of terror and sorrow, gladly answers. I fall into unconsciousness, uncaring if I will ever wake up.