This is a first draft of a story originally planned for the book, HEADCASE. As a first draft this is essentially a stream of conciousness outpouring of ideas onto paper. The ideas and characters are unrefined and the grammar and spelling may not be up to par. I'm posting it here because it may be a long while before I get around to expanding on this and writing it up properly but there's been some call to read it.
I hope you enjoy.
The shrill and sickly cawing of the bird echoed around the looming walls of the keep and the soldiers within its insidious grasp stalled and began to watch the strained performance of their avian entertainer. The crow was skeletal and had began to shed feathers, yet the men cheered it on and set down the heavy, wooden crates they had been shifting in order to watch in comfort. They shielded their eyes from the afternoon sun, smoked and began to sing songs of encouragement as their new friend was battered to and fro by the gentle, unfelt winds. The bird, even in its terrible condition, was proof that a world still existed beyond the walls of the keep. Since being deployed here the men had seen hide nor hair or any other animal be it bird, rat or insect. Nothing it seemed, wanted to inhabit that long forgotten, desolate keep. It was a sentiment the soldiers shared. So as the bird disappeared over the tall, ashen walls the men cried out for it to carry their love to their fräuleins, their children and their families. Their watch here was almost over, so too was the war.
Werner held his rifle to his shoulder and tracked the crow in his cross-sights as it bobbed and dipped. It appeared to him to be a little drunk and he smiled at the notion. He calculated the bullet drop off, the wind speed and the next predicted movement of the ever shrinking target. It was an easy shot and no mistake. He'd hit much smaller and under terrible duress too. If there was one thing he could be proud of, it was his commendations and skill with a rifle. He dropped the gun to his side and placed a cigarette between his lips with a heavy sigh. The only thing he had ever been good at and here he was, in the middle of nowhere on what amounted to glorified guard duty. Not that he particularly relished combat, nor the taking of life. He was ambivalent towards both. However the war was still on and even in these, the final days of conflict, there must have been a better use of his skills. Surely? Perhaps it was just rotten luck that had led him to such a fate. He scanned the walls of the inner courtyard which were decorated with large red banners emblazoned with the Swastika. It was their first task when they had arrived. There was something to be said about spectacle, when it came to his fellow Deutschländers, he had to admit. The keep had been mockingly referred to as 'the onion' by some of the men due to the fact it consisted of three layers concentric. The enormous courtyard they inhabited, then a second and third layer spreading outwards with progressively taller and thicker walls. That's where he should have been, Werner thought. On the outer walls where he could survey the dead forest beyond and keep an eye out for invaders, like his ancient forefathers had done with their bows and arrows. Though to be fair, maybe the Panzers' stationed at the outer gates was more than enough to drive off any modern invaders.
Below, in the ever darkening pit of the keep Major Otto stepped out from one of the many doorways that lined the walls of the structure. He was an enormous, rousing, globe of a man whose booming voice commanded the men to double their efforts with unpacking the materials required. He appeared as a hug infant at times with his wispy hair and cleanly shaven, chubby face bulging from the tight collar of his shirt. The Major demanded the men double their pace and Werner smiled to himself. Maybe his luck wasn't so rotten after all, Werner thought. No back breaking labour for him. His brothers in arms fed enormous cables down the gratings that lined the floor of the keep and into the catacombs below where they had stored countless generators. They worked tirelessly in constructing a platform in the centre of the courtyard, affixing a myriad of peculiar parts to it. Copper wiring was wrapped around the seemingly vestigial pipes that adorned the platform and they all led to two large, intersecting hoops that stood vertical, crossing at their apexes.
As the work came to an end the gates leading to the second, middle section of the keep groaned as they opened and when the gap was large enough a jeep rolled in. Major Otto approached with long, meaningful strides. Werner didn't know his name, but the Captain of the SS. Kommando's stepped out and brushed down his impeccable leather coat. Werner found it hard to look away. If there was ever a poster boy for the Fatherland it was that man. Strong jaw, sharp cheeks, radiant blue eyes and perfectly kept blonde hair. The Major and Captain began to converse and as Werner watched on, the Kommando glanced up at him and their eyes locked. The Captain nodded officially and a knot formed in Werner's stomach. He had to wrench himself away and perform an equipment check. He'd done one just a few hours ago, but he had to do something to keep himself focused. A triple check, Werner thought to himself. He checked his ammunition and supplies once, twice...
The creak of the ladder and a chirpy voice from below distracted him, “Smoke?” It asked.
Ludwig's cheery face appeared at the lip of the wooden floor to his platform.
Werner let a thin smile appear on his lips, “I could have a smoke, sure.” He replied, subtly stashing his own cigarettes into his pocket.
Ludwig removed his helmet revealing his parted, waxed hair. He also sported a thin moustache, also waxed. Ludwig distributed the smokes and lit them, “Today's the day, you know?”
“Today is the day.” Werner replied without much passion as they leant against the guard rail and observed the final sweep below.
“I notice a distinct lack of excitement in your voice, friend.” Ludwig noted, not looking up.
“Well, what's the point?” Werner sighed, dropping his guard.
“The point? Are you kidding me? This could be the tipping point of the war. After tonight we could push the Communists back, force the Americans and English into retreat and who knows what else? And the best part, friend? The best part is we can say we were here. We were here when the Reich changed the world forever!”
“You're crazy if you think anyone will give a damn about us just because we saw a trigger being pulled,” Werner retorted, “Nobody cares about the man who simply saw a magic trick being done.”
“You're such a sourpuss, my friend. Imagine the celebrations when we get back to Berlin. Imagine the women, huh?”
Ludwig nudged Werner in the ribs with a laugh and began to mock dance by himself. An indomitable spirit, that one, Werner thought to himself.
“And a magic trick?” Ludwig continued, “Whatever does that mean?”
“Well what does this ridiculous contraption actually do?”
“Well...” Ludwig stumbled, his face sinking slightly as the wind was taken from his sails, “I've only heard rumours. It's a weapon... Maybe. It can kill a thousand men in seconds. It can turn our soldiers into Gods. Warp the minds of our enemies. That sort of thing.”
“I like you, Ludwig but you read too many books, I think.” Werner chuckled, shaking his head.
“Look, Herr Doctor is adamant that he's cracked the code to this. You spend too much time up here on your own. I've only spoken to the man a few times but he's a genius.”
“What doctor?” Werner pried.
Ludwig pointed with his cigarette to the dwarf who emerged from his quarters. Werner had seen him scurrying about since they arrived. He'd fiddle with the wires and pipes but Werner had presumed he was some sort of hired help, not a doctor of any kind. Though he barely reached a grown man's thigh and his body was twisted requiring a cane to keep him upright he did dress like a doctor. A twee jacket, smart shirt and bow tie and come to think of it, he carried himself with more confidence than even Major Otto.
“So he's the doctor, huh?” Werner asked, knowing the answer.
“Finest in Germany,” Ludwig replied, chin rising, proudly “Not just a doctor either. Oh no. Scientist, geneticist, alchemist. He does it all.”
“Mein Gott.” Werner said with a nod.
They watched on as the doctor picked his way past the soldiers as they finished removing the boxes from the courtyard. He approached the Major and the SS Captain who were saluting as they finished their conversation. Upon seeing the small doctor the Kommando spat atop the dwarfs head, a fat wad a phlegm exploding atop his neatly parted hair. The doctor flew into a furious, unheard tirade but the jackal in black leather simply laughed as he got into his jeep and took off.
“Is he Juden?” Werner asked, “Herr Doctor?”
“He's as German as the Fuhrer himself.” Was Ludwig's reply.
“So why the abuse?”
Ludwig shrugged, “In the eyes of the SS a sick dog should be put down... German or not.”
As the blazing afternoon sky was extinguished by the heavy blanket of nightfall the powerful generators were turned on and high beam lamps slowly took on life and began to illuminate the walls of the keep. Set at the base of the structure and aimed up at the banners (such spectacle!) they caused they walls and red drapes to glow, blotting out the stars above with their light pollution. In his perch, Werner watched on as the men lined up as Major Otto marched before them, praising what they were about to accomplish here in the name of the Fatherland and the Fuhrer. Werner sparked a cigarette and chuckled to himself, seeing how visibly agitated Ludwig was as he clearly craving a smoke himself. Otto's face turned red as he continued his seemingly unending praise and beyond the wall behind him Werner could hear the SS squad doing their patrol of the middle section of the keep. They sang their own songs of glory and mayhem. The doctor stood within the invisible sphere created by the crossing bands of copper that were set into the bizarre contraption he'd invented and nodded and muttered to himself. It was nearly time then, Werner thought. Time for his magic trick. A lot of lights and sound and then they could forget this charade and go home. Though where that was he had no idea. Soon the English and American's would rout them and even if they weren't all killed what kind of life would there be for the likes of him. Though if the doctor did produce some kind of miracle here and the Nazi's attained global dominance... What then? What kind of life would there be for the likes of him under those circumstances also? He went to check his supplies to keep his mind busy on things other than idle speculation when the doctor called out to Major Otto and caught Werner's attention. The goliath that was the Major hadn't heard him and was too caught up in his own fervour to look down so in response the doctor rapped the Major's shins with his cane. There was a brief moment of unbridled fury on the big man's face until he realised what had happened and then the thunderstorm behind his eyes gave way to serenity and a smile. Werner didn't hear what the doctor said, but the Major laughed richly, his gut shaking, straining his belt.
“By all means!” Major Otto laughed, “Continue, my good man. Continue!”
The doctor nodded courteously and turned to the machine, hobbling as fast as he could towards the control panel that sat snugly between the ramp that led up to the platform. He pulled a lever, spun a dial and the machine powered up, filling the courtyard with a resonant humming.
“OBSERVE, MEN!” Major Otto roared above the whining current coursing through the maze of coils and wires, “OBSERVE DEUTSCHLAND'S FINEST ACHIEVEMENT!”
Werner stubbed out his smoke and watched on as sure enough the loud noises were accompanied by a light show. Blinding arcs of electricity began to snake up the copper rings, causing them to glow brightly. Once the current reached the apex of the circular cage bolts of lightning began to shoot from points on the rings circumference straight across its diameter to the opposite side, though each time it did the energy transferred would leave a small spark in the middle of the brass sphere, suspended in mid air. More bolts began to leap across the empty space and every time they would deposit a little more energy at its centre. Then, like any good magician, the doctor distracted them by turning the machine off. The noise, the lights snaking through the wires and plates, they all stopped instantly, leaving only that small pinprick of energy still hanging between the copper rings. Werner was impressed, slightly. He wasn't sure what this was all in aid of, but he couldn't figure out how this illusion was being performed. Then the orb began to expand. The pinprick of light appeared to be like a circle growing in size. The edges still that brilliant, white energy but within it? Werner saw a beach. The thing, whatever it was? It was a window and it revealed a tropical paradise. Pure sand led out to the gentle, lapping waves of an incandescently blue sea. The 'window' had stopped at the brass rings, clearly there to contain the orb. Werner's freshly lit cigarette fell from his drying lips as any thoughts of this being an illusion were wiped from his mind. The window was a door as the opening let through clean, Caribbean winds and the heat they carried. The smell of the Ocean, alien to most of the men, pricked at their nostrils and clearly sand and leaves were being blown out (or was it in?) to the courtyard. Above the sound of waves and above the deafening din of birds of paradise cawing they heard a louder sound still. The jubilant, shrieking laughter of the exuberant doctor.
The opening didn't last lone. A minute at most before it dissipated with a peculiar hasping noise. Awestruck didn't even come close to what the men were feeling and with trembling fingers Werner tried to light a fresh cigarette as down on the floor Major Otto plucked up a pinch of sand, rubbed it between his fingers before applauding, the rest of the men following suit.
“Herr Doctor!” Otto cried above the clapping, taking the doctor's tiny hand in his own overgrown mitt and giving it a gentle shake, “Care to try and explain to us simpletons how this wonder works?”
Between heaving shakes brought on by the adrenaline flooding his body and his rampant giggling the doctor began to speak, his voice a high pitched chatter but the Major held up a hand to stop him,
“Don't just tell me,” The pleasant giant said with a smile, “Tell the men! Tell us all! Speak loud and from the diaphragm. This is your finest hour, nobody would argue that.”
“Well, ah..” The doctor coughed and tugged at his jacket, trying to compose himself, “Well, see, the device here uses copper to separate certain molecules with a power source resonance at such a frequency that to...”
He stopped as the men stared at him stupefied. He coughed once more, he wasn't a fool, nor was he callous. He'd practised how to convey his workings in layman's terms without sounding condescending,
“The devices causes time and space to slip. Essentially swapping the space within the containment rings with a similar sized portion of space at the intended destination. What was here is now there and what was there is now here, see?” The men looked on, though more shocked than dumbstruck now. The doctor continued excitedly, “Imagine the possibilities! Now that we know this works we can build bigger, more powerful slips. We could send a fleet of Panzerkampfwagen through a slip directly to the doorstep of Buckingham Palace. We could swarm Red Square from the inside out! We could create a slip above the Whitehouse and raze it within the blink of an eye.”
The Major and the men continued to watch on. The small doctor was on a roll now, chattering away, his mind spewing forth ideas as quickly as he could produce them,
“It's not just for the war either, gentlemen. Travel is an obvious application of this technology, but resources, gentlemen! Precious metals immediately deposited into silos or smelting plants. No more mining accidents. We could drain oil reserves as if we were overturning a bucket! The world, gentlemen, the universe is our oyster.”
The excited dwarf turned to the Major, “Herr Major? Do I have permission to open another slip? Perhaps someone would like to cross through this time?”
The men, whilst impressed, certainly, looked at each other nervously. This was all too sudden to be making rash decisions such as traversing time and space. Major Otto looked at them and shook his head, “Look at these cowards, Herr Doctor. I shall go myself, if your so-called slip can accommodate my large frame? I long to see Berlin again, doctor. If that's possible?”
The doctor didn't answer but instead quickly made his way to the control panel and began to once again power up his machine, twisting different knobs and levers this time. Calibrating the destination as only he knew how. The lights and sound started up and the process continued as normal. The small ball of energy settled within the copper restraining hoops and the machine powered down. The slip, however didn't open as fast as it had last time and the doctor looked worried. A sound began to creep through from the other side of the slip. It began as a low, creaking that began to rattle horribly. It was loud enough to shake the men physically, as if someone were running a gigantic nail up an equally large string of a double bass. As nausea swept across the platoon the doctor began hammering frantically on his dials and levers. The sound brought with it power and it seemed the noise itself was powering the slip now as the bright doorway began to expand with each new pulsing tone that crept through into the courtyard. The light of the slip illuminated what was beyond. There was no paradise to be seen this time, what could be seen was a mossy, purple landscape threaded with black veiny flora. The slip reached the constraint rings of the device but to the horror of everyone in attendance whatever was powering the slip caused it to completely ignore the brass bands and the opening continued to grow. As it did the light on the outside of the portal grew brighter too revealing more of the alien landscape. An obelisk came into view, sunken down on one side, cracked and worn and adorned with runes the men couldn't read. Behind it rose a temple clearly not designed for the human body. The walls ran into each other at oblique angles, the three spires that rose from its hind were so large so as they couldn't be seen even by the ever expanding light of the slip which was gathering speed and momentum and as the earth began to shake beneath them another heavy pulse of sound came accompanied by an explosion, a flash and the slip consumed them all and then. Nothing.
Confused, panicked voices called out from the void, Werner's included. The pop of gunfire echoed out from beyond the keep and from his vantage point Werner could see the odd flash of muzzles bursting. From below a speck of light appeared, followed by another and another. The men were sparking matches and flicking open lighters to give them some sense of life in the abyss. Werner decided against it, lest he miss something in the distance. Screams rang out from the distance. Not all of them human. Suddenly the sky was ablaze with the streaking blues and reds of of phosphorous tracer rounds as the heavy cannons of the tanks stationed outside the front gates burst into life. The thunderous roar of the guns accompanied the light show and it appeared at first that the gunners were firing wildly, but the screeching that came between bursts of gunfire would say otherwise. For the briefest of moments the keep was illuminated as the tanks fired their main guns and a plume of flame rose and quickly dissipated. Seconds later the men in the courtyard were dusted with raining debris and cries went out as some were pelted by rock and stone. The halogen lights weakly began to glow as someone, somewhere managed to turn on the emergency generators. The men below were scattered, some injured from the explosion but nothing serious. Major Otto was the only one who didn't appear jarred by what had happened and he immediately set eyes upon Werner, “What does surveillance see?” He called.
Werner scanned the walls, the area where the front ate should have been was destroyed, bricks continued to topple and cascade.
“Tanks took down the front wall, Major.” Werner called back.
Werner continued to scan the walls as he heard the commotion from below. The radio crew were panicking. Unable to get a signal. Nothing at all, not even static despite the radio apparently being undamaged in the event. Major Otto was rallying the men, getting them back into line and Werner couldn't quite make out what he was seeing. The far wall was vanishing. The tall, grey stone had once met the blackness of the night with a hard, horizontal line. But now? Now it looked as though it was melting, almost. His heart began to pound as he brought his rifles scope up to his shoulder to get a better look. The blackness was in fact a mass of swarming bodies.
“MAJOR!” He yelled, “CONTACT! COMING OVER THE WALLS!”
The hulking officer didn't ask for an explanation. His trust in his men was absolute. He cried for the men to take up arms and brace. The swarm scaled the second wall and Werner got a good look at the living nightmares. Their bulky bodies were covered in strands of leathery tendrils that reminded him of a peculiar hairstyle he'd seen once. Slender, yet lean and powerful looking arms jutted out of the bobbing 'hair' each limb ending in long, hooked claws. If the monsters weren't peculiar enough there were no two exactly alike, especially when it came to their heads. The one closest to him, the one he had his sights trained on, wore three skulls betwixt its two forearms. One was reptilian looking, one avian and the other completely unknown to him. The others by its side had apparently random skulls too, human counted amongst the ranks. Some had a single head, the maximum he saw at a glance was four. Breaking protocol, Werner let lose a shot from his rifle, the bullet striking the beast square in its middle head, sending fragments of bone and black blood flying backwards, showing the monsters behind it. The nightmares began to squeal and howl over their lost kin. Werner had second before they breached the final wall and were upon the courtyard. He checked his ammo one, twice... Then the monsters were upon them.
The beasts appeared on the lip of the wall and began to hoot and holler as the soldiers below panicked and opened fire. Their sub machine-guns sprayed bullets, dousing the horrors, punching through their thick hide and causing them to lose their grip on the walls and to rain down onto the hard stone floor with sickening, thudding noises. Major Otto ushered the small doctor into the corner and stood between him and the oncoming horde, pulling out his broom-handled Mauser and taking clean, precise shots. High above in his tower Werner's mind numbed and he found the kind of peace he could only find in the heart of battle. His movements were fluid and fast. He found targets, fired and chambered another round quicker than most men could raise an automatic rifle. Each snap of the gun's kick was accompanied by a killing shot, an orange sized chunk of black gore bursting from the flanks of the beasts. Before the war he'd been lost, confused and without direction. Then when the Nazi's came into power they had given him a meaning, something to occupy his mind and body. He was a born sniper, it seemed. Unfortunately the same couldn't be said for the rest of his platoon. The men held down their triggers until the drum magazines of their Thompson machine-guns ran dry. The bullet spray was wild and unpredictable and whilst their barrage tore muscle from bone and shattered many of the advancing demon's skulls, the wounded amongst the damned weren't hindered by pain and fear like humans were and pushed on with their attack. Long, hooked claws raked at tender human flesh spraying blood and tearing tissue with ease. One of the beast's claws raked across an unprepared soldiers' face. The obsidian hooks sliced through skin and muscle, cracking the bone beneath, but there was no blood, not at first. Seconds after the skin had been cruelly slit, bulbous wells of crimson fluid sprang forth from the horrific wounds, the poor boy's face was still frozen in a shocked, unprepared grimace as he fell silently as the monster set about pecking at the flesh on his body. Another thing has slashed open a soldier's gullet, spilling his hot innards out onto the ground. The soldier continued to fire his gun as the monsters, his face frozen in shock, even as they plucked up his intestines in their bony maws and skittered away with them, unfurling the man from the inside out. Multitudes of the beasts leapt atop men as they scrambled to fit another magazine or clip into their guns and tore into them with their skeletal fangs. Soon the floor was slick with the coagulating blood of man and beast alike and still they came, pushing the Nazi forces back. They came scurrying over piles of their dying, oozing brethren and as the soldiers continued to unload magazine after magazine, clip after clip into the monstrous horde the piles continued to grow. In his tower Werner was scanning the field of battle and saw a man he knew as Josef pinned down by two of the beasts who were clawing at his belly as a dog would a mound of dirt. He was wailing in agony as his mulched and shredded innards were strewn about behind the monsters. Werner had Josef's head in his sights, determined to end his comrade's suffering when a sudden waft of intense heat threw him off balance. A huge, billowing fireball consumed the courtyard before him and with it came the gagging stench of burnt hair and blood. Below, laden with the cruel flammenwerfer, strode Karl. The nozzle of the weapon ejected another plume of hot death and the creatures it consumed wailed inhumanly as their flesh began to bubble and pop, brining with it the most foul odour the men had ever had the misfortune of experiencing. Karl had to look of a demon about him, his hair shaved on either side making, his hair standing tall and wild. His eyes were sunken in as he furrowed his brow, pouring on more fuel to the already blazing battlefield. The tide had finally turned. Maybe not for the great war. But for the men, here and now. On their own horrific front line. Here, they were gazing at the face of victory.
The rattle of gunfire faded as the remaining soldiers finished off the last of the wailing beasts and was replaced by the death rattles of the dying. The doctor had come out of his hiding place and was trying desperately to staunch the flow of blood from one of the unlucky victims of the attack but the demon's didn't strike to wound and the man's eyes glazed over as he breathed his last. The men stood in silent contemplation for a moment, serenaded by the crackling of dying fires.
“You did your best, Herr Doctor...” Major Otto said, placing a large hand onto the dwarf's shoulder. His voice tinged with genuine sorrow over the loss of life.
Werner descended his tower and Ludwig nodded to him, “You got a smoke?”
The sniper hesitated for a moment before his friend pulled out his own pack, desperate for a fix and offered one. Werner took it gladly. Only a handful of men had survived: Franz, a small neurotic man whose face had yet to sprout a single hair. The Bauman cousins, Gustav and Ernst who looked more like twins with their neatly trimmed moustaches and of course, the Flammenwerfer himself, Karl. Karl, living up to his fiery weapon's namesake exploded, shrugging the heavy gear from his back and marching towards the doctor, fists balled.
“WHAT DID YOU DO?” He snarled, his dark lips pulling back over his teeth, “YOU AND THAT GOD FORSAKEN MACHINE! WHAT DID YOU DO!”
“You will know your place, soldier!” Otto said sternly, stepping between Karl and the doctor.
“We just lost EVERYONE because of that man!” Venom was dripping from every word.
“I know what we lost. They were MY men and their deaths are on my head, but truly...” The Major stumbled as he tried to wrap his mind around the situation, “For Gott's sake, do you truly believe Doctor Tobias is at fault for this? THIS?”
“Of course he's to blame!”
“It was a terrible accident, not question, however...” The Major tried to say,
“Sabotage! A spy! Who knows? But these men are dead and it's HIS fault.” Karl interrupted,
“Who knows? Exactly! Who knows?” Major Otto shouted back. “Now if this behaviour continues I'll have you flogged you insubordinate little wretch. I'll have you flogged until the lash reaches your heart!”
“We're all as good as dead anyway, your threats hold no weight with me.”
The argument continued as The Major continued to pull rank. To their side Franz approached the doctor, head down, a sheepish look on his face.
“Herr Doctor?” He asked quietly, “Did you open a door to Mars?”
The arguing stopped as the remaining soldiers slowly turned and tilted their heads. They'd never heard anything quite so daft.
“Like H.G. Wells,” Franz added, turning to the doctor to plead his case, “Like War of the Worlds, Herr Doctor. Have you read it?”
Karl snatched a helmet from the ground and threw it at the boy, snapping, “Shut up, idiot.”
The young Franz hid his head and avoided the projectile and went silent again.
“What do we do now, Herr Major?” Werner asked.
“With communications disabled we should hunker down for the night,” Otto said, looking up to the featureless sky, “Come morning we'll make definitive plans.”
However many thousands of years ago when the keep was first built it could have been entirely possible to fit a town's worth of people within its walls. There were store rooms, cells and even rudimentary toilet facilities dotted within the inner sanctum's walls and a well trained phalanx of guards could hold of an army with enough provisions. It was one of these storerooms where the soldiers held up. Major Otto had declared that rationing was no longer an issue due to the horrific loss of life they had suffered and to keep morale up the men could help themselves to whatever they could find. They ate their fill of beans and potted meat and divided the cigarettes amongst themselves. By the dim, yet comforting light of the oil lanterns the Bauman cousins played cards and Franz wrote in a small notepad with the frenzy of a poet trying to catch the last ebbs of a fading dream. As the Major and the doctor spoke quietly away from the men Ludwig sat himself besides a typically quiet Werner and offered him a cigarette.
“How are you holding up?” He asked.
The sniper shrugged. He wasn't sure, truth be told. There was a numbness to him. If he didn't know better he'd say it was shock, though he'd seen men who had become ghosts of themselves after battles. This wasn't shock.
“Quite the story though, right?” Ludwig continued, “Imagine what they'll say when we get back home. We'll have to drag one of those things back with us as proof or they'd never believe us.”
Werner had to smile, “Ever the optimist, huh?”
“The horrors of war are something I came to terms with years ago, my friend. The trick is to know that they're only fleeting. Whether we live or die, at some point all of this will be behind us.”
“I think you may be sick in the head, friend.” Werner ribbed,
“I may well be,” Ludwig laughed before turning to Franz and raising his voice slightly, “Here's an example. Our comrade here is clearly in love. Am I right, Franz?”
“I'm sorry?” The kid replied, biting his tongue.
“Your letter. It's for a sweetheart. You have-”
A low rumble cut him off. The mean stiffened and reached for their weapons as the lanterns began to rock gently and ancient mortar began to crumble from between the ancient stones in the ceiling.
“What is that? More of those things?” Ernst asked with a whisper,
“It would have to be a lot more. A thousand or so.” Gustav added,
“Earthquake. It would barely register on the Richter Scale.” Doctor Tobias said, matter of factly.
It did little to ease the fears of the men, however.
“What were you saying, Ludwig?” Franz asked softly, “About how this will all be behind us?”
“Who are you writing to?” Ludwig asked,
“Her name's Elisabeth.” The kid answered, face reddening.
“Beautiful name. Just think though, one day this will be all behind you and your mind will be solely on your Elisabeth and...”
“Scheisse!” Karl hissed, “One of these days our minds will be so haunted by what has happened here today that we'll probably turn our guns on ourselves before the week is out.”
The flammenwerfer sat with his knees clutched to his chest, eyes fixated on the unassuming doctor.
“Do you have a picture of her?” Ludwig quickly interjected, lest Karl's poison set in.
Franz dipped his fingers into his breast pocket and passed over a snapshot, blushing even further. The woman in the snapshot was angelic.
“Mein Gott, what a beauty!” Ludwig gasped, showing the picture to Werner and the cousins.
“Then what's she doing with that idiot?” Karl spat.
“We have twin sisters waiting for us.” Ernst said, enthusiastically,
“Not our sisters, obviously.” Gustav added and laughed, “How about you, Ludwig?”
“Well, I have the reputation as the ladies man back home,” Ludwig replied with a smile, “But there's one girl... Ilsa. She might... I don't know.”
He sighed and his smiled faltered slighter before he added, “How about you, Werner?”
“I have no one.” The sniper replied quickly.
It wasn't exactly true. He had feelings for the most wonderful person any human could hope to meet, yet those feelings would never be reciprocated. He hoped they were safe and well back in the Fatherland, though he also hoped they would never be reunited. The heartbreak would kill him.
Ludwig nodded and dropped his lips, knowing not to press to matter and then the subject came around to Karl. An unease fell across the men as they silently hoped Ludwig wouldn't confront the surly, skittish soldier, but he did and with a smile, to boot, “And you, Karl?”
“And me what?” Was the response,
“Do you have anyone special waiting for you?” Pried Ludwig,
“Why do you care?”
“Just trying to help us all see the light in this moment of darkness.”
“Well if I did have someone I wouldn't show them to you. Parade them around like some kind of trophy that I'd won at a county fair.” Karl's voice was spiteful, yet tiring.
“If not a picture then a name?” Ludwig goaded,
“No.” Was the curt response.
Ludwig raised his arms in false surrender and got a small laugh from the men. Karl turned and scanned their faces, locking eyes with Werner for a brief few seconds. Werner had to wonder about that, as the Flammenwerfer went back to glaring at the doctor.
“You'll see your sweetheart Elisabeth again soon enough.” Ludwig said to Franz as another tremor rocked the keep. It was an empty promise, perhaps. Though a little hope was better than none at all.
The night passed without much incident. A few light tremors and the occasional, distant pop of gunfire cause the platoon to stir, though Major Otto would remind them that there was Little they could do in their current state to help and that rest and self preservation was their primary course of action. Upon waking Werner began to resupply his gear and was on the second pass of his checks when angered whispers from the main door distracted him.
“What's the commotion?” He asked, approaching the still-lit courtyard,
“It's the lunatic doctor!” Gustav whispered, poking his head back into the store room, “He's destroyed the sun!”
Werner left his gear and stepped out into where the rest of the men had gathered and saw Gustav was telling the truth. It was Oh-Nine hundred hours and the sky was still an empty void. There was no sigh of daybreak, no wind, no sign of life at all. Around him the argument continued to rage,
“You cannot keep coddling him!” Karl was hissing.
The doctor stared up at the man, chest puffed out. He certainly didn't appear to have been coddled, yet Otto spoke on his behalf,
“Fighting and bitter squabbling will do us no good! You are to stand down and we are to work together to survive, that is our priority. Above all else. Do you understand?”
The flammenwerfer's lips were pulled into a tight scowl. The Major was right, though it did little to quell his fury. Gustav wasn't entirely satisfied with the outcome of the argument though and stepped forward, “What has happened, then?” He asked.
“Herr Doctor believes...” Otto began before Gustav cut him off,
“We want to hear the doctor tell us. In his own words, have him admit his own guilt.”
“There's no guilt to be found here, soldier.” The doctor snapped, staring up at the man and catching his eye. Gustav didn't have the mettle to maintain his gaze and looked to the sky. Doctor Tobias turned his eyes to the other men, who also turned away. All bar Karl.
“I believe the slip is still open,” The doctor continued, “I can only hypothesise here, but some external source of power must have overloaded my machine, pushing the slip beyond the limitations of the binding rings and it is now keeping it open...”
“Hypothesise means you don't really know, doesn't it, doctor?” Karl asked, lips curled,
“You all felt the surge when the slip opened,” The doctor replied, “You all saw it growing and encompass us. The slip is still open, men... And we are still within its realm of influence.”
“So what do we do?” Ludwig asked,
“We leave this fort and head straight in one direction. It matters not, which direction. Just so long as we head straight. Then, once we pass the slip's sphere of influence we shall cross back over into our own world.”
“And those creatures?” Werner asked,
“I don't know.” Was the doctor's honest reply, “Depending on the size of the slip there could be more of them, whatever they are. We should tread lightly.”
“SO!” Major Otto snapped, loudly, “It's settled then. We escape the keep, head north and then home to Berlin.”
“I'm from Munich, sir.” Franz said, meekly.
“Shut up, idiot!” Karl snapped,barging his way towards the large gates. Gustav and Ernst followed, intentionally trying to bump into doctor Tobias as they went. His eyes, boring into their backs, Major Otto watched his men and felt his fingers tighten around the handle of his gun. Though in the end, they were his men. God damn them, they were his men.
They stepped out into the middle ring of the keep, five of them having to put their backs into opening those grand, wooden gates. Major Otto decided they should take the circular path round to the right, stating it was a short as it was long and if they missed any survivors then on his head be it. They felt vulnerable and confined, walking along that seemingly unending valley. Perhaps that was exactly the gut reaction those who built the place were looking for. When they'd entered here it was by jeep and personnel carrier, so they hadn't truly noticed how large the keep had been. The curvature of their path was such that there would be no surprises waiting for them and sure enough, three of the bizarre, skull-headed abominations came into view. They were feasting on what little remained of an unfortunate patrol. Blood and shreds of cloth and leather spread out before them. The beasts raked their faces and teeth across the stone ground, grinding their skeletal maws into the runny gruel, unable to lap at the cooled gore due to their lack of tongues. The men halted and watched, fascinated by the disgusting display.
“What are they doing?” Ludwig hissed,
“Feeding.” Ernst replied,
“Or trying to.” Gustav, his cousin, added.
“We have no idea of these creatures habits or rituals, or even if they have the capacity for such things.” Doctor Tobias began, “Are they feeding now? Or are they running on some primordial instinct? Can they even smell the blood there? Do they hunt? Do they...”
“Of course they hunt, you imbecile.” Snapped Karl, interrupting the doctor's ramblings, “We were butchered by a pack of them no less than twelve hours ago!”
“How did they know we were there?” The doctor mused to himself. He wasn't trying to open a debate, but his mind was racing now and he had to get his thoughts out of his head, “Could they smell us? Doubtful. Wherever we are, there hasn't been a lick of wind. Hear us? Feel our vibrations? With the tanks going off and all the other fighting? Again, it's doubtful. These things are truly beyond my knowledge. I must admit I am quite stumped.”
“Well that helps.” Karl rolled his eyes.
“Enough!” Major Otto said, sternly, “Here is the plan of action: Werner, Gustav and Ludwig. I need you three front and centre. If these things can hear then we'll need to hit and run. Pick a target, put them down and then we retreat into there.”
He gestured with the barrel of his Mauser towards an old wooden door set into an alcove to their left.
“We take refuge in there until we determine the coast is clear, understood?”
The men nodded and took their places as the rest of the soldiers stood besides the doorway. Taking to one knee, Werner raised his rifle, a re-purposed Mosin-Nagant to his shoulder. Much like Werner, Gustav had a bolt-action Gewehr rifle and the odd one out was Ludwig who had an English Thompson.
“I'll take the left.” Werner whispered,
“Middle.” Gustav added.
Ludwig kept silent and awaited the order, which fell to Werner as the primary sharpshooter. If felt like an eternity, but Werner was waiting for the creatures to spread out a bit more so they all had clear shots.
“On three,” The sniper hushed, exhaling the breath from his lungs, “One, two...”
The keep echoed the clear cracks of two rounds being shot and they were matched by two of the creatures exploding, leathery chunks and black blood showering the wall and floor besides them as they let out silent screams. Though it was also joined by the thunderous rattling of the machine-gun as it sprayed its payload across the pathway, bullets tearing up the stone and beast alike. Dust and blood billowed into the air, but the gun was inaccurate over such a distance and the beast began to howl and hoot as it bounded towards the men, leaving a trail of ichor from the gaping hole in its side. The sole, skeletal head that looked somewhat like a pelican, continued to howl as Ludwig tried desperately to reload. Werner, however, had already measured the distance, speed and predicted movement of the thing and placed his next shot right between the hollow eyes of the nightmare, shattering its skull and putting an end to its unholy half-life. The soldiers piled into the dark side-room, leaving them in pitch darkness.
With the darkness came heavy, panicked breathing,
“Those shots were too close to the door!” Franz whispered, voice twisted by fear,
“We still don't know if they can even hear.” The doctor replied, calmy.
“Too close to the door! They were too close!”
“They're dead now. It's ok. It's ok.” Cooed Ludwig, attempting to calm the man.
A low hum sounded with a click and Major Otto shook his angle-headed torch as it powered into light. As the men's eyes adjusted the Major glanced about the room s he spoke,
“It's too bright out there for them to see our torches in here. We will give it five minutes and if nothing comes sniffing then we'll assume nothing heard us, eh?”
The men nodded and lay down their arms and gathered themselves, turning on their own torches and lanterns.
“What was this place?” Gustav asked, scanning his light across the various crates and piles of long petrified timber.
“And old store room, I guess.” His cousin, Ernst, replied, “I think there's a leak here though.”
A thick, clear puddle had pooled on the floor towards the back of the room. Ernst approached it as another thick droplet dripped from an unseen source above. The smell hit him too late to be a warning as he raised his light, revealing a raw looking reddish/black pod that emerged from the the floor where it had burst through. It towered over him at nine feet and it was crowned with a skull, much like the beasts outside only this one was vaguely human shaped and missing its jaw. Ernst's voice let out a shrill squeak as his body froze. The thing leant forward slightly, the hollow eyes of the skull appearing to study him for a split-second before the meat beneath the broken teeth of the skull began to salivate and split open. Like a fleshy Venus fly trap the fat lips of the abomination opened vertically down its body revealing the bright, glistening red innards. Mounds of squirming, moist flesh secreted more of that foul smelling liquid before it fell forward, enveloping Ernst, the strong muscles of the outer lips pulling him into its mass, quickly silencing his screams.
“BAYONETS!” Cried Major Otto. “FOR GOTT'S SAKE DON'T SHOOT THE MAN!”
The soldiers had only witnessed the last moment of the madness that had befallen Ernst and ran in to attack, drawing their slender blades and jabbing and slashing at the nightmare's soft flesh. Otto himself strode forward and with the butt of his pistol shattered the vacant skull. It had little effect though and neither did the blades of the men. Each deep wound the men inflicted was met with the release of stinking, dark ichor that oozed lazily but the beat was reluctant to give up its prey. Desperate and panicked beyond all rational thinking, Gustav dropped his knife and in a last ditch attempt to rescue his cousin he plunged his hands into one of the bigger lacerations. His plan was to manually pull apart the creature but almost as soon as his hands arms disappeared into the hide of the beast he began to scream and pulled out his hands which were already red and bubbling with sickly yellow blisters. Otto grasped the poor man and held him tightly as Doctor Tobias came to his aid. Gustav's plan, no matter how poorly thought out, appeared to have knocked something loose within the horric creature as it began to shudder and deflate and the rest of the men carefully peeled back the the muscular maw of the things but to their horror (if not their surprise) it was too late. The putrefied remains of Ernst sluiced out of the thing's stomach, breaking apart as it did so. His flesh had turned grey and had the consistency of rotten fruit. Each sharp movement or impact caused chunks of half-digested muscle to fall away from the bone.
“Mein Gott. Mein Gott. Mein Gott...” Franz began to chant over and over. His eyes were blank and lost.
“May he have mercy on our souls.” Ludwig added, crossing himself.
Meanwhile Gustav was slumped against an old box, apparently in shock. Doctor Tobias was cutting his sleeves away and preparing to deal with the arduous task of dealing with the horrific scalding.
“No need, Herr Doctor.” Gustav slurred, “I barely feel a thing.”
“The nerve endings must have...” The Doctor's voice trailed off, “You feel nothing? No pain, no numbness?”
“No Doctor.” His patient replied,
“Good. That's good. That means everything is going to be alright, now do me a favour, yes? Keep your eyes firmly on Herr Major, yes?”
Otto knew instinctively what the doctor was doing as portions of Gustav's fingers were beginning to leak and melt as the corrosive juices he'd exposed them to did their work. Their gambit was for naught, however as Otto offered the man a smoke he replied that he had his own and tried to pull a packed of cigarettes from his pocket, catching an eyeful of his half-destroyed hand, a fat slurry of liquefied flesh being flung across the room. He began to howl, eyes fixed on the terrible wound.
“I'm so sorry, Gustav.” Major Otto said, swiftly drawing his gun.
To the relief of the soldiers the Major simply coshed the man, rendering him unconscious.
“Good lord!” The doctor cried out, “You'll have concussed him.”
“I'll not leave any man behind,” The Major replied, fixing his belt, “But we'd have never been able to escort him in the state he was in.”
Werner had stepped away once the body of Ernst had been recovered and he was checking the door. The path of the keep remained desolate. He turned to the others, “We should press on.”
So they did. Werner and Ludwig held the decaying arms of Gustav around their shoulder and Major Otto, with consent, carried doctor Tobias atop one of his broad shoulders. They moved double tie around the middle ring of the keep. They passed the scant remains of the dead soldiers devoured by the leathery beasts they shot. They also passed by more of the worm-things Ernst had fallen victim to. They hung, fixed and fat, to the walls of the keep. They appeared like colossal slugs, who had bored their way through rock and stone using their powerful corrosive saliva to do so. The men gave them a wide berth. The creature's skulls panned and followed them as they passed despite there being nothing behind their hollow eye sockets. They finally came across the great doors that led to the outer rim and thankfully, they were open as they stood twice as large (and twice as heavy) as the doors from the courtyard. On their far side there stood a stable, or sorts. The ancient wood had fought hard against decay but the roof had collapsed in several sections. Still, the men sough refuge within. Hidden from any horrors the slip may throw at them next. The men piled their backs into a corner and helped prop Gustav up so the doctor could check his wounds. Doctor Tobias' delicate little fingers peeled back the moist, sticky sleeves of his uniform and thick, sickly globules of melted flesh hung limply for the poor man's forearms. The skin was pink and mottled with specks of red blood. Franz looked on, he was more a boy than man and it had never been more obvious. Across from them Werner stood with his back against the outer wall. He accepted a cigarette from Ludwig who lit their smokes as he began,
“I feel a fool.” His voice was low, sombre.
“How so?” The sniper asked.
“When we spoke in the store room. The bravado. The hope. It seems so stupid now. I mean look at the man's arms. Look at his poor cousin...”
“We've seen worse.” Werner said, “We've done worse.”
He was still feeling the serenity throughout all this. It felt like maybe this was his final war.
“This whole thing is just so wrong,” Ludwig sighed as he continued, “he English, the Russians... We know how to fight them. We know how to fight men. Ghouls and goblins, though?”
He may have been calm where others were losing their heads, but Werner hadn't shed the last of his humanity. Not yet. And it tore him up a little seeing a friend like Ludwig acting so out of sorts. He smiled and lay a hang upon his comrade's shoulder,
“I thought I was the cynical one?”
“Maybe you're rubbing off on me.” Ludwig replied.
Werner removed his hand sharply. Ludwig didn't seem to notice.
“We know their tricks now,” Werner said, changing the topic quickly, “We'll be back home in no time. You know this script better than I do, you should be reciting it to me.”
“You're a strange one. You know that, Werner?”
He knew. But at least Ludwig was smiling again. A genuine smile too, he could tell.
“Have a word with Franz, would you?” Werner asked.
Franz had a shell-shocked expression on his face and clearly needed a warm word and he wasn't likely to get it from Karl who sat alone, atop his flammenwerfer gear and Otto and the Doctor were busy tending to Gustav.
“I'll see what I can do.” Ludwig said with another smile.
An hour passed and the doctor had finished binding and cleaning Gustav's wounds. Ludwig had been cheering Franz up with promises of seeing his beloved again and Karl and Werner had resigned themselves to keeping watch. They didn't all hear it at first because it came as a soft sound, like a warm summer breeze. The tone was light and airy and it wasn't clear until they all concentrated, but it was singing. A woman singing. The voice grew in volume and scale and the sound was immense, though the lyrics they heard were nonsensical gibberish.
“What in Gott's name is it?” Ludwig asked,
“Stick your head out and look.” Karl said, sternly.
The sound was coming from above them. They focused in on it more definitively the closer it got.
“It's Elisabeth.” Franz laughed,
“Shut up, Idiot.” Karl snapped, looking for something to throw at the kid.
“It's not Elisabeth, my friend.” Ludwig said, his voice strong and secure,
“No, it is! It is!” Franz laughed again and leapt up and tried to run out into the open, out from the cover of the stable roof. Karl and Ludwig tackled the kid as Major Otto barked an order to stay indoors until whatever it was had passed. Franz was relentless though and wormed his way out from the grip of his comrades and Otto had drawn his gun, ready to render the kid unconscious too when Franz bolted for the doorway. The men held themselves at the precipice of the stable as the kid looked around frantically trying to see where his 'Elisabeth' was and when he caught sight of the singer he began to scream and run, full belt down the outer ring of the keep. The remaining men glanced up to see what had produced such a drastic reaction and if they were as emotionally fragile as Franz was then perhaps they would have bolted too. Coasting along, far above the walls of the keep there appeared to be an immense, segmented flatworm. It danced and swung itself around, apparently hearing the screams from below. It was gigantic, the size of an autobahn for sure. The creature's skin was rocky and flaked with hard angled crystals, it seemed. Along its edges ran leathery sails with which it turned and on its underbelly hung fat, orange sacks which slipped away from time to time, causing a rain of eggs, the men presumed. They saw too the popes that poked out of the front and end of the creature. Pipes that sang as it vented air what whatever lungs it had. The beautiful and human sounding lullaby they produces was simply a bizarre and grotesque coincidence. The worm, banking hard, went into a free dive towards the keep and towards the still running Franz. The singing took on a high pitched whistle and the wind it was dragging blew the men backwards as it passed over them, skimming the keep's walls. Franz could feel something at his back and was nearly deafened by the worm's song. His lungs were close to bursting when he saw the monster glide into view above him, the orange egg sacs filling the void where the slip was. He didn't turn and look back, which was probably for the best, as a polyp the size of a jeep slipped out from some unseen orifice at the back of the worm. Like a meat wrecking ball the fat, bulbous thing descended, attached the a thick strand of pink flesh. It almost filled the entirety of the pathway Franz ran down and the creature expertly kept the trailing polyp on target, changing its pitch and yaw ever so slightly. It had hunted like this many, many times before, the doctor surmised to himself. Gathering speed, the wrecking ball crashed into Franz, shattering almost every bone in his body and rupturing blood vessels up and down his back. His broken form was kept in place by the strong, adhesive mucous on the worm's extremity and in a dazed state he looked down at the world as it swam before him. He saw the keep as it got smaller and smaller until eventually it appeared as a single star in a night sky that was being reflected upon a still lake. The polyp and its meal were slowly retracted as the singing pipes went back to their haunting melody.
Werner turned away from the madness and lay his pack down and began to check his gear. He had to do something, anything, to put what he'd just witnessed behind him. Karl and the Major began to argue again, bickering about the same old arguments, the death of Franz hitting Karl harder than the Major had expected. Though it confirmed what Werner already suspected about the Flammenwerfer. He quickly checked his gear a second time. The arguing between the men reached a stalemate as the Major demanded they press on swiftly, lest the worm return and barked out for Werner and Ludwig to take up their duties as guardians of the still dazed Gustav.
“Watch the eggs.” Was all the doctor added to the conversation as the men began to make their way around the final and longest portion of the keep's track. The sacs, dropped by the worm, lay on the stone ground and rocked to and fro as things within them, things with too many limbs thrashed and tried to break free from their leathery prisons. The men gave them a wide birth as fine, white hairs danced from the puckered tips of the eggs. Once passed Karl aimed the hose of his weapon at the thing and a blossoming fireball engulfed the sac that hissed and spat as the flames licked over them, charring and popping them, releasing the most odious of odours. The Major stopped in his tracks and faced Karl down who was expecting a reprimand for opening fire without being given the order. Instead Major Otto reminded him to check his fuel levels, lest he get caught short. As the continued Karl lit up any other eggs he found as well as more of the large slug-things that clung to the walls. They were better suited to dark, horrid places where they could catch their prey unaware and posed little threat as they flopped over, waves of fuel stripping their fatty hides and making the scream like cooking sausages. It was especially disturbing as their charred, blackened skull faces continued to trace the men, even as their bodies withered and deflated.
As Gustav jostled between he arms of Werner and Ludwig the crippled man began to rouse, if only slightly. His voice was a low groan, interspersed with sobs.
“It will be alright,” Ludwig whispered to the man, unsure if he could even understand him, “We're nearly home free.”
Werner patted Gustav on the back, it was all he could muster.
“You'll want for nothing.” Major Otto added, “I'll see to that personally.”
“When we return we'll fix you right up.” Doctor Tobias chimed in.
Their words were rich and full of hope. But there was a definite sadness to the cadence with which they were spoken. They were hollow promises and the men knew it.
The bastions either side of the immense border gates were still standing, if barely. Massive chunks had been blown out of their sides, ripping the formidable doors from their ancient standings and scattering stone and wood across their path. The tumbledown wall was covered in the dried blood of the men who had fallen. The tank squad, the outer patrols, all dead and devoured to the last morsel. They scrambled over the wreckage and stared out into the dark beyond where the lights of the keep couldn't reach. The odd, raking branch of a tree emerged from the void like an inviting finger but besides that? There was nothing.
“How far do you think the slip has extended?” Ludwig asked,
“I have no idea.” The doctor replied, “The amount of energy required to produce a slip larger than, say, five miles is beyond anything I could imagine.”
“Five miles it is, then.” The Major stated, his voice re-affirmed and strong once more.
They stood between the two Panzerkampfwagens' and besides them stood the jeeps. The soldiers had no training when it came to the tanks and from the horrific scratch marks and stench of decay coming from inside the iron beasts it seemed there would be little protection from the horrors of the slip there anyway. Instead the men scavenged what they could find. That was one bonus about fighting an enemy who had no other intention other than cannibalism and murder; they never ransacked supplies. After laying Gustav down, Karl carefully replaced the fuel tanks of his flammenwerfer as Ludwig backed away to spark up a cigarette. Werner checked his ammo once, he checked it twice, he...
“A thorough success for your little creature, wouldn't you say, Major?”
The voice was measured and rythmic and belonged to the SS. Kommando Captain. He stepped out from behind one of the jeeps, slowly clapping his leather clad hands together in mock applause.
“It's good to see another survivor” Major Otto said, saluting, trying to be civil.
“Survivors.” The Kommando replied, his face widening into a dead, rictus grin, “Yes. Survivors. Quite.”
The jackal looked around from man to man before his steely, cold eyes landed on Werner's. The sniper's heart leapt to his throat as the SS. Captain continued,
“Survivors. Each and every one of you...” He glanced at the small doctor, then the barely concious Gustav, “... Held back by the weak and diseased.”
There was a pause and the atmosphere grew thick and nauseating. The men stood firm, because the Kommando was still a superior despite the madness surrounding them. Despite the madness that appeared in his eyes.
“SO!” The Captain shouted, causing the men to flinch, “What do you think of our little guests?”
The Kommando stepped behind the hood of the nearest jeep and the men instinctively flinched and raised their arms. The Kommando laughed in response, “Good reflexes, men.”
He laughed again as he began to strenuously drag something out from behind the car. It was one of the obsidian, clawed creatures. This one bore the skeletal head of a lizard. The Captain wrenched it out into the open by a spindly limb, that by all rights should have wrenched off due to the dead weight of the horror it was attached to.
“Yes, nice reflexes.” The Kommando repeated and in a flash there was a long, combat knife in his hand. The men hadn't seen him reach for it, “Not as good as mine, however.”
He kept his grin fixed and wagged the blade as he hooked the monster's arm under his own, exposing its belly that glistened like finely oiled leather.
“Now, I wonder if your little mongrel there told you about the truth behind this experiment, hmm?”
He pointed the knife at Doctor Tobias with his knife, never dropping his smile.
“I don't know what you mean, Officer.” The doctor replied,
“Oh come, come now. Your fat friend there and these drones may be dull enough to not know the importance, significance and history of this site, but I am no soldier. I am Waffen-SS and despite your lame body I know your brain isn't completely waterlogged so I think you know what I'm talking about.”
“I swear to you I do not.” The doctor said, his tone defiant.
“I believe you, my friend.” Major Otto said to the small doctor, “I trust you. Implicitly.”
“Well maybe that sick little body of your has poisoned your mind too.” The Kommando spat, his eyes became angry little slits and his smile began to spoil, “Gentlemen. We are in hell.”
He paused. For what, Werner thought. For applause? Gasps?
“Herr Hitler spoke to me in private,” The Officer continued, “It's no great secret that the Fuhrer has a great interest in the occult. Even long before rising to power he had dabbled with magiks and the like and even at one point we held the spear of destiny before... The incident. So he turned his attention to this place. To the power that coursed through the very stones here yet YOU! YOU, you wretched mongrel, you couldn't just open a doorway to hell. You had to bring hell to US!”
“That's ridiculous.” The doctor barked,
“Is that so?” The Kommando replied,
“Where are the lakes of fire? The brimstone? This isn't hell. I don't know where it is, but it isn't hell. I refuse to believe that.”
“I thought you wouldn't believe me.” The officer said, his smile returning, though tinged with a sad acceptance. He held the knife to the creature's belly and began to cut into it as he spoke, “The things we've done in the name of science. In the name of the Fatherland. In the name of life itself. You wouldn't believe the things I've seen. The things I've done and helped other to do. I've seen the inner workings of the scum and mongrels we've tried to purge and look...”
The blade had opened the beast completely and a slurry of bizarre organs sluiced out onto the cobbled floor. Thick, black blood held within it tightly coiled tubing and mess that would have looked more at home in a clock than something organic. It was also full of chunklettes of human meat. The men saw fingers in there, fabric from a uniform and half a boot. The things were definitely not eating for sustinence.
“Do you see?” The Kommando asked, his gloves covered in gore, “Do you see? This is what they look like on the inside too. These little friends of ours are the souls of those we've killed come to torment us for what we've done and your little bastard, Herr Major... Your little bastard is to blame. If you don't believe me then cut him open too. Compare his insides to these.”
The soldiers were right all along. The man had gone insane. The doctor had worked on every race, colour and creed in his time and humans were human. The soldiers had seen enough misery and death on the battlefield. They knew these creatures were as far removed from them as they were from fish.
“All our planning. All our work. All ruined because of this so-called doctor.”
The Kommando dropped the knife and before it hit the ground he had drawn his old, antique revolver and fired off a round. Doctor Tobias was struck in the upper nose and as the large calibre slug punched through the bone and cartilage his fantastic mind was mangled, tore asunder and strewn across the cold, uncaring ground behind him. Without a seconds hesitation Major Otto howled and saw red and charged, full speed at the SS. Kommando, arms spread and blood on his breath. The SS Officer casually unloaded the remaining five slugs into the bulky frame of the Major, hitting him square centre. The bullets impacting in his gut and chest but there was no stopping the rampaging hulk who shrugged off the wounds. The huge form of the Major fell atop the Kommando who tried fruitlessly to fight back. The Major forced his fat thumbs into the eyes of the SS jackal and began to bash the officer's head into the cobbled ground. The Kommando's eyes gave way to the pressure and popped silently, the Major's thumbs disappearing up to the knuckle into the red, jellied mess, still forcing the silently screaming head up and down, smacking it into the floor.
Exhausted and losing energy and blood in equal measure; the Major flopped off the Kommando. The SS Officer finally made a noise, a peculiar, high pitched whining as he squirmed, covered in his own blood and excrement. The soldiers approached Major Otto who was looking over at the body of the doctor as he blindly fished into his breast pocket, succumbing to his wounds and dying without a word before he could complete the action. Werner leaned in and closed the Major's eyes and Karl retrieved the valued prize from the pocket. It was a faded picture and on the back it read, 'Otto and Hans Bauchber: Identical Twins'. It was clear now why the Major had a fondness for the doctor. The picture showed Otto, aged ten and already a stout and strong figure. Besides him sat his brother who shared his face and name only. The brother, Hans, was deformed and disfigured. His body was hunched and his limbs were gnarled. Karl placed the picture beneath Major Otto's hand and they made their peace.
The moment was interrupted by a horrific, gurgling scream. The three remaining soldiers turned to see several f the demons had come across them and were sinking their claws into the Kommando's guts and slowly ripping him apart, biting chunks of hot, fresh meat from his abdomen, flinging their heads back to swallow the food. They hadn't seen Gustav yet, but there was no chance of rescuing the poor man now, he was exposed and in open space.
“Get to the jeep!” Werner said, drawing his pistol.
He fired a round, hitting Gustav clean in the chest, killing him.
“NO DAMN KEYS!” Karl swore loudly, smacking the vehicle.
“Maybe the Officer has them?” Ludwig asked, but it was too late.
An insurmountable amount of hooting and whooping noises came from the darkness to the left of the keep as more of the demonic scavengers appeared. What drew them and drove them was of little importance now, they cackled as they set about devouring the dead meat of their only recently fallen comrades.
“Karl. Grenades.” Werner said, “Then we run straight for the treeline.”
Subtlety wasn't going to save them now, they knew and Karl unhooked two of his stick-handled grenades, primed them and tossed them at the growing pack of monsters. The trio felt the blast more than they heard it as a fine rain of black blood and giblets pelted them as they charged into the darkness, fumbling with their torches, Karl shooting off quick bursts from his flammenwerfer to light their way lest they head straight into the maw of some colossus.
“They're on us!” Ludwig cried, cursing himself for glancing behind him. The keep was a beacon. He could see that now from within the darkness. They'd only been running for a short while but already it was the only light in a vast and desolate sea of nothing.
“FINE! Let them come!” Karl shouted, spinning on his heels.
With a long, expulsion of fuel he arced a wall of flame behind the fleeing men, driving the screaming beasts back, if only for a moment.
“GO!” The flammenwerfer shouted.
In the blazing orange light of the fire that raged besides them, Karl leant out and gripped Werner by the shoulder,
“This fuel tank is very volatile.” Karl said, his voice calm and collect.
Werner nodded, knowing exactly what was being asked of him.
Ludwig and Werner charged on into the shadows, following the worn, faded cobblestone path as closely as possible. Their way was lit by the incredible forest fire that had erupted from the dry, timber encircling Karl and only when that light began to fade did Werner stop and take to one knee.
“What are you doing? Let's just go!” Ludwig pleaded, but Werner ignored him.
Through his scope, Werner could see the monsters whose instinct to rip and tear had overcame their instinct for survival. Long, charred arms slashed out through the flames at Karl who tumbled to the ground. Werner took aim. No wind resistance, minimal bullet drop off... The squeezing of the trigger was accompanied by a thunderous explosion as Karl's fuel tank erupted. A plume of fire rose into the dead sky and billowed out and the eternal night was briefly turned to day.
Their walk went without incident. After such an earth shattering explosion they surmised the beasts were drawn there and away from them and after such a riotous nightmare it was almost heaven to be walking through a silent, dead forest. They were far from alone though. They would shine their torches up into the trees and see gelatinous creatures, living jelly, clambering and swinging from dead branch to dead branch. They were the first signs of life they had encountered that wasn't openly hostile and out for their blood. Their path led them to an AA anti-air encampment which they had passed on their drive in.
“How far out would you say this is?” Ludwig asked,
“About four miles.” Werner replied.
Their torches revealed the camp had been abandoned and there was no sign of a struggle. They checked the small, portable cabin for signs of life and found none, then they checked the radio which was dead and then Ludwig noticed half of the AA cannon was missing.
“What on earth?” He whispered as they went to circle the mighty gun.
It was as if a master welder had gone at it with precision tools. The long, barrel should have reached out to at least nine feet. Instead it came short at three. The approached it warily, lest it was the by-product of some unknown beast but the true horror was made apparent. Below where the cannon was cut short there lay a perfectly straight line in the ground where the hard, brown soil of earth met the moss, purple ground they had seen when the slip had first opened. They traced the line in both directions and it was perfectly straight and unwavering.
“The slip...” Ludwig said, he voice defeated.
“The slip.” Werner repeated.
“It wasn't open. It never was. Despite what the doctor had thought, the portal hadn't just opened into another reality. It had switched all the matter within it. Somewhere in Europe there was a perfectly round section of hellscape where they had once stood.
“What do we do now?” Ludwig asked, his lip trembling.
“What else can we do?” Werner replied.
Ludwig sat down and reached for a cigarette and found he had none.
“Got a smoke?” He asked,
“Here.” Werner offered him a whole pack. Guilt for never sharing overcoming him.
“I only need one.”
Werner understood, much like when Karl had told him of the flammenwerfer's explosive quality. He understood what Ludwig was saying.
“What will you do?” Ludwig asked, a trembling hand keeping the smoke in his mouth.
“I don't know.” Werner said,
“You wouldn't consider...”
“No.” Werner said, he couldn't do that. Not in a million years, “Are you sure you...”
Werner's voice trailed off as Ludwig looked up at him, “There's no going home, Werner. There was always a goal to reach for, something to strive for but there's only one ending to this journey now and I don't want to take it any longer.”
Werner nodded. Once his smoke was done Ludwig put out his hand and they shook, then embraced tightly. Without a word Ludwig turned off his torch, passed it over and walked back down the path into the darkness. Minutes later there was a crack of gunfire and that was that.
Werner scavenged what he could, including a flare gun which he fired into the air. The intense, red light exposed the alien landscape that stretched out before him. A few hundred meters out stood a twisted cathedral. Beyond that there was a small hill dotted with obelisks and bulbous flora. He took to one knee and checked his gear. He checked it once. Twice. Three times. Then he set out into the alien wasteland.