I wrote this awhile ago but dusted it off and ran through it a couple times because I thought it was a great plot.
"Felix, Felix, wake up!"
Cracking one eye reluctantly, Felix groaned and fixed his tormentor with a half a glare, hoping it was a bad dream or an easily-dismissed momentary flash of consciousness that interrupted his slumber.
"Felix! Command has summoned you! Up!" the voice barked insistently, and the back-lit form of Hauptmann Pringe swam into view.
Reluctantly forcing his other eye open and then just as recalcitrantly peeling back his blanket, Felix rose. Scratching and stretching and going through the same boring ritual as every day for the past month, he quickly donned his trousers, blouse, cartridge-belt, and boots, then took down his helmet from where it capped the bunk bedpost and his rifle from the pegs protruding from the dugout wall.
Hauptmann Pringe waited impatiently by the door, and set out smartly as soon as Felix was in a state fit for travel. Hurrying after while trying to fasten his chinstrap, Felix once again felt a strange sense of unreality as he traveled along the secondary trench line, hobnailed boots clattering on the mud-covered duckboards and the distant sounds of rifle fire wafting over the trench.
After nearly twenty minutes of navigating the maze of second and third-line trenches, they came to a sheltered area behind a rise in the ground and were able to finally climb onto the surface, the unfamiliarity of open space eliciting a momentary surge of agoraphobia as a mud-spattered truck whirred to life.
"This the one?" The driver barked, leaning out of the open window and gesturing at Felix in a prefunctory manner. Pringe nodded and slapped Felix on the back, apparently a sufficient dismissal for the gruff squad leader, as he turned away wordlessly and began to trudge back down the ramp into the trench.
Slightly disconcerted by his dismissal, Felix paused momentarily, only to have the driver slap the tin door of the truck and rev the engine. "Come on now, Command is waiting for you!" The supply sargeant barked, his porcine face made all the uglier by the impatience plainly written on it.
Obediently, Felix climbed aboard the truckbed, set his rifle between his knees, and despite the rough plank bench and rutted road the truck immediately started down, was asleep again almost immediately.
* * *
The command field-camp where the truck deposited him was awe inspiring. Field telephone banks, telegraph and wireless stations, couriers racing to and fro, and maps of the French countryside covered with push-pins and brightly colored markers being shuffled back and forth seemingly at the whim of the communications operators. Officers abounded, and Felix became acutely aware of his disheveled and muddy appearance, but for lack of any alternative, quickly put the thought out of his mind, especially as a loud buzzing filled the air.
"Reconnaisance flier incoming!" someone shouted, and a messenger and several enlistedmen sprinted from tents just as a brightly painted red-and-white Fokker shot overhead, one wingtip tattered with machinegun fire but the black Iron Cross still shining proudly on the fuselage.
"Soldat Hirschaeger?" A voice interrupted, and Felix looked down in surprise to see a Oberfeldwebel in a clean uniform eyeing him. Felix jumped at the sudden scrutiny and saluted by reflex.
"You look like your uncle. Come with me." The officer nodded, then lead the way to the largest of the command tents with no further explanation, his sword wagging like an off-centered tail as he walked.
Falling in obediently, Felix tried not to run into passersby or his guide as he unashamedly gawked at the hive of activity all around him, even catching a glimpse of the scarved and leather-jacketed pilot of the reconnaisance aeroplane ducking into a tent.
"In here please, Soldat." The Oberfreldwebel dictated politely as they reached the main tent. He nodded curtly in recognition to the sentry posted at the entrance, pulled back the door-flap, and motioned for Felix to follow him inside.
Inside, the tent was surprisingly airy and well-lit, lanterns amplifying the light filtering in through the open window-flaps and skylights of thinner material embedded in the roof. It was also surprisingly liveable, with a large campaign desk, several folding chairs, and a folding cot supplemented by a common camp stove and a few other accessories.
However, the furnishings were secondary to the inhabitants, and Felix snapped to attention faster and sharper than he could recall having done since General Von Mudra had inspected his company before the War.
Hoping the stiffness of his posture and insignificance of his rank would allow his transgression to be overlooked, he utterly failed to maintain eyes-front and instead dizzily tried not to stare as his glances washed over a four dozen high ranking officers and several attaches.
"Herr Hirschjaeger?" A booming voice inquired, and if it was possible, Felix straightened even stiffer, saluting sharply in response.
Striding purposefully out of the cluster of officers, a middle-aged man with short-cropped hair and an upturned moustache returned his salute, then peered at him in bemusement. "At ease. You do look strikingly like your uncle, young man."
"Sir?" Felix squeaked, his at-ease hardly worthy of the name when confronted by General Von Falkenhayn himself.
"Your uncle, Otto Wessel, the one-armed hunting guide from Rottweil, yes?" The familiarity with which the General spoke of Uncle Otto making Felix even more alarmed, the juxtaposition of his informal and familiar relative into such serious context with such noble persons sending a crawling shiver down his spine.
"Yes sir!" Felix yelped, proferring his Soldbuch, hoping the next-of-kin section in his small and somewhat battered identification booklet would spare him any more disconcerting questions from the General.
Taking the papers, Von Falkenhayn flipped idly through the pages as he paced, reminding Felix uncomfortably of a circling shark while he read, mouth half-forming the words as his finger picked out various things in the little recordbook. Torn between curiosity and fear, Felix tried to guess at what the General was reading by trying vainly to make out the page numbers visible over the top edge of the book, all while also trying to remain at a semblance of attention despite the order to stand at ease.
Taking notice of his consternation, the general waved dismissively and handed back the pass. "No need for such, not now. Come with me, young man, we've some special work for you to do." The General almost unthinkingly clapped Felix on the shoulder, then gestured to the table where the other officers stood patiently.
Placing Felix in a space formed almost reflexively by the other officers along the edge, Von Falkenhayn stepped up beside him and stabbed his finger in a broad sweeping arc across the map.
"This is Verdun, and this is Douamont Fort. As you know, we captured the fort with less than fifty men, it was nearly unoccupied, and not defended at all. All along this front, along the Meuse plain, we've been encountering light French resistance. Too light. Far too light. The French are inept, they are inflexible, but they are neither cowards nor stupid, and the ground they are surrendering is both too valuable to be a trap and too easily taken. Something is wrong." The General looked solemly at Felix, "We have reason to believe there is a greater threat than our troops in this area, one that the French are unwilling to face."
"Englanders?" Felix asked in confusion, recalling the stories of the British Expeditionary troops he'd heard in the trenches, and how they had sat for months in flooded trenches to the north, waiting to bayonet-charge en-masse into the forward German trenches, heedless of their own safety and thirsty for blood.
"No. Something... else. We suspect a... contagion. A sickness is spreading like wildfire through the no-man's land. Those afflicted... change." Von Falkenhayn sighed and rubbed his temples, blinking at the apparent pain the admission caused him. "Surely, living so close to the Black Forest as a child, you have heard some... stories. I knew your uncle, and how he loved to tell them, but we live in an age of science and technological advancement, but none of these things can seem to explain what we are witness to now."
"Soldat Hirschaeger, when the Poilu that bayoneted your arm came over the top of your observation trench, you had to be aware he was not part of any concerted offensive. The French have had no capacity and less will to attack in this sector despite a doctrine that is hardly capable of anything else. As you saw, he was not a scout, and not a straggler, what could he be?" The General asked pointedly, scribing the enemy frontline on the map with his finger.
"A deserter?" Felix asked in surprise, rubbing at the spot on his bicep where he'd been stabbed in the incident. "The Frenchman who came after him must have been furious to chase him into our trenches, but why would he flee towar-"
"And now you see. The reports of influenza, we believe, are a falsehood, much the way the French constantly claim a victory whenever they assault one of our positions and we let them take the forward trenches in order to blunt their advance and flank them. We suspect something more sinister and more perilous is at hand, that not even the French soldiers opposing us are aware of."
An old man in a Medical Corps uniform bobbed his bald head in agreement and stepped forward, nervously clutching a notebook to his chest. He was small and dressed in a plain corpsmans uniform with no decoration to denote rank and no awards. Nonetheless, the assembled officers all seemed to react with trepidation and healthy respect to his arrival.
Von Falkenhayn gestured to the man and stepped back slightly to allow him a place at the table. Several of the other officers looked uncomfortable, and one even turned away with a hand to his eyes as the doctor placed the notebook on the table and unsnapped the catch on the cover.
"Doctor Schwabe, if you please?"
"Thank you, Herr General, I presume you primarily wish me to educate the young soldat here?" The doctor spoke impeccable German, but his accent placed him as unmistakably Swiss, and he spoke with a carefully moderated tone that gave his words a sense of complete, unflappable calm and deliberate purpose.
Felix found himself immediately liking him regardless of his rank or authority, and leaned in to ensure no detail of the presentation would be missed, even unbuckling and removing his helmet to ensure the brim would not slip forward and interfere with his ability to catch every word.
As he hung his helmet from his belt by a crudely fashioned wire hook he'd made for the purpose, he worked his jaw both in relief at no longer having the chin-strap taut against it, and to try to acclimate his ears to the lack of echo now that he was no longer enclosed by the sound-distorting shell.
"Young man, what I am about to disclose to you must remain in the strictest confidence, as I am sure the General has made plain to you. I must also caution that what I describe is largely conjecture supported by anecdotal evidence, and very few scientifically verified facts- many of which are largely supposition themselves, as the phenomena encountered quite surpass our abilities to understand fully."
The doctor paused and stared at Felix with a grave expression, "In short, we know the result, but not the why." Opening the folder, he passed photographs to Felix. "As you can see, these bodies were not just the product of bullets, shrapnel, and shellfire."
Even with months in the trenches, Felix was still nauseated by some of the shattered corpses, but instantly saw through the horror and looked up at the doctor in shock. "They didn't die by gas, grenade, or shells..." He pointed at the bodies, their blue uniforms shredded and blood stained, but savaged as if by an animal, not by flame or shrapnel. "It looks like they ran afoul of a bear, or a boar... But in a trench? Still, something slashed them to pieces, and it was no bayonet!"
"Look closer." Dr. Schwabe said solemnly, placing another picture atop the first.
"Jesu." Felix breathed, "They're chewed too."
"Indeed. And we believe, by something like this." The doctor added a third picture to the pile.
Felix and several of the officers jerked away reflexively once they realized what it showed. A bloodied French Poilu squatted, crouched over one of his fellows, a severed human arm held to its mouth like a drumstick, glaring at the camera as a German soldier in the foreground appeared ready to fire. In the background, a second Poilu was charging, face blank and arms outstretched despite a horrific head wound that had not only had punched a six-centimeter hole through the ribbed crest of his Adrian helmet, but also gouged deep into his brain- though to no apparent effect.
"These pictures were taken in the trenches at Damloup ten days ago. These creatures seem to be spreading like a plague from Haudiomont northwest, as though the French are seeding them to slow our advance."
The fourth picture showed what might've once been a Poilu, covered in mud and pinned to the ground by a Uhlan's lance, the features distorted and inhuman, clothes in tatters, and one arm outstretched towards the viewer in a clawing gesture. More horribly, the entire lower body was gone, a trail in the mud showing where it had crawled like an eel through the broken ground for yards, heedless of missing limbs and focused only on insatiable pursuit of prey.
"Another one our troops encountered near Eix following the bombardment of enemy lines and consolidation by the Pioneer and Stormtrooper battalions. It seems they do not suffer at all from pain, cold, heat, or loss of blood. Indeed, they seem not to bleed at all. Only damage that renders them immobile, removes their ability to sense prey, or destroys them completely seems to have any effect."
Swallowing hard and staring deep into the hate-filled black eyes of the last photograph, Felix gingerly pushed the glossy image away, half expecting the creature to snap at his fingers. "What are they?"
"The first theory," Dr. Schwabe lectured wryly, "was that these creatures were a result of some disease brought in via the Negro and Oriental colonial troops the French have been using so heavily to bolster their forces. However, neither our colonial governors prior to the war, nor General Von Lettow-Vorbeck presently, has reported any such diseases, and this quite frankly defies any scientific explanation a mere germ could provide." He nodded to Von Falkenhayn to say his piece.
Breathing deep and scratching his scalp symbolizing the clear difficulty he had phrasing the concept, the General grimmaced and began. "Untoten, we think- there are things out of stories wandering the battlefield, and creating stories of their own. With all the artillery and mines churning up the land, the best anyone guessed was something best left undisturbed from the Dark Ages had been brought to the surface." Von Falkenhayn spoke slowly, his careful diction lending weight and inevitability to what seemed a fantastical claim. "We believe, based on the same legends that are our only real source of knowledge regarding these creatures, that something like them but more powerful is creating them and setting them loose on the lines, like an anthill sending out workers. Our intelligence confirms this. The French are desperate to stop us from reaching Paris, and apparently that means even dealing with dark forces to slow our advance."
Abruptly his demeanor changed and he returned to a more comfortable world of facts and realities, brushing his hands on his pants and then tapping Felix's Soldbuch where he's tossed it on the table.
"Now, why all of this, and why you. You're a Bavarian, and if your father was like his brother... Knowing your uncle raised you, and where you grew up, we thought you would be a suitable recruit for a special detachment. But, if you wish to back out now and return to the line, that is certainly your perogative, the unit will not accept anyone who is not a volunteer, it cannot serve its' purpose without the members being there willingly, drawing the attentions of these creatures away from our forces before they can wreak even more havoc. Naturally, if you decline, your silence will be required. Repeating anything you have heard here will be a capital offense, but your decision now is and will be strictly between you and your conscience. "
"I'm to bait these creatures away from our lines?" Felix asked apprehensively, catching the gist and not liking where it lead.
The general barked a short, appreciative laugh, and even the Doctor smiled at the unintentionally humorous remark and nodded side to side slowly.
Taking the hint but unwilling to commit another error, Felix eyed the two with suspicion. "What, then?"
"Cross enemy lines with the other Nachtjaegers, hunt down the source of these creatures, and kill it."
* * *
The group seemed to be as odd a batch as Felix had ever seen. Only four of the ten men men closest to him seemed to be German soldiers, one other appeared to be Austrian, and two seemed to be civillians. Half were obviously over-age for frontline service, and one man was even missing half his arm from the elbow down.
Leading, or at least being deferred to by the groupmembers in view was a tall, nervous looking man with a drooping moustache and a suit of what appeared to be chain-mail and leather over his uniform tunic. Other troops wore segmented steel plate-armor or stiffened leather hauberks. Combined with the plethora of trench-clubs, boar-spears, and blades, Felix momentarily wondered if he'd been somehow transported into the middle ages, or if the vast devastation of the war had finally somehow reduced the combatants to such primitive means without first quenching their thirst for combat.
Their armaments, however, were the exact opposite of their attire. One man was tinkering with what appeared to be the protective drum for the ammunition belt of a MG-08/14, and had a second affixed to the back of his pack. Another had a pair of Mauser pistols, each in the protective case that could double as a shoulder-stock, on his left side, and a hook in place of his right hand. And the oldest member, a bearded man who appeared to be in his seventies, even carried an obsolete but indisputably potent Mauser 71/84, whose fifty-gram, forty-three-caliber bullets Felix knew from experience could stop even a charging bear with a clean hit. It reminded Felix more of a boar drive than a stormtrooper contingent, and considering their mission, he saw their reasons for both the firepower and the armor.
"So, who's the new bait?" One of the civillians inquired, sauntering over to make his measure as Felix and two other new arrivals uncertainly stood at attention a short distance from the group, waiting for somone to direct them. He was of medium height and thin, but moved confidently and looked at everything in a way that made him seem like he would be unusually perceptive. All this was offset, however, by the fact his Stahlhelm did not really fit him properly, and appeared perched on top of his head rather than curving down around it.
"Sir!" Felix barked reflexively, saluting. The two other newcomers to his right followed suit a split second later, only to get a vague wave to the brow in response as the man perused them.
"Well, I hope you are all quite aware of what you're getting yourselves into." He grimmaced, adjusting the small round spectacles he wore and peering at the three skepticaly. "You, boy, who are you, and why were you chosen?" He demanded, poking Felix in the chest.
"I killed a ghoul that had chased a frenchman into our trench, sir!" he responded, deciding that deeds would outweigh anything else he could say. "I'm Soldat Felix Hisrchaeger, Otto Wessel's nephew, a Rottweiler from the Black Forest."
"Huh. Try not to get dead, then. If your uncle taught you to fight the way he knew how to drink, you might amount to something if you survive." The man laughed, a slight accent marring his German as he perused the other two recruits and shifted the hunting rifle slung across his shoulder.
"You! New person, what is your name?" He demanded of the soldier to Felix's right, a thick-bodied and unsually swarthy soldier.
"Engin ibn-Avcilar!" The recruit barked, ducking his head in a very formal half-bow and then snapping ramrod stiff to attention. "I kill djini and wolves."
"A Turk?" The veteran exclaimed in surprise, looking the odd soldier over. "I guess now maybe I am not the strangest one here!" He exclaimed in satisfaction after a moment of deliberation, then nodded perfunctorily to the Turk and looked back across Felix to the other soldier. "You! Where are you from?"
The third soldier was thin and tall, dressed in stormtrooper battle-gear, and seemed fairly young for all the confidence in his bearing. "Corporal Pieter Unrein, a Magdenberger. I was part of Storm Battallion Rohr."
Felix shuddered. Stormtroopers had a special mystique already, but the original unit that pioneered their tactics had been been decimated from misuse early in the war, and anyone who survived that and was still rolling up trenches two years later deserved a healthy dose of respect.
The veteran cocked his head and nodded appreciatively. "Good. I think you new people may not die as fast as the last ones." He pronounced, then turned back to the group and waved to the man in the chainmail. "Otto! These newcomers might not die, come give your speech!"
Grimmacing as he turned, the man in the chainmail acknowledged the veteran with a wave and gestured him over. The two conversed for a moment just out of earshot, while some of the other specialists finished tinkering with their equipment and began to stand and check each other over. One by one they assembled opposite the three recruits, and Felix began to overload as he mentally catalogued their equipment.
The only time he'd seen such an assemblage was the fall boar hunt in Schiltach, after a sounder of boar had attacked an outlying village. With a half dozen cows and horses dead, and the crops of several farms ravaged, several hundred hunters had assembled from nearby towns that autumn day. Some had even come from as far away as Stuttgart to participate n the drive. He still remembered the climax of the hunt, where the mounted Jaegers drove the swine into an open field, and the frenzied excitement as dozens of hunters had poured bullets into the panicked animals until the entire pack had been eradicated.
In surprise, Felix realized the man called Otto had been one of those Stuttgarters, as the moustached leader pulled out a very distinctive combination-gun from a muttonleg case and snapped the halves together with practiced ease.
Resting the multi-barreled weapon on his shoulder casually, the chainmail-clad man strode through the clustered stormtroopers and circled the newcomers, taking their measure wordlessly, the thick four-barreled drilling on his shoulder ominous and huge.
"You newcomers, listen well, I give this speech to every one of you who joins us, and I give it more often than I like these days. Remember the fear you felt after every dreadful story you ever heard from your grandmother on a dark autumn night, every unnerving feeling you ever felt walking through the woods at dusk, and every time you ducked just before a shell came in. Keep that feeling at the forefront of your mind at every instant, because what we face now is even more horrible than No Man's Land. We're fighting monsters from legend, things from nightmare and myth, and we cannot afford to let our guard down for an instant. It isn't about simply being shot, gassed, or shelled. To fail would mean more than throwing the advance into chaos, and costing the lives of our fellow soldiers. It means watching your friends and comrades torn apart, eaten alive, or turned into more of these creatures. Don't for a moment think that "God Is With Us" on your belt-buckle means that the infection they spread is something that corrupts only Frenchmen. It can happen to you, and one of us will have to destroy you, as surely as we would a mad dog, if you are bitten."
Felix couldn't help but feel the hairs on the back of his neck rise; Oma had been quite the storyteller, to say nothing of the lore and legend Uncle Otto had always imparted in stories around the campfire after the krauterlikor had been passed a few times. He also remembered the horrific creature that had run itself up onto his bayonet in the observation trench, the gibbering Poilu it had chased into the German lines screaming in French and trying to flee while Marko struggled to pin him down, and the sickening thud as someone had decapitated the monstrous revenant with a quick shot to the head. Horizon Blue made it less terrible, not by much, but enough that you could just regard the monster as a new variety of Enemy. To see someone in Feldgrau, with the familiar stahlhelm on their head, take on the features of a monster would be very different indeed.
Taking the measure of their reactions, Otto screwed his mouth left, then right, waggling his long moustaches, then nodded curtly and turned to the veteran who'd first appraised the recruits. "Mordechai, I think they might survive too. But stop scaring them, they'll get plenty of that in the no-man's-land."
Saluting vaguely, he turned and strode away, the informal gathering of veterans dispersing too.
"Well, do you think we passed?" Unrein murmurred, nervous excitement coloring his voice. None of the three recruits had fully relaxed from parade rest, though Felix at least felt safe looking around discreetly, so long as he didn't gawk.
"I have no idea," Felix muttered back. "Otto there is a famous problem-animal hunter from Stuttgart, my uncle worked with him on occasion chasing down stock-killing wolves and crop-destroying boars."
"I think the skinny one dislikes us." Engin broke in, surprising both of the Germans both with his interruption and the absence of his thick accent. "I wonder what his problem is?"
"He's a jew." A voice answered wryly, and all three recruits jumped, stiffening to attention as they simultaneously cursed and prayed silently that their transgression would be overlooked.
"He's also a Pole, and is a civillian specially conscripted for this unit by the Crown. He was due to sail for the Orient and avoid this mess, but got drafted in to help before he could. Besides that, Byreika is more of a specialist than a mercenary, and prefers to work alone. If you want to talk about cause for chip on your shoulder, he certainly has reasons in plenty to resent being here." The voice lectured, a patient and moderate tone that seemed authoritarian, but without any pretenses of station or rank.
Circling around the trio on Felix's side, the voice gave way to a person as the lecture continued. "Before the War, there were always the occasional monster. Otto, there, is the great-grandson of Karl Max Gruder, the man who killed the Wolf of Ansbach." The man who now began to circle the group seemed innocuous enough, nondescript but muscular and clean cut, dressed in the normal Fieldgrau uniform of the Heer, though his helmet bore a carefully painted crucifix on the side above the chin-strap rivet. Felix noted uncomfortably to himself that it rather resembled a crosshair.
"Mordechai made it a living, a highly paid professional problem-solver who travelled the world dealing with things ordinary bullets have trouble killing. Johann, the old man with the Infanteriegewehr, is a legend from Berlin, who did what we're doing now back in seventy-one, making sure there weren't any unnatural pot-holes slowing up the regular army as we rolled into Paris. Everyone here over thirty, more or less, was a Hunter before the war. But, between the intensive fighting and the fact the damned French decided to throw away their allegiance to anything that's holy in exchange for time and German casualties, we've needed to draw reinforcement from the regular army. And we lose your kind at a frightful rate. Even with careful screening, we can't be sure who will actually be able to deal with the sorts of things you might see as a Nachtjaeger, and it's dangerous business even if you can keep your wits about you."
"So... I forget myself." The man smiled and produced a rosary from his blouse pocket and slipped it over his head, the beads clattering against his helmet. "I am Father Pieter, and I'm here as much because I know my way around guns as any religious reasons, but I am a Jesuit by training."
He grinned, then unbuckled his chin-strap and gestured to the trio. "Consider yourselves at ease. We don't stand for ceremony much here, half of us aren't even military."
Felix and Stormtrooper Pieter both let out a relieved breath, and Felix took the opportunity to scratch the maddening itch that'd been building inside his collar for the past ten minutes.
Father Pieter grinned at the motion. Felix noted that the Jesuit wore his priests' collar inside his uniform, and guiltily lowered his hand after only cursory contact.
The priest just smirked, then patted his side, where a substantial looking Pionners shortsword and a Luger pistol were strapped. "Faith works against the minions of Hell, but the Lord helps those who help themselves." He nodded in the direction where the others had gone.
"While the Reich ensures every trooper should be capably armed, I think we should see to making sure you boys are equipped with something more than what's the standard issue, don't you?"
* * *
It looked like a prison wagon from the outside, steel-shod and reinforced on every surface, with large studded wheels and a heavy suspenion that was bowed under an obvious load.
"This is where the fun things are..." The burly soldier who had been working on the Maxim drum earlier announced proudly, coming around the end of the wagon with a substantial ring of keys jangling from one massive hand.
Unlocking the door and pulling out the step, he ushered them inside to the creaking protests of the already belaboured wagon-springs.
It was no surprise that the wagon was full of guns. Felix rather expected, given the plethora of weapons the Nachtjaegers carried, that they likely had some sort of special monster-slaying tools. But the scope and density of the wagon still took him aback. Racked as tightly together as space would allow, the wagon was filled with firearms of every description. Felix had had a fascination with rifles since childhood, watching Niels, the gunsmith who lived near his uncle, working in his shop while his uncle visited about this order or that.
There were the basic tools of the trade arrayed neatly along one side of the wagon, with a workbench, anvil, and a small hooded brazier to the rear. The other side was a mixture of the fantastic and the mundane. Ammunition crates were stacked along the front from floor to ceiling, but not just the usual nondescript Patronenkaste tins and rough-cut plank boxes, but numerous small commercial crates, with the familiar names of Hirtenberger Patronenfabrik, ALFA, MEN, and Woodleigh mixed among unfamiliar names like Peters, Remington, Winchester, and even Fiocchi.
"Specialty weapons, not everything in this unit is eight millimeter." He was informed, and then pushed aside as the big soldier squeezed in the door and jingled his keyring again, opening up a cupboard that lined the wall to the right of the door.
As the doors swung wide, Felix couldn't help but grin, even as Stormtrooper Pieter crowded in behind him and Engin filled the doorway, at least having the decency not to try to press inside as well.
"Now, because we aren't all using rifles, or charger-loading weapons, you might need some special ammunition pouches. But keep your ordinary pouches, sixty rounds of 8mm is far less bulky than a bandoileer of shells, and you can still fight for quite some time with a dead man's rifle or at the very least give ammo to someone who does have a working weapon- like me and my Furenten. You do NOT want to run out of cartridges in this line of work." The big soldier explained, picking up an empty ammo can and holding out his hand. "Give me your regular ammunition, we use special cartridges here."
Taking the eighteen clips of spitzer cartridges Felix pulled from the triple-pouches at his belt, the soldier dumped them into the can unceremoniously and then handed back six small waxed-paper cartons to replace them, each neatly sealed but with a bright red pull-string around the top edge for easy access. The unfamiliar and slighty ludicrous name on the packet seemed to read "Potzblitz Und Kaputtmacher Patronenfabrik, Wiel" or something like it, but it was apparently what he was expected to use. Felix quickly stepped out of the way to give Stormtrooper Pieter a chance to exchange his ammunition, while he distributed the boxes into the cells of his pouches. Finished, after buttoning the lids of his cartridge belt back down, he patted them reflexively to feel their weight against his hips, and awaited further instruction while Stormtrooper Pieter and Engin stowed their own ammunition rations.
Interestingly, Stormtrooper Pieter also took a cloth bandoileer of the clipped silver cartridges and draped it over his neck, tying the loose tie-ends of the belt to the D-rings of the ammunition pouches at his belt. While having clips gouging your collar probably wasn't comfortable, Felix was impressed with the way the Stormtrooper had so nonchalantly doubled his ammunition capacity without hanging it from his belt in easily-snagged pouches or tying it as a difficult-to-support waistband.
Gesturing broadly in the close confines of the wagon, the big soldier supervising them grinned and gestured at the rifle racks lining the wall to either side of the door they'd entered by. "Pick what you like, but be sure you can use it when the time comes."
Stormtrooper Pieter looked at the wall blankly, to Felix's dismay, as he spotted three fine drillings and a Haenel Mannlicher amid the racks of military-issue rifles and carbines, a giddy chuckle rising in his throat. There were C96 carbines, Luger carbines, shotguns, rifles, grenade launchers, hunting rifles, pistols, and even a French Chauchat machine-rifle, all densely packed and lining the wall.
Disappointed that his enthusiasm was not shared, Felix began to browse, while the stormtrooper asked anxiously, "Can we just use our service carbine?", one hand reflexively going to the cartridge bandoileer draped across his neck and shoulders.
Reluctantly, Felix tore his gaze away from the rack of weapons for long enough to nod in encouragement to his comrade. "Best to stay with what you are familar." The armorer agreed, but Felix was lost in thought already, face pensive as he studied the contents of the wall rack. Then he grinned, and hefted a wicked looking short-barreled drilling from a niche. As he pulled it from the rack he double-checked the neat tag at the base reading "Stiegele Jagd, 16x16x8mmIS, Drei Fur Kugel."
Lovingly, he hefted the bulky weapon and pressed the release lever, breaking it open and grinning at the powerful automatic ejectors, then snapping it closed. It was a self-cocking hammerless, something he disliked but saw the wisdom of for battle, and the firing pin indicators projecting from the action were large and polished buttons, each inset with a large dot of white paint that Felix surmised was laced with Radium. It wasn't heavily engraved, just a few lines here and there as border-work, and the checkering was utilitarian, but it had the smoothness of a master gunsmith's work as his hands automatically found natural places to settle on the stock and fore-end.
Experimentally, he snapped it to his shoulder, and immediately burst into a wide and giddy grin. Despite the close quarters making it hard to properly traverse, the compact, fat, nose-heavy combination-gun swung like it was an extension of his body and felt like he was aiming the angry finger of God, ready to blot out whatever he indicated with it in a flash of thunder and a rain of fire.
As if that wasn't enough, the thumb of his left hand met a strange protrusion on the schnable of the stock that he instantly recognized.
"Surely you're joking?" He exclaimed in surprise, flipping the weapon muzzle-up and reaching to his belt reflexively, catching the birdshead pommel of his sidearm and drawing the heavy blade with practiced ease, the staghorn grips soft and textured in his hand. Reversing it by pinching hilt between thumb and forefinger and jerking his hand downward, he flipped the point up and slipped the bayonet onto the lug, where it smoothly clicked into place.
The heavy blade made the drilling more substantial, almost to the point of being uncomfortably heavy, but it also gave an almost axelike heft and swing to the weapon, and Felix whistled appreciatively as he checked how rigidly the bayonet was fixed. Unlike the slight wobble when slotted onto his rifle, the drilling held the bayonet firmly in place, yet when he pressed the stud and pulled, it released smoothly and pulled free without any special effort.
The big soldier grinned as Felix sheathed the blade, lowered the muzzle, and tucked the butt of the weapon against his ribs, muzzle down and with the action broken, draped over his forearm in a classic shotgunners' carry posture.
The armorer grinned at the reflex, then gestured at Pieter's bayonet. "We re-equip everyone here with a silver-edged bayonet and trench-knife, so trade them in next." He rummaged momentarily and proferred three razor-edged bayonets with beautiful damascene scaling to the steel and obviously well-honed edges, and traded Pieter's generic blade and Engin's steel-handled Ersatz for them. As Felix reluctantly pulled the bayonet his uncle had bought him as an enlistment present, the big armorer paused in surprise. "Unless I miss my guess, or someone else has miraculously surpassed him in quality of workmanship, your sidearm is a private-purchase blade from Eduard Katzbalger?"
Felix nodded uneasily, his expression clearly showing his need for an explanation.
"Eduard makes all of ours, mostly because he's always put a little silver into the steel as he folds it down, and in our line of work, once someone gains a reputation for making special products, he's fairly assured of our continued business. You're from near the Forest, so such things are in higher demand than elsewhere, no?"
Stormtrooper Pieter and Engin, not having the luxury of a generous uncle to provide them with silver-edge bayonets, both were marvelling at their new blades, Pieter rolling the blade to catch the sunlight streaming in through a window, while Engin swuing his in a short chop experimentally.
Felix refrained from comment. Considering going hand-to-hand was dreaded enough when it was live Poilus in the trenches, undead Poilus only reinforced his prejudice, and there was no sense speaking ill when both seemed relieved to have weapons that would supposedly be more effective.
Meanwhile, the big armorer passed Felix an X-shaped harness of shotgun shells. Each individual space in the bandoileers was a closed-ended pouch rather than a simple loop, and along the inside ege of the belts, an oversized flap extended to the far edge and could be snapped into place. Admiringly, Felix noted that the belts were not laden with just shotgun shells, instead following the old hunters tradition of shell-cartridge-shell-shell-cartridge-shell that would allow for quick three-round reloads if he successfully plucked them out and loaded them into the chambers without fumbling. He also stuffed two boxes of shells into his breadbag for peace of mind, bringing him up to about a hundred-twenty shells total, plus rifle rounds.
Then, in a surprising break of the rustle and muted clinking of equipment being fitted, Engin abandoned his usual reserved silence and stepped to the fore.
"What is thissss..." He breathed, taking down the French Chauchat automatic rifle from the rack and hefting it with surprising ease, doubly so considering the strange ergonomics of the ugly weapon. He beamed and absently rubbed a fleck of rust from the sheetmetal frame with his blouse sleeve.
"Chau-chau" the big armorer explained, indicating a satchel of magazine pouches behind where it had hung. "French automatic rifle. Half the weight of an oh-eight-fourteen, but not as reliable- they overheat and jam up if you fire continuously for more than a few magazines. Terrific weapon, nothing else like it on earth, but I have to wonder who designed the magazines, they've got open sides like a judenflinte clip, but because they stick out the bottom of the rifle, they absorb dirt like a sponge."
Pulling one of the half-circle magazines out of the pouch, the armorer beamed and pointed at the side of the magazine, obscured by waxed paper. "That is, unless you seal them over like this with parchment and glue. Then it doesn't jam up unless it overheats."
The swarthy soldier delightedly accepted the magazine and rocked it into place beneath the machine-rifle, accepting the pair of magazine satchels the armorer passed over, and buckling them fast around his waist, the flaming bomb insignia stamped on the French magazine harness buckle seeming very strange as a replacment for Engin's Gott Mit Uns belt-buckle.
"Now then, let's go to the firing range and get you some practical experience with your new equipment, yes?" The hulking armorer grinned, reaching under his helmet to insert a pair of wax plugs into his ears.
* * *
"This was Karl." Otto explained patiently, indicating the wretched figure shackled to a post, thrashing and incoherently snarling despite the bloody tatters of his body. "He was a deserter from our unit who joined the enemy in more way than one, though he didn't turn immediately when he turned- he tried to defect, was bitten, and made it back to our lines in time for us to chain him down. Poor bastard."
On the post, Karl screeched an inhuman wail of rage and hunger, and jerked against his chains.
"Shouldn't he be put before a firing squad?" Stormtrooper Pieter asked nervously, the keening wretch on the post clearly disconcerting him.
Otto laughed, a short, humorless bark. "You mean execute him?" Drawing his Luger, he quickly fired three shots into the snapping wretch, hitting him in the upper chest to no real effect.
Berserk with rage, Karl screamed all the louder, an unearthly keening mixed with gurgling and a hoarse bellow, the chains clattering as he lunged against his restraints.
"Shoot him in the head and he'll die, otherwise, they just keep coming. Blow off a leg, blow off an arm, break their spine, nothing will stop them for sure. Even the flamethrowers just seems to make them angry until it burns deeply enough to crisp their innards." Otto holstered his Luger and looked at the three recruits with grave seriousness. "Aim for the head, try to slow them down with limb-damage if you can't kill them outright, and don't get sloppy and allow yourself to be separated from your squad. One bullet is rarely enough."
"So are we to shoot him?" Engin asked uncertainly, shifting the massive weight of his Chauchat rifle from one shoulder to the other uncertainly.
"Of course not!" Otto barked, "We need him to scare new recruits. Shoot the targets downrange if you need to, most of our fighting is at close distances, but it never hurts to be in practice, especially with new equipment." He gestured at some empty crates set up in front of small berms of dirt, hand-painted signs beside them reading 50M, 150M, and 250M.
"Yessir!" Engin barked, saluting reflexively and nearly losing his grip on the massive French machine-rifle.
Fitting wax plugs into his ears, Felix re-buckled his helmet and then loaded the drilling, taking careful aim on a dirt-clod on the middle berm. Inhaling gently, he filled his lungs and pushed the selector switch forward, steadied himself, and tripped the front trigger.
The drilling bucked, the roar muted by the earplugs despite the echo-chamber effect of his stahlhelm, and the dirt-clod obligingly erupted in a geyser of dust and gravel.
"Oi, to the left!" someone shouted, and out of the corner of his eye Felix saw a dented and battered French helmet sail through the air from that direction. Reflexively he brought the Drilling up, swinging through the trajectory of the flying casque and loosing a barrage of buckshot where it would soon arrive, all in one smooth and unhurried motion.
With a muted clang, the helmet crumpled and spun, changing direction abruptly as the pellets shredded it, but the sudden impact was followed a half second later by a second cloud of buckshot from the other barrel, which further tore and mangled the remnants. It landed with a hollow clank a moment later, crumpling in on itself due to weakening from the perforations and the height of the fall.
Not pausing to admire his handiwork, Felix had already cracked the drilling to one side, the empty casings spitting free automatically, and using his thumb and forefingers had loaded three new cartridges into the chambers in a single motion. Locking the barrels closed and snugging it close, he once again sighted and pushed the selector forward.
And had his shot spoiled as Stormtrooper Pieter's carbine barked, then barked again, then again, as the veteran easily put three rounds into the battered ruin with the Mauser.
Then, guttural and hesitating, Engin's Chauchat grunted and thudded a burst, raking through the dirt as it walked fire into the target, tumbling the helmet downrange as he found his zero and battered it with impact after impact, ricochets whining off into the distance.
"Don't get cocky." Otto admonished, "The wire and the trenches and the enemy aren't to be forgotten just because you can make a hit in broad daylight with no-one shooting at you. Things are very different out in the no-man's-land."
* * *
"The enemy has been located, or at least we think so. The Vabaun Citadel in Verdun has a most interesting history beyond what is commonly known. According to our records, in 1755 there was a powerful Vampire fought in Verdun. Blew the roof off the church in the process of hunting it, all kinds of chaos. Never caught the damn thing, but no sightings since then. Coincidentally, the bastard supposedly started preying on people from Haudiomont and worked his way northwest. Explains why we see revenants and ghouls, unless the French imported from somewhere else. God knows there were enough of the damned things running around during the Revolution that they probably could have dug one up locally, if they didn't just ship one in from Paris."
Otto paused and surveyed the assembled Nachtjaegers. They were formed into three units, each of twelve soldiers, apparently the vast majority of the troops being used to a nocturnal lifestyle judging by the number of groggy yawns he heard and the general amount of stretching and stamping about as they had assembled in the dimly lit concrete command post and discussed their plan of attack.
"The hundred-and-tenth Kaiserbadisches Grenadiers will be staging a raid half a kilometer to the north of our intended route of infiltration, almost on a direct line between Douamont and Verdun, leaving us a relatively quiet section of the Front to pass through, especially considering the number of sightings in that sector. According to frontline troops and Wulf squad, the French have been seeding that zone with fairly high-level revenants and ghouls for the past three nights, suggesting that whatever is making the creatures is probably located behind their lines at this abandoned command dugout that our Fokker scout indicated this morning." Otto pointed at the map and continued. "If we can break into this section of trench just after the bombardment and cross over quickly enough, we should be able to reach the bunker before midnight, destroy whatever's laired up there, and then hopefully be back before light."
"Sounds like a good plan. Password for tonight is Napoleon, countersign is Julius, standard creeping barrage at fifty-meter increments from here" Otto indicated a point on the topographical map, "to here." He pointed at a series of secondary trenches next, tracing the northern extent of the bombardment. "With any luck, the artillery will be timed just right to cover our advance. We go here, here, here. Left, right, left. For you new people, stay out of the trenches, hug the wire. The trenches are like the loading chute of a slaughterhouse, if you run into a machinegun nest or someone throws a grenade, you're lined up like dominoes. Out on the flat, which hardly ever actually is, you can find cover in a shellhole. We hop trenches quickly, grenadiers and the furenten ready on the trench walls ready to pour fire down into it. Remember to aim for the head if it's not human, don't trust your grenades to do more than wound even if it is, and bayonet to the neck if you have to get close."
"We think..." Otto explained after a pause. "that the source of the contagion is probably here, at the Haudiomont Church. It was being used as a dressing station for the wounded until two weeks ago, but now it seems abandoned by the French medical service, yet remains occupied by something or someone."
"God willing, we will break through the lines, recconoiter the town, find whatever is creating these monsters, and kill it." Father Pieter said, stepping out of the gathered throng and removing his helmet.
Nodding wordlessly, the assembled troopers knelt in unison as Father Pieter strode to the front of the bunker room and paused beside Otto. Raising his hand, he solemnly led the group in a short, sincere prayer that Felix barely registered as he did his best not to tip over under the weight of his pack and the segmented steel curiass he now wore over his chest and abdomen.
Byreika had not knelt, but instead pulled a small gold chain from inside his shirt and was singing softly in an unfamiliar language, and Engin had pulled off his boots, laid out his bed-roll, and was busily pressing his forehead to the ground, muttering in another language.
After the moment of pause, everyone quickly began to assemble into squads, the muted clicks of weapons being readied and the faint jingle of equipment punctuated ony by an occasional cough or terse instruction.
Without any real conscious prompt, Felix found himself moving along the trenchway amid his new squad, following Otto and Byreika and with Father Pieter and Stormtrooper Pieter behind him. The trench walls seemed shockingly different as they travelled, woven branches and wire-bound fascine slats holding back the raw earth rather than the meticulous plank walls of his familiar station. And as they progressed deeper towards the front, an occasional flare from the enemy lines brightened the midnight sky and cast sharp-edged illumination across the top edge of the trench.
As each sank, like a briefly blazing sun, the trench seemed to fill with shadows even darker than the night, everything within being submerged in darkness by the falling beacon.
Knowing enough not to look and spoil his night-vision, Felix focused his gaze on the darkest shadows and bowed his head slightly, so that the broad brim of his helmet overlapped the limited and abrupt horizon and the blinding light beyond.
The occasional crack of a rifle or sputter of a machinegun sounded in the distance, but for some reason Felix luxuriated in the calm, the cool breeze carrying the tang of ammonia and the smell of raw earth, and while no birds or crickets sang, it was almost peaceful as they marched down the sparsely occupied trench, pausing only to identify themselves to each segment's ranking officer or sentry as they travelled slowly towards the front.
In the dimness the other occupants of the trenches seemed like ghosts, their feldgrau uniforms and pale faces amost spectral in the dim and flickering light, distorted shadows cast across their features by the sporadic enemy flares and weirdly reflected trench-lanterns.
They passed a machinegun nest, the skeletal form of the Maxim gun surrounded by hovering attendants like an insect queen, blunt nose filling the firing slit and maintaining a silent vigil over the no-man's-land.
Then, almost imperceptibly, there was a flicker of light along the left edge of the trench wall. Neither the product of guttering lantern or wavering candleflame, Felix felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. A sudden tension filled the squad simultaneously, the once-steady plodding rythm of the march uninterrupted but no longer mindlessly automatic.
Felix's senses seemed to expand, and he became aware of a stillness and expectancy on the wind just as the skies seemed to rip open and roar in fury. The first volley of the barrage tore through the skies, the immediate sound of passage strangely growing into the distant, slower sound of the guns.
The concussion of high explosives and shrapnel raking and churning the distant French soil reached them a moment later, already blending with the sound of the second volley and the rumbling ground shockwaves from both firing and impact, until the entire trench seemed to reverberate with the roar of the shelling.
With the wax earplugs firmly squeezed into his ears, the sound seemed almost surreal, reaching his senses more through the vibrations that filled his sinuses and coursed through his teeth than any tangible sound, yet over it all he somehow heard the faint and puny battle cries and rifle fire as stormtroopers and pioneers further down the line began to emerge from their trenches and scuttle from cover to cover as they made their way across the barren, pockmarked landscape.
With a start, he realized they had reached a segment of trench lined with scaling ladders. Wordlessly, the assembled troops began to slip up the ladders and into the no-man's land, slinking quiet and low. Heart drumming in his ears, he followed Otto and Byreika over the top.
Felix had only been on the surface, the No Man's Land, following an assault. Quick scuttling along board-trails in the mud to a newly taken layer of trenches, diving back down into the safety of the earth, helping the pioneers reinforce the shattered walls and sandbags.
Only duty in the forward observation trenches gave a moment to see more than endless earthen walls and a narrow slice of sky, barring the rare time above-ground in an observation post, cowering in a shellhole, peering over the edge with a periscope in the hopes of spotting a raiding party or a snipers nest without being spotted themselves and mortar'ed out of existence.
Now, though, he slunk along the surface, carefully avoiding barbed-wire and mudholes as he followed the others, the distant sounds of rifle fire and shelling shaking the ground underneath his boots and echoing inside his helmet as he tried to keep up and stay quiet.
Suddenly there was a shout in French from ahead, and a sudden eye-smiting glare flooded the wasteland as a parachute flare raced into the sky. Unthinking and reflexively, Felix snapped his drilling up and point-shot , the green-white streamer eclipsed by the rib of his weapon as he launched a flurry of buckshot from first the left and then the right barrel, hoping for a hit even as he dove for cover to reload. Someone screamed, and the crackling of a machinegun filled his ears as he desperately tried to blink the white sheen from his eyes and burrow deeper into the raw earth, shouts and return fire sizzling back and forth across the ground even as it bucked and rumbled beneath him from the none-too distant bombardment.
"Grenade!" someone shouted, echoed a moment later by another soldier. Two muffled explosions crackled nearby, followed by screams barely audible over the thunder of artillery in the distance, the gun falling silent just as Felix had cleared his eyes enough to realize his desperate shot had struck the flare and probably saved the squad. Operating by feel with his ruined sight, Felix lay the barrels of the shotgun along the side of his neck and rolled to his side, breaking the drilling upside-down. He took the added second of sightless searching to find the ejected but unspent rifle cartridge on the fabric of his tunic, and then pushed it back into the chamber two fresh shells for the depleted shotgun bores.
But there was no time to wait, muddy uniforms slithered onward, more grenades popping amid sporadic rifle fire punctuating the inescapable roar and cacophany of the main attack as they wormed toward the trench, but it soon became apparent there was no return fire following the destruction of the machinegun nest.
Bent double and barely visible in the darkness, Nachtjaegers scrambled towards the enemy trench, covering the sandbagged redoubt with a bristling wealth of firepower.
"Unrein, Maygart, clear it!" Otto shouted. Nothing stirred inside the blasted fortification, but as the two troopers closed, one threw another grenade into the enclosure, sprinted the last few yards, and then threw himself flat at the last second. Meanwhile, his comrade scurried to flank the position, bent double and rifle held horizontal and high across his chest, looking almost like a chicken as he struggled through the muddy ground at an ungainly waddle while trying to maintain a small target.
The grenade burst without response from within, and the trooper who had sheltered against the butressed walls immediately popped up and flung himself over the wall, bayonet fixed on his rifle and momentarily silhouetted in the faint light from distant shelling.
Otto was already in motion, skidding over the sandbagged parapet and disappearing into the trench. "Go! Go! Get across!" He howled, as the other veterans began to pour in after him. Quickly, scaling ladders were reversed and they rose on the far wall, two taking a few seconds to hoist a ladder crossways between the sides of the trench, providing a footbridge just as the MG-08/14 section reached the chasm. "One at a time, don't overload it!" someone shouted, and the machinegunner and his ammo-bearer seamlessly queued and ran across the treacherous bridge, only to flop down on the far side and turn their gun back into the trench, ready to provide cover against any French counterattack.
"Move, quickly!" Father Pieter barked, hauling Felix up the last two steps of the ascending ladder by his bandoileers. "Follow Otto, stay quiet, stay down!" He admonished in a hoarse growl, then turned to hasten another trooper up.
Falling easily to his knees, and thankful for the leather reinforcements on his pants, Felix scurried like an ape after the rest of the strike group. In the distance ahead a flicker of an artillery counter-attack began to stain the midnight skies red. "They're firing on their own positions!" someone muttered in the darkness, just as the rushing growl of the cannons reached their ears.
Fighting the urge to burrow into the mud and cower from the tooth-rattling sound that seemed to vibrate in his lungs and press down on him as another incoming German volley passed overhead and crashed down only a few hundred meters away, Felix forced himself up and staggered toward the concussions, feeling the heat and shock pounding on the exposed skin of his face and hands.
Then, abruptly, the barrage stopped. The ground still seemed to quiver beneath his feet, but the other soldiers charged forward, and there was the crackle of grenades as those at the fore reached another layer of defenses. This time there were several shots fired, but nothing checked the advance. Shells continued to scream in just ahead and to the right of their advance as Felix once again scampered down a scaling ladder and up the other side, this time pausing halfway to pass up ammunition tins for the Maxim gun before moving out of the way to allow the gun crew to pass the heavy 08/14 down, across the trench, and up to the open ground beyond.
"Keep close! We're nea-" Someone shouted, only to be cut off by a ear-piercing shriek. At first Felix thought it was a mortar shell, but instead of the ominous growing scream of incoming fire, it had an entirely too diminutive timbre and volume to be field artillery, though it nonetheless carried a chill down his spine. A stattaco volley of rifle-fire met the scream, the first rounds causing it to waver and the remainder snuffing out the infernal howl just in time for Felix to hear shouted instructions and a sudden strange noise amid the gunfire.
The trench was lined with Nachtjaegers and filled with fire by the time Felix had scrambled across the wire and mud to reach the others, and the sickening smell of burning meat filled his nostrils. Within the smoking crevice in the raw earth, Felix saw flames licking from twisted and charred corpses, the wickerwork of the trench walls smouldering from the blasts of the Kleinflammenwerfer that had reduced many of the occupants to their present state.
Felix would've been busily sick had there not been one final detail in the scene before him. Where there were numerous charred bodies laying scattered across the bottom of the trench, more were shuffling amid the carnage, burning merrily, utterly unaware and uncaring. Horizon blue charred to black as meat and sinew sizzled and popped, canteens of spirits erupting in blue-white flame from the heat in the trench, and yet the creatures in the inferno were singularly fixated by the prey just out of their reach. Hungrily, they clawed and scrambled at the walls of the trench, heedless to the naptha withering their bodies.
There was an occasional shot as one began to gain traction, but otherwise the soldiers simply crouched on the walls of the trench, watching the abominations below succumb to the flames. "Wait for them to burn out..." someone muttered, but even as they spoke, a trooper straightened and pointed a wand down into the carnage. Hissing as pressure was relieved, the flamethrower belched out a long ropelike jet of oil, slithering and arcing down into the trench. As gravity collapsed the parabola onto the heads of the few remaining creatures, it burst into flame. Seeming to expand and fall hungrily onto the undead, the flame flashed back up the falling stream, like a snake rearing to strike the soldiers above, but fell short as the nozzle cut off after a split second of dispensing.
But as gravity inexorably drew the last of the burning spray into the jagged gash, the undead were consumed by the rekindled flames as they mindlessly swarmed into the burning segment of the trench, howling and moaning while the conflagration ate away at their rotting flesh.
"This is the place, yes?" Byreika grinned, scampering over to Felix as he shoved an oversized clip of cartridges into the protruding box-magazine of the rifle. Felix was surprised at the design, the rifle appeared to be a Schuler Magnum with an enlarged, detachable magazine to accomodate such inordinately powerful cartridges, and a strange, forward-set telescopic sight that was claw-mounted directly to the barrel. "We move as soon as they stop coming." The professional explained, taking a moment to pause and shoot something burning too slowly for his liking below. The concussion of the massive elephant-rifle shook Felix's scalp inside his helmet and threatened to work his precious earplugs loose, probably the only reason he was able to hear what was said next. "With this many nearby, we must be close, they gather the newly created ones after a failed assault and let them wander the no-man's-land and the forward trench network to keep us from counterattacking."
Felix nodded, half deaf, and launched a hail of buckshot into a ghoul that had found a particularly high pile of corpses and was attempting to scale the trench wall while only half on fire. "So how long do we sit here?" He asked pointedly, then shot another creature that had tried to leap up out of the conflagration.
In answer to his question, the earth seemed to buck and shudder, and gas and smoke occluded the stars. A pair of armored pioniers came scrambling up, whooping with glee, one unbuckling a presumably spent flamethrower pack and accepting a rifle from a comrade. "The dugout's collapsed, and we threw three segments of wire down and blocked things off further down, should be clear to move!" One gasped, then let loose with an evil cackle and slapped his comrade on the helmet with a hearty thud.
His partner was busy laughing, gasping for air in between spasms of delight. "We must've hit an ammunition-store or something! The whole place went up, whoosh!" The soldier explained, gesturing expansively with his arms. "We collapsed the entire nest of them, I think, and whatever we didn't chunk or burn, we buried again! There's a beautiful ramp up and out now, too."
"Good, good..." Father Pieter congratulated, but never took his anxious gaze off the trench, now littered with smouldering skeletons and glowing embers. Looking over at Byrieka he asked "Are we clear?" and then nodded over his shoulder at several of the other hunters, who wordlessly slipped into the trench.
As the entire unit carefully followed, Felix felt as though he was descending into an inner level of hell. Burned bones crunched and snapped underfoot, fats and gristle sizzled on the flame-hardened earthen floor, and the immolated remains of what had once been human beings were contorted with the heat into ghastly poses. The heat beaded sweat on his brow and radiated up through the soles of his jackboots, while his armor made him feel like a lobster being steamed alive.
He tried not to look as some of the least burnt spasmed and twitched their final throes, following the soldiers in front of him and taking great care where he stepped.
Indeed, the heat still radiating from the floor and walls turned the passage into an earth-walled oven, and between it and the exertion of running, crawling, shooting, and simply moving against the weight of his pack and curiass, he continued to sweat profusely, stinging droplets working down his eyebrows and colllecting on the point of his nose as he tried to keep pace with the others and not breathe the charred stink too deeply.
Behind him, someone vomited noisily, which helped him cope, but the temperature and the smell mixed with the reek of gunpowder, urea, and death into an unholy combination that stole the breath from his lungs and made each inhalation a battle against fatigue and his stomach. Weakly, he drained a long swallow from his canteen and tried not to vomit as he filed through the surreal channel behind Byreika.
He was broken from his trancelike march by the hasty whisper "Ladder!", and found himself following the trooper in front of him up onto the no-man's land once again.
The night air on the surface, heavy with the acrid stench of shellfire and fresh loam, was frigid and perfumed after the hellish trench, and he breathed deep in relief as the squad leaders began to advance.
The landscape beyond the secondary line was verdant in the dim light, fields overgrown but healthy where they had not been raked with artillery or rutted with the tracks of caissons and trucks. Abruptly, Felix realized shellfire had ceased, the seemingly endless bombardment ending in a stattaco chain of detonations somewhere to his right, where the distant echoes of machinegunfire and grenades still wafted on the night breeze.
In the dim light, there was a sudden rush of disturbed grass and muted rustling and clinking of equipment as the squads began to pour out into the field, amorphous feldgrau shapes burdened with assault packs, bundles of grenades, and belts of ammunition trotting almost doubled over in the high weeds, their beetle-like helmets cutting through the grass like sharks's fins.
Felix maintained his place between Byreika, Father Pieter, and the machinegun detail, laboring under the weight of his pack and armor, one hand flat across his belly to keep the bandoileers of shotgun shells from clanking against the breastplate as he moved, drilling clutched in his other at the balance point.
The grass whipped at his knuckles and dragged at his weapon, but the thrill of the charge galvanized him with a rush of energy. It was no heroic cavalry charge, but the swift, silent, predatory motions of the thirty-six Nachtjaegers made him feel like part of a wolf-pack, coursing the moonlit night in search of prey.
That the prey in question was probably more numerous and more dangerous than they hardly seemed relevant as his burning muscles strangely added to the euphoric joy of the hunt.
Abruptly, the field ended at a shallow ridge, and as though felled by silent machinegun fire, the troops flung themselves down and began to worm through the grass, the serpentine rustles of their passage and the thunder of his blood the only sounds in Felix's ears.
Coming up to the hobnailed boots of the soldat stopped in front of him, Felix slid himself diagonally and waited his turn to forge through the hedgerow, quickly ducking through the brush and clambering over the low stone wall, only to fling himself flat and worm another twenty meters up a steep slope in the next field before he reached the rest of the unit.
The line was spread along a ridge in a pasture that gave them a clear vantage of Haudiomont, and Felix could see the small village dimly illuminated in the distance before him. Peering off to his left, there was just enough height to see back towards the frontines, sparks and flickers of distant artillery like lightning bugs in the twilight, the low rattle of machineguns and barking of rifles wafting from the trenches to the north, where the Grenadiers were staging their far larger assault.
Turning his attentions back to the village, Felix could see for himself what the maps had suggested- it was a simple affair, a few houses and barns arrayed around a central square at the intersection of the two main roads. Both major roadways were flanked by a smaller lane to either side, creating a quaint little town comprised of four blocks and a few outlying houses. A hastily constructed dressing station and a munitions storehouse lay at one end of the village, but failed to spoil the peaceful beauty of the hamlet, sleeping quietly not three hundred meters away.
However, the town was deserted. Only a bonfire in the central square and a few lanterns at the crossroads burned, and there was no other sign of life or inhabitants. Even in the middle of the night, with a battle raging so nearby, Felix expected more watchfires, more supply traffic, sentries on patrol. Even dogs barking or a hundred other nighttime sounds were absent, and it lent the village an ominous, foreboding aura.
The silence was palpable and opressive, punctuated only by the rumble of artillery from afar.
"Machinegunners set up!" instructions were hissed back to him, and Felix passed the instructions along, listening to the scurrying as the brawny gunner and his ammunition bearers crawled up, laid out their gear, and then hastily scraped out a fighting hole for their gun. The muted thuds of their entrenching shovels cutting turf were surprisingly silent as they quickly fashioned a shallow gun-pit, settling the ungainly 08/14 into a firing-loop of sod and laying tins of ammunition along the right side of the hole.
"Ready!" one whispered hoarsely, which Felix relayed, and a moment later the word came to advance.
In unison, the Nachtjaegers slithered forward ten meters, well past the point where they could be silhouetted along the ridgeline, and rose to their feet. The muted clunk of bayonets being fixed and scraping of hand grenade fuses uncapping mixed with the rustle of grass as the troops carefully advanced down the hill.
Felix began to feel the excitement of the hunt. Not the raw, adrenal fear of going over the top, where death was quick, brutal, and arbitrary, but the slower and more deliberate anticipation that came from stalking prey in the deep woods. The sure knowledge that a misstep, an untoward noise, or sheer luck could ruin the chase and cost him his life filled him with deliberate certainty, and his actions became a carefully choreographed sequence of fluid motions, none abrupt enough to generate a sound or fast enough to be seen. Smoothly, slowly, he drew his soot-darkened bayonet and slid it onto the lug, thumb resting gently on the catchbutton to mute the click as it locked in place. The similiarly darkened buttplate rose as if of its own accord and settled into the crook of his elbow, close enough to raise to his shoulder, but low enough not to create dangerous fatigue in his arm muscles.
Beside him, other soldiers also readied themselves, the steely hiss of a rifle-grenade shaft being slid down the barrel of a carbine, the muted but unmistakable click of a Mauser safety moving from the center to right position, the gentle slap of a Luger holster-flap being unbuckled and the pistol taken off safe...
The village was only two hundred meters away, now, as someone tripped, grunting and landing softly, but the sound seemed as loud as armageddon to Felix's attuned senses, and he flinched in unison with the rest of the squad, though not enough to change his pace or generate any unnecessary sound of his own.
At one hundred meters, Otto hissed twice, clicking his tongue against his teeth, and breaking into a slightly noisier but far more rapid pace, the entire unit began to trot towards the town.
Suddenly, four troopers broke into a full dash, pulling well ahead of the others. Two clutched pairs of grenades ready to hurl in one hand and pistols in the other, one carried a Luger in each hand, and the fourth, the soldier with the hook whom Felix had seen during his introduction to the unit, had a schnellfuerer C96 with an elongated, extended magazine and a shoulder-stock nestled tight against his body as he and one of the grenadiers split from the other pair.
Flinging themselves against the walls of the nearest building, all four quickly composed themselves and then forged deeper into the town, all before the rest of the unit had covered half the distance they had just sprinted.
Felix found himself coming to a halt alongside Byreika, the older man peering around the edge of the house and down the street with a small trench-periscope. Armored bodies swarmed close against him, and more followed suit across the roadway, clustering against the modest stone buildings like armored flies lighting on a piece of rotting meat.
The squad-leader opposite signalled after a moments pause, quick and simple gestures devising and assigning the plan of attack, then counted down silently from three.
Wordlessly, heart pounding in his ears, Felix slipped around the corner after Byreika, shotgun held low and pressing tight against the side of the building as they raced a few dozen meters to the next gap between buildings, where they paused and crouched, waiting for the next pair to move up and relieve them, whereupon they once again rose and dashed forward, a deadly serious game of leapfrog spreading soldaten into the town like spilled ink staining a page.
Felix was struck by the uncanniness of the desertion. While the fire in the square burned brightly in the distance, casting wierd shadows as soldaten found themselves momentarily backlit by the flames, the entire town was silent and deathly still.
At the third station of their advance, they once again heard the distinctive double-click hiss of a comrade, and one of the grenadiers and the hook-handed soldier melted out of the shadows between two houses. Wordlessly, the one-handed soldier squeezed the buttstock of his carbine against his ribs with his forearm and rested the muzzle on his hook, freeing his hand to quickly gesture three and a rough direction ahead and to the right. Byreika instantly signalled a halt across the street at the other group advancing, who obediently melted into the shadows and awaited further direction, while the grizzled Jewish hunter motioned the remainder of his detachment forward.
True to the silent prediction, three shapes came into view, stumbling weirdy in the ruddy, flickering firelight. They might've once been Poilu, heroic French defenders, but now they were distorted, ruined husks, jerkily animated undead shambling in a macabre parody of a vigilant patrol.
Nodding to Byreika, the one-handed soldier pulled a knurled metal cylinder from a pocket on his belt, and with practiced ease spun it onto the muzzle of his pistol-carbine. Strangely, drops of moisture dripped from the tubular device.
Giving it an experimental twist to ensure it was fully engaged, he carefully brought the now-elongated weapon to his shoulder, rose to a hunched stance, and braced against the wall of the alley, just far enough out of concealment to sight on the trio. Felix felt an electric thrill as the soldier prepared to break the element of surprise they had been so thoroughly concealed by.
Then the carbine barked thrice, the shots rapid but unhurried, each time a strangely muffled sound, the whipcrack of the supersonic bullets unmistakable, but the report of the pistol greatly diminished. From where he squatted, bayoneted drilling held ready, the enemies collapsed almost silently as empty brass casings rattled to the cobblestones.
Hesitating only a moment for fear of retaliation, the soldier and his partner dashed further down the street to the last gap of shadow between houses before the square, while on the opposite side of the street the troops slipped inside the stable entrance of an abandoned innhouse and swiftly disappeared indoors.
Following Byreika, Felix rejoined the one-handed soldier, and together the four surveyed the square. Producing that unique telescopic sight from a pouch at his belt, Byreika fitted the Skopar to the barrel of his rifle, hooking the claw mounts into the fitted recesses and locking down the attachment lever. So affixed, he raised the strangely-balanced rifle to his shoulder and searched the windows of buildings around the square for hidden snipers.
Satisfied they were unobserved, he lowered the rifle and gestured for Felix and the scouts to follow him as he pirhouetted into the street and used his rifle butt to smash open a door just around the corner of the building from where they had hidden.
The inside of the building seemed darker than a coal-cellar. Daring not light his pocket-lamp, Felix screwed his eyes shut experimentally and then opened them wide, trying to dilate his pupils enough to make out more than vague impressions, and be able to navigate the confines without accidentally bayoneting obstacles or comrades.
He was rather proud of the presence of mind that put him three steps inside the door and to one side immediately upon entry, at least, so that he was not backlit by the open portal.
As his eyes gradually adjusted, and the second scout closed the shattered door as best he could, the contents of the ground floor became apparent, long rows of workbenches and tools suggesting a cooper or carpenters' shop, with a stairwell along one wall which Byreika quickly clambered up, his hobnailed boots and heavy breathing far from silent in the stillness of the abandoned strucure.
Hardly silent himself, though gratifyingly not appreciably louder, Felix quickly followed up the stair after his comrade while the two scouts broke off to survey the ground floor.
The upstairs was far better lit but smaller, with a pair of empty bedrooms and a parlour that overlooked the central square. Peering out over the expanse of cobblestones, the stillness was so perfect it seemed impossible not to be deception. "I will signal the others." Byreika announced, hunkering down and snapping open the small tin lantern he carried at his belt.
Striking a carefully shielded match close to his body, he lit the small tallow candle inside the lantern and latching the case shut. Covering the reflector lens with his palm, Byreika straightened and pointed the small lens at the window facing the opposite street, and cracked his fingers apart momentarily three times, small flashes of light escaping and hopefully being seen.
Fleetingly, the building across the street echoed the flashes, then produced a stattaco response in what Felix could only presume was Morse.
"The others, they say Otto is ready to come from the left, we are to provide covering fire. Go downstairs and send Adolf and his carbine up, then go with the others. We will follow." Byreika shared, cracking his lantern and blowing out the meager flame inside.
Felix obeyed, trying not to clatter down the stairs. The two troopers downstairs were bent over a shielded lantern in the workshop, cutting up a wheel of cheese with a boot-knife.
"Want some?" the grenadier offered, spearing a chunk, but Felix decline awkwardly, gesturing up the stairs. "Byreika wants you" he mumbled, not entirely sure which of the two was Adolf.
Grinning in the darkness, the hook-handed trooper speared his talon into a hunk of cheese and twirled his Maxim-equipped C96 carbine in his good hand, bringing the long segmented tube to rest on his shoulder while he popped the wedge of food into his mouth.
"Sure you don't want any cheese?" He asked in passing, grinning. "Watch the doors with Karl, I don't like to be snuck up on." And with that he scampered up the stairway, surprisingly silent despite his combat boots.
"I miss looting. Belgium was fun..." Karl admitted around another piece of cheese, stuffing the remainder of the wheel into his breadbag as he followed Felix out the door and into the street.
* * *
The first inkling their surprise was not complete came when he heard the unmistakable screech of a Tomblon rifle-grenade and was simultaneously blinded by a trio of phosphorous flares streaking skyward.
His first instinct, to seek cover, was unfortunately compromised by two subsequent realizations. Firstly, the door he and Karl had just emerged from had been blown outward by the force of the grenade detonating just inside, and secondly that the small, cobblestoned plaza outside was utterly devoid of said cover.
Blinking back spots and flinging himself flat on the ground, Felix just missed being caught on the helmet by the pair of grenades Karl hurled into the square in retaliation, the long cylinder-capped dowels sailing an impressive distance before bursting midair, muted red flashes and the ominous whine of shrapnel strangely unaccompanied by the distinct sound of an explosion in the ringing aftermath of the first rifle-grenade blast.
A patter of rifle fire followed instantly on the heels of the grenades. While the sharpshooters had started a split second before the burst, the vast majority of the Nachtjaegers had been dazzled momentarily by the sinking flares and took a fraction of a second to adjust to the light before firing.
The broad, stone-wall-lined roadway to the dressing station disgorged more monsters in the space of a few seconds than Felix had ever imagined could exist anywhere but Hell. Rotted, dismembered, bloodstained bodies jerkily staggered forward, while more agile shapes with glowing eyes surged ahead of the mass, and smaller, canine shapes swarmed underfoot.
Felix immediately unloaded both barrels of his drilling, catching one monster in the face and shoulder, slowing it but not killing it, and erasing the forward half of one of the quadrupeds that'd already nearly reached his position.
The rifle-selector stud popped up of its own accord, and he sighted more carefully this time- blowing the head off another undead monster with the last cartridge. "Reloading!" He screamed, as Karl emptied his luger into the surging tide with the patience and economy of a professional. Around them, more fire was pouring from gardens and windows and a side-street as Otto's contingent contributed to the carnage.
Reloading and snapping the action closed against the weight of the fixed bayonet on the end, Felix quickly point-shot two more of the small four-legged creatures, then instinctively sighted on an unusual flash of movement at the back of the slavering throng and loosed his rifle cartridge. Not bothering to reload, he caught one of the quadrupeds with a downward slash of his blade, the creature driven down against the paving stones by the blow and skewering itself with forward inertia.
The creature snapped at his boots and shrieked in outrage more than pain, pinned to the ground but forcing itself up the blade in its frantic efforts to bite him. Felix crushed its skull with a bootheel as he simultaneously twisted and wrenched the bayonet free, then slammed the silver buttplate hard into the jaw of an oncoming undead, checking its' charge just enough to spin and shove the bayoneted end up through the trachea and deep into the skull before its rotted claws could find purchase on his steel curiass or leather pauldrons.
Kicking the foul creature away, he managed to pull the weapon free as it fell backwards, and a flurry of shots around him had checked the tide for long enough he was able to break the drilling open, the casings ejecting sharply and just as quickly replaced, a quick, fluid motion. Unnervingly, he realized his hand had plucked the shells from near his collar, the left bandoileer already nearly exhausted in the heavy fighting.
But the combination gun snapped closed, sought a target, and with two eruptions of sound and silver-chased lead felled another monstrosity, a ruin of a Poilu whose tattered blue greatcoat hung in streaming ribbons over his withered and skeletal frame, the hilt of a brass-handled Rosalie bayonet buried between his neck and collarbone, and the twisted blade projecting from its shrapnel-torn ribcage at a crooked angle.
Loosing the rifleshot into another of the small scrambling creatures, Felix suddenly realized the horde had almost entirely been cut down, the buzz-saw rattle of Engin's Chauchat scything through the screeching masses and the assorted rifles picking off individuals with laudable speed.
The frequency and urgency of shooting began to diminish, the heavy punctuation of the MG-08/14 barking and clattering to a halt as the gunners put a few final bursts into stragglers and rifles intermittently cracking, but he was finally able to look at the bigger picture. The guttering remnants of a phosphorous flare sizzled in the street a few yards away, casting everything in harsh shadows and washed out colors, revealing a corpse-littered central square filled with the twice-dead and a few shattered but functional undead no longer capable of speedy motion.
Father Pieter strode among them, his engineer's machete shining in the dim light as he solemly chanted last rights and passionlessly lopped off heads, Luger held ready in his other hand just in case. Like a silhouette in the darkness, he moved through the sea of dismembered and shattered bodies, cleaving and occasionally shooting as he prayed for the tormented souls whose vacant bodies he sundered.
As if mesmerized by the display, Felix followed others out into the square, only now truly seeing the horrors of what he had faced. Shell-torn and bayonet-stabbed, many still bore the hasty bandages that had failed to save their original lives- before they were so cruelly reanimated, sent back into battle with their honor and courage replaced by a demonic, insatiable hunger.
Then shouts of "Quick! Quick! These won't be the last! Decapitate and move to cover, they're still out there!" penetrated his hazy comprehension, Otto's barked commands mixed with the groans of ruined monsters and the bark of pistols. Byreika, Karl, Adolf, and the others had already left their dangerous fixed positions and were fanned out along the edges of the the square, quickly hewing heads from bodies with bayonets, swords, and other implements in the wake of Father Pieter.
But suddenly the air was filled with riflefire, the unmistakable crack of unfriendly bullets snapping past, chased by the sound of their launch. A Tomblon grenade swished overhead and detonated against a windowsill in a gout of flame and shrapnel. In the distance cries of "Paladin!" mixed with screams of pain, while others shouted instructions to one another in the hellish confusion of darkness, carrion, and gunfire.
Someone alive screamed in agony as a bullet met armor and punched through, the plate-steel curiass proving no match for a well aimed shot even as dozens of other soldiers returned fire, flinging themselves amid the shattered dead littering the square or pressing into doorways and alleys along the edge of the plaza.
Felix sought refuge by falling amid a tangle of the freshly re-killed, the cloying odor of rotting flesh mixing with the ashy smell of spent cartridges as he reloaded the combination gun, steadied it on the broken body of a former Frenchman, and then loosed on a glint of light in deep shadow across the plaza, where he surmised at least some of the shots had come from. Nearby, Byreika, his precariously perched helmet even further askew, peered through the forward-set Skopar sight of his massive Schuler rifle, then loosed- a cannon-blast of muzzle flare and sound assailing Felix and setting spots dancing in the corner of his eye from the flare.
Stormtrooper Pieter and others simply closed the distance, some scurrying from doorway to doorway, while others crawled amid the tangles of bodies, using former adversaries as camouflage and cover as they sought to pin down and destroy their mysterious assailants with bombs and bullets.
Loosing his rifled barrel at an upstairs window from which he thought he'd seen the flicker of a shot, Felix saw a pair of soldiers slide into position beneath the opening. Almost casually, one straightened and stepped out from the wall, pirhouetting and fluidly lobbing first one, then another stick-grenade into the window. Ordinance delivered, he and his comrade immediately flattened against the wall, heads down in anticipation of the blast.
Blinking hard to avoid the flash at the end of an interminable three-count, the upper level of the house seemed there one moment and gone the next, the upstairs vomiting fire and smoke as glass shards and lath rained down into the street from the double blast.
Unperturbed, the two soldiers scurried past the wreckage, then out of view around the corner of the building, only to have the alley suddenly flicker with gunfire, punctuated by the rumble and sooty flash of another grenade detonating.
"Move up! Move up!" Someone screamed, and feldgrau-clad troops began to rise from amid the corpses as though they'd joined the ranks of the undead, then dashing and scrambling for better cover with surprising fleetness despite the encumbrances of their armor, packs, and weapons.
Hoisting himself up from where he lay, his curiass grating and rocking like a steel cradle on the cobblestones, Felix paused only a half-second to help propel Byreika to his feet before hurling himself after the other troopers charging in the direction the fiendish horde had originated. Shattered creatures lay all around him as he vaulted the piled dead and eluded the feeble throes of those too torn to fight but intact enough to hunger, and pausing momentarily to shoot one who reared up on shattered limbs and nearly checked his advance.
The river of carrion that was strewn like an alluvial plain originating from a street on the northwestern edge of the square, and falling in with several other troopers, Felix hunkered in the shelter of a hotel's stone entryway near the beginning of the channel..
"Curiasseurs d'Mystiques!" The lead trooper growled through his beard, methodically pushing a steady stream of massive 11mm cartridges into the tubular magazine of his rifle. "Ready?" He barked, slamming the bolt shut on the last round and disabling the magazine cutoff switch with one hand while he held a grenade poised in the other. "Ready?"
"Ready!" Felix and the other three soldaten in the doorway chorused, prompting the older Landssturm soldier to half-step from cover and gently lob his ordinance around the corner.
There was a momentary pause, the crack and clatter of the grenade, shouts, and the familiar concussion of a stahlhandgranante. Then, on the end of a silent count - thumb, first finger, second finger - the Germans swung in unison around the corner, weapons sweeping the shrapnel-scoured space between the buildings.
"We got one!" The burly old Landssturmer bellowed from a few meters down the passage, and then nearly collided with Felix as he about-faced, dragging someone clad in gleaming armor and horizon blue by their forearms. "You, guard him!" The old man barked, dropping the wounded Frenchman at Felix's feet and disappearing back around the edge of the building, his Gew71/84 thundering over intermittent rifle fire a half-second later.
Momentarily confused, Felix stood in shock at being so near a live enemy soldier. Fortunately, his drilling was still held at low-ready, clearly dissuaded the wounded Poilu from taking advantage of his surprise, and seconds later Adolf and two other troopers appeared on the far side of the alleyway.
Waving desperately at Adolf as the mass of the platoon swept towards another street, trusting their flanks were being guarded, Felix caught the hook-handed trooper's attention despite the obvious concentration he was placing in refilling his carbine from a charging clip one-handed, and with a wary glance further into the alleyway, the veteran altered course to investigate.
"What've you found here?" Adolf asked in surprise, as one of his companions knelt and quickly began to bandage the blood-seeping areas on the prisoner's right thigh and shoulder. Ruthlessly, they cut the leather straps holding the elaborately embellished breastplate in place with a trench knife, despite the patient's protestation, leaving him shell-less, bleeding, and vulnerable on the cobblestones between them.
Kneeling beside the soldier, Adolf prodded him with the curve of his hook, his C96 carbine held loosely across one knee as he barked a few quick questions in guttural, nasal French. The prisoner, partly due to the ministrations and partly from pain, only groaned in response. Unfortunately, his recalcitrance did not deter further questioning, sharp and fluid in the foreign tongue, as Adolf brought his hook to hover centimeters from the poilu's nose and repeated the inquiry.
Reconsidering the situation, the French soldier haltingly responded, a few terse words, but not enough to satisfy Adolf. Without warning, he dipped his steel hook into the prisoner's nose and pulled his head upward by it, simultaneously jabbing the muzzle of his carbine into the now-hyperextended neck.
Barking his question again as the subject howled and came partway up off the pavement rather than lose a nostril, he abruptly twisted his hook free, and Frenchman painfully slamming the back of his head against the cobblestones as Adolf monotonously repeated his question a fourth time.
With the prospect of another encounter with the hook and the C96 still pointed at his breast, the French soldier reconsidered abruptly. Piteously repeating a short phrase three or four times as Adolf menaced him with the curving prosthesis, he apparently satisfied his questioner, because without a second look, Adolf rose, gestured for Felix and one of the other troopers to follow him, and after a quick glance to ensure the alleyway was safe, disappeared around the corner.
Felix and the other soldat, who was carrying a rather prosaic Kar98, dashed after him. The narrow stone walls were spattered with blood and pockmarked from grenade fragments, a Nachtjaeger and two more of the armored French soldiers sprawled lifelessly across the cobblestones near the epicenter of the blast, all three evidencing hasty gunshots to the head lest they rise quickly and threaten the rear.
Ignoring the casualties, they rushed down the corridor towards the crackle of gunfire. As the passage began to bend, Adolf slowed, tucking his carbine into his shoulder and methodically creeping forward, pressed tight against the wall so as to expose as little of himself beyond cover as possible while surveying what lay beyond the turn. As he fully rounded the turn, Felix and the other Soldat a meter or so behind, he furitively gestured for them to flank him on either side, and resumed his frantic advance.
Felix noticed with surprise that the gaps and spaces between buildings, where they existed, were choked with refuse and other hastily improvised barricades, turning the entire passage into a long cattle-chute of a sort, funneling into the village square they'd just left.
Reaching a major side street, they found their way blocked again, the alley paralell and the entire street to the right both sealed off with razorwire obstacles. They hardly stopped to check for enemies before pelting down the thoroughfare in the remaining direction, giving only fleeting consideration to seeking cover between bursts of speed as the gunfire continued crackle in the distance. The source, readily apparent in the darkness, was a spiderlike Hotchkiss a few hundred meters further down, behind another hasty barricade of razorwire and furniture. The two French soldiers manning the gun were oblivious to the Nachtjaeger's approach, busily feeding cartridge-strip after cartridge-strip in stuttering bursts down the cross street they were blocking
Wordlessly, the three flanking Nachtjaegers fell prone, sighted and fired, a brief flurry of pistol, rifle, and shotgun sent the machinegun crew tumbling from their post. The gun that had ben menacing the advance of their comrades abruptly fell silent, and after a clatter of grenades bursting amid the barricade to verify the status of the gunners, and then hoarse shouts in familiar German, Otto and Byreika audible in the silence, barking orders.
"Napoleon! To your right!" Adolf shouted twice, even as a grenade clanked to a rest and then burst in the silent machinegun nest and armored stormtroopers flung themselves over the piled furniture.
"Adolf! Good shooting!" Someone shouted back as more troops landed amid the tangled French bodies, waving for the flankers to advance, obviously satisfied with the password. Warily waving his C96 carbine once overhead for further identification as he rose from cover, Adolf, Felix, and the third soldier quickly dashed towards their comrades.
They skidded to a halt just as Otto gracelessly made it over the barricade, other troops already manouvering the bulky tripod-mounted gun to cover the road, the rapidly thinning buildings in the distance.
"Kreuger's dead, two more Paladins with him, grenade blast. Lehmann is guarding a wounded Luparii, who confirmed our suspicions about the infirmary." Adolf reported quickly, as more gray-clad troops slipped over the jumbled furniture and cut their way through the tangled razorwire corrals.
"Keller's dead, Becker's in bad shape and I sent Eisler and Stoger to drag him back to the machinegunners. That at most makes twenty eight of us, twenty of whom are with me, and Father Pieter's got a bullet in his arm that's slowing him down."
"If I might suggest, gentlemen, let's keep moving..." Byreika muttered, gesturing at the razorwire. "These wires make me nervous..."
"Agreed." Otto nodded, helmet slipping forward at the gesture. "They drove the untoten down this way once, I don't want to get trampled if they held any in reserve."
"Coming in from the front!" a familiar voice cried from up the road, and a stahlhelm popped around a corner a moment later. "Napoleon!" the soldiers manning the commandeered Hotchkiss demanded in unison, covering the offending area with the muzzle of their gun. "Julius! We've got prisoners!" Stormtrooper Pieter responded, emerging after a second from another side-street, shoving a wire barricade out of the way. Following him were three beleaguered looking French soldiers in their glinting armor, a trio of heavily armed guardian Nachtjaegers, and then two more soldiers each supporting a wounded comrade.
"Over here!" Otto barked, as Nachtjaegers peeled out of doorways and the gaps between houses to relieve the incoming troopers of both wounded and prisoners.
Using the momentary respite to replenish his bandoileer of shotgun cartridges from the carton in his breadbag, Felix paused to proferred his canteen as the trooper trotted over, audibly winded.
Gratefully taking a drink, Stormtrooper Pieter sank to a crouch after knocking back what seemed half the contents. Wiping his mouth with a shirtseeve, he gestured down the thoroughfare bristling with soldaten. "Sir, we circled around through half a dozen gardens and backalleys, there seemed like no activity anywhere in town, except where we found these two- guarding the road to the infirmary. One of them managed to bayonet Lehmann in the leg, and Ackermann caught a bullet in his shoulder subduing them, but I think one's an officer."
"Good work!" Otto nodded in acknowledgement, clapping the stormtrooper on his shoulder as he rose to interrogate the captives.
"Having fun yet?" Pieter grinned, his dirt and ash smudged face momentarily revealing gleaming white teeth as he returned the canteen to Felix with a nod of appreciation.
"You bet." Felix grumbled, meticulousy fitting 8mm cartriges into the loops between shotshells on his bandoileers. "I've been shot at, blown up, almost eaten, and I'm at least a mile behind enemy lines. How could my life get any better?"
Pieter grinned again, plucking a cartridge from Felix's open cartridgebox and topping off the magazine in his Mauser. "Well, we could be liberating a whorehouse."
"The way tonight is going, they'd probably be a week dead and want to cook you and me on a spit, comrade." Felix argued, watching as Otto and Adolf interrogated the prisoners, the one-handed Nachtjaeger once again hooked a nostril with his prosthesis and pulling as encouragement for the recalcitrant Frenchman. Shuddering briefly in empathy, he instead turned his mind to helping with Hotchkiss gun. Grabbing a wooden crate of feed strips and slinging his drilling, he fell into step with an ersatz gun crew, who having folded the mitiralleur and bipod into two compact tubular bundles, were busily moving it forward. It was abundantly clear that there was no such thing as too much firepower in this business, be it what they had brought or could commandeer.
Furitive, stahlhelm-topped figures scurried ahead, sweeping off around corners as the houses became more widely separated and the cobbled road narrowed, the barricades dying out completely after a few more alleyways. Unfortunately, the moodnlight began to falter as well, smoke and dust from the bombardment mixing with high clouds to dilute the silver twilight into blotchy patches of true nighttime darkness and half-illuminated scenery rife with moving shadows.
"I've got a bad feeling about this..." One of the crew carrying the Hotchkiss muttered.
As if prescient, there was an eruption of gunfire from the far side of a house , where scouting troops had been moving paralell to the group. Hoarse screams echoed in the night as the bearers slammed down the tripod for the Hotchkiss and scrambled to set the gun back atop it. Soldaten scurried to find cover, readying grenades and seeking defensible positions facing the rapidly fading sounds of slaughter, though none were fully prepared as a giant shape leapt from the shadows, skittering on all fours across the slick cobblestones and batting two unlucky troops out of its way with a single sweep of an arm.
"Waaaarwuuuulf!" Someone screamed as the Hotchkiss clattered to the cobbles and dozens of rifles barked in futile remonstration. But the creature had already found traction, taloned feet sinking into the stone roadway and propelling it in a completely different direction before any heavy weapons could fully bear on it, much less do damage. Bullets seemed as ineffectual as raindrops, while the coiled mass of unnatural muscle and hatred bowled into another knot of troopers, shrieks of pain and the muffled report of their rifles mixing with a long, guttural snarl.
Only then, in the midst of combat, did the creature howl, a long and pained noise as it batted a limp form twenty yards, the splintering of a riflestock and bones merging with the call and drowning out any scream the hapeless victim might've made. But as the monster reared, the bulk of its body pulled away far enough to unblock the rythmic stutter of an automatic weapon, faint flashes of sooty red fire illuminating the space between it and its erstwhile victims, as Engin and his Chauchat, crouched flat against the wall of a building, poured fire into the beasts' underbelly at point-blank range. The remnants of a bayonet hilt momentarily silhouetted against the hairy ribs as it swept down with one pillarlike arm and raked the gun tearing at its belly, wrenching it away and shattering it in the street as Engin was knocked prone and half senseless, awkwardly fumbling for his pistol.
The split second of pain the Chauchat had delivered, however, had given one of the Hotchkiss crew enough time to wrench their gun upright and stuff in a feed strip from Felix's crate, and then the stuttering roar of automatic fire stitched across the monster. Tracers glowed sootily as they punched into the monster high in the shoulder and throat as it reared back to deliver deathblow to the stunned turk.
It never landed, however, as a steady hail of rifle-fire continued to pelt the monster, and someone unloaded a shotgun into the beast's back at suicidally close range.
Despite the massive punishment, though, the werewolf twisted and fell to all fours in a blur, crouching and springing away even as dozens of bullets ripped at its flesh to no real effect.
Mid leap, however, it crumpled. The thunderous report of Byreika's Schuler-Mauser was almost lost in the clamour as he calmly shot the beast in the head, the shot tearing away flesh and bone like a colossal spade cutting earth. The massive bullet blew the fanged visage nearly in half as the heavy silver-laced slug shattered the thick skull and confused the strong limbs already outstretched for landing, making them crumple and buckle as the limp weight of the monster bore down on them. Heedless of smaller-caliber bullets raking the corpse, and the frenzied efforts of the machinegun crew to fit another feed strip into their gun, the Polish hunter calmly worked the bolt and shot the behemoth again as it collapsed and skidded to a stop at his feet.
Giving a sonorous death-rattle as another Nachjaeger scrambled atop the body and drove a long Neuer Art bayonet daggerlike into the body for safetys sake, Byreika reached into his cartridgepouch and began to reload his rifle. Dropping a cartridge on the cobbles by accident, Byreika knelt to retrieve it.
It was this change of posture that saved his life, as a blackened mass of teeth and talons leapt down from overhead, and a paw studded with daggerlike claws raked through the air where his head had been only a split-second before, obsidian knives raking across the dome of his helmet and tearing it free of his head as a second werecreature landed in their midst.
Spun around by the blow and with his loosely held rifle clattering to pieces on the cobblestones, Byreika sprawled dizzily in the street, looking up at the onyx form that had lighted atop him, and reacted faster than anyone could've believed.
Struggling to fit a new strip into the Hotchkiss, Felix saw a flash of silver gleam beneath the second werewolf as Byreika slashed. His hunting knife tore into the powerful forearm even as he rolled away from it, a blow that should have killed him instead roughly tumbling him out from under the crouched monstrosity. Even as he so skillfully eluded the infuriated behemoth, the Mitirillauer that had been so slow to harm the first monster thudded to life again with a full magazine strip, and a stream of its' heavy bullets tore into the chest and abdomen of the changeling beast at a range of less than fifty meters.
Adding insult to injury, the monsters' paw seemed to deform under the blow to Byreika as Felix's drilling swung up to bear, the Hotchkiss still methodically thumping through the thirty-round strip with almost glacial slowness. Two concussions heralded clouds of silver-plated buckshot, followed by the low crackle of a faster 8mm bullet as the drilling emptied into the night-dark monster silhouetted against the monochrome sky, tearing into the shoulder and upper torso alongside dozens of other projectiles launched by other Nachtjaegers, the bullets sinking into the hairy hide like stones striking the surface of a pond- the flesh momentarily torn away, but then closing back in on itself despite the traces of silver they bore deep into the creature.
A single earsplitting boom punctuated the lesser sounds of battle, as Otto loosed first one, then another 11mm Mauser bullet into the floundering werewolf's chest, then sunk two more into the exposed throat and jaw when their impacts made the black wolf rear back in pain and shock.
The stub-nosed four-shot Whitworth broke in half smoothly, and Otto plucked four fresh cartridges from a pouch on his belt with familiar ease, slipping them into the exposed chambers without looking, but he did not fire.
Felix, drilling already up and aimed again as the Hotchkiss ran dry, only loosed his rifleshot into the beast, but as he did he knew it to be overkill, as the creature swayed from the impacts and slumped to the stones in a tangled thrash of broken limbs and fading vigor. Still, he moved closer warily, staying clear of the Hotchkiss's line of sight and keeping the glowing bead of his front sight centered on the second monster.
"Reload and report!" Otto bellowed, others repeating the instruction to those out of ready earshot or were deafened by the thunderous barrage. The soldier who'd been stabbing the first wolf reloaded and holstered his smoking Luger, then fearlessly scrambled into the dying throes of the second and repeated the coup-de-grace on it in turn.
"Muller's dead!" Someone shouted from the alleyway where the first wolf had originated. "Hoernzoller and Keller are dead!" another voice called, over the screams of someone only badly wounded. "Byreika!?" Otto asked of the trooper astride the now quiescent bulk of the black werewolf, who was busily slicing the ears off the mangled head with practiced ease. Gesturing around the drafthorse-sized body, he resumed his cutting just as the Pole staggered upright, clutching his side with one hand and his rifle with the other, the unique forward-set scope clearly a ruin.
"Broken ribs, at least." Byreika growled angrily, "And look what the bitch did to my Schuler!" He added, raising the battered rifle. "Still better prettier than me." He added after a moment, kneeling and tinkering with his rifle for a moment one-handed. Rising, he rested the butt against the ground and gave a sound kick to the crushed telescopic sight, knocking the twisted wreckage free of the claw-mounts and returning the abused magnum rifle to a usable state as he flicked up the express sight mounted directly on the barrel.
"Can you still shoot that?" Felix asked in surprise, the Poles' pained grimmace clear in the moonlight even as he began to straighten up and limp after Otto.
Scornfully, Byreika turned and humorlessly barked "Better than anyone else will when some monster is trying to eat me!" before awkwardly clenching the buttstock firmly under the crook of his right arm and stuffing another leviathan shell into it.
Shaking his head in wonder at the veteran hunter, Felix fell in with the others as they hurried onward, keenly aware of the risks of dawdling as troopers quickly decaptiated the dead, the seriously wounded man was trussed to an improvised litter and carried to the middle of the group, and reinforcements sent out to the weakened flank.
Jackboots scuffled on cobbles and equipment clinked, but beyond those feeble sounds there was nothing, even the far-off sound of shelling absent from the silver-chased night. Felix could hear his breathing echo in the air-space beneath the skirt of his helmet, the slap of his bayonet against his thigh and the bounce of his bandoileers. He even imagined he could feel the slight rattle of the shot inside the cartridges of his drilling as they shook back and forth inside the heavy weapon.
Into this preternatural silence, his breath began to fog. The air was slowly being robbed of all warmth, and as they progressed further down the road, the cold and rate of change both intensified. Sweat froze instantly on his uniform collar and the hairs in his nostrils prickled as ice began to form.
Digging furiously into his shirt, Byreika pulled something out and held it cupped in his left palm wearily, his Schuler balanced one-handed with the muzzle to the sky, ready to drop down at a moment's notice.
As the cold began to work its way into Felix's scalp, the icy air seeping through the stirmpanzer rivets at his brow and frosted the sweat at his brow. His fingers cramped from the cold gnawing at his knuckles, but his clutch on the drilling only intensified, the warm wood of the stock and the barrel steel hot from constant firing helping him fight the sudden change in temperature.
Nervous but undeterred, they advanced closer to the infirmary through the icy moonlight. Only a few more houses lined the street, each neatly spaced and bordered by a simple fence that cast jagged black shadows in the monochromatic night, windows to unlit rooms and recessed doorways yawning black with shadow.
Hoarfrost was beginning to form on blades of grass, and the less hearty members of the contingent were forced to tuck their hands under armpits or blow into them for warmth when Byreika abruptly slowed to a cautious walk, still intently peering at whatever he carried in his palm.
Every man was keenly alert, but the frigid and unnatural environment was also working on their bodies and their weapons, and every one of them was at least a veteran of the past winter, painfully aware how grease would thicken and congeal, reducing the reliability of their weapons and numb fingers would spoil accuracy even if they retained enough dexterity to pull icy triggers.
Their armor at least was a mixed blessing, holding in some body heat now despite having created the sweat that froze on their limbs as they passed beyond the last houses. The vegetable gardens and small fields bordering the town, lit by bleak moonlight, instilled a different sort of paranoia than the claustrophobia of the village roads. Different, but no less severe, the unnatural cold gnawed at their bodies and the emptiness and silence at their mind.
Still not entirely sure where danger lay, Felix watched Byreika for some hint, and fell into place near the grizzled hunter. Father Pieter, who had trailed the group, pushed ahead to join him, nodding at troops with a worried look as he passed. Felix noting he had one hand pressed protectively over the toggle of his drawn Luger to keep the mechanism warm.
Felix was surprised to hear humming from one of the soldiers near him, a thick-bodied man with a tiny moustache, a FN Automatic shotgun, and a boar spear slung across his back. The hum, however, quickly grew among the ranks, swelling into a chorus of "Alte Kameraten", the marching song filled with a strangely haunting sincerity from those who sang, and the chill seemed to lessen slightly in the presence of their unity. Being well aware of his musical ineptitude, he kept out of it.
They'd just reached the third chorus when they also reached the ghostly white tents surrounding the long, roughly-built timber field hospital, and without breaking rythm they began to methodically set fire to the tents using incendiary grenades. The heavy treated canvas flashed into bright blue and green flames as the blindingly bright phosphorous flakes burst out from the grenades in a flash of light and settled on the thick sheets like blinding snowflakes.
Shielding his eyes with the brim of his helmet, Felix caught a shimmer from the corner of his eye just as Byreika dropped his charm and swung to face the same direction. While other troopers watched the perimeter warily, none seemed to catch the motion
The darkness seemed to ripple, and without hesitation, he brought his drilling to bear and loosed just as the mirage coalesced. Silver-coated buckshot slammed into the creature even as it took form, some of the pellets so perfectly timed to the arrival that the batlike form took shape around them and staggered slightly from taking the blow internally. But as the flesh seemed to harden onto the skeletal form, it shrugged off the effects of the burst, the wounds pulling closed almost instantly.
Still, an alert Nachjaeger had time to retarget his incendiary grenade from the tents to the moster's feet, while others who caught its appearance a moment later or simply followed Felix's cue shot wildly towards it in surprise.
The bat-faced monstrosity roared as the phosphorous burst at its feet, but was already moving before the blossom of flame could do more than bubble the flesh on its lower extremities, the charred meat flaking away as new bone, muscle, and sinew merged together to replace it. It straightened slightly, and a ten-foot emaciated humanoid shape of corded muscle and jutting bones staggered forward, capped by a visage that combined the worst of a bat's head and a human skull. Two long, talon-capped arms spread wide in a grotesque parody of a greeting as it plowed into their midst.
Then it screeched, a high-pitched exhultation, and jerked forward too fast to see. Hunched double like a hellhound, it galloped through the group heedless of the bullets pouring into it from all directions.
The headlong charge bowled over the first rank of Nachtjaegers despite boarspears and bayonets biting into its sides, and it disembowled a passing soldier with a dismissive backhand. Wheeling with preternatural quickness to crouch over the stricken man, it bent and bit, savagely tearing out a mouthfull of entrails as its victim screamed and flesh tore wetly. Then, steaming ropes of intestine still hanging from its muzzle, it roared in agony as something splashed onto its hide and burst into ethereal blue flame.
Father Pieter followed on the heels of the unearthly fire with a brace of shots from his Luger, the small pistol bullets barely registering on the vampire's thick hide and corded muscles, and a wild slash from his pionner's shortsword only released a brief torrent of black ichor from its back before he was swept off his feet by a flailing arm. Dangling by his ankles he screamed as an errant bullet from another trooper struck him in the thigh, but he clutched at the rosary beads whipping crazily in his face and flailed with his blade against the vampire's wrist as he was lofted into the air.
The bat-demon screeched and dropped him as its talons smoked and charred like twigs where they touched him, but the withered hand reformed almost instantly as he fell to the ground at its feet. The ghoulish, fanged face dipped as it lunged over him and swept into another trooper who had moved to his rescue by burying a short-hafted axe in its back, but gleaming fangs snapped around the man's head and tore it off with a sickening crackle of splintering bone and crushing metal, while blood sprayed black from the neck-stump in the silver moonlight.
Felix had presence of mind to shoot the creature with his remaining barrel and reload, scoring a peripheral hit, but as he did so the monster slashed a man trying to impale it on a boar-spear into ribbons and leapt out of his sights. Beside him, Mordechai's Schuler concussed everything nearby as it blew a grapefruit-sized chunk out of one shoulder and reducing the wiry, taloned arm to dangling at the end of a tattered sinew. More riflefire crackled all around Felix, but the shredded arm swung at the end of its tether only once before knitting perfectly back into place at the apogee of the arc. Now reattached, the vampire reversed the swing of its arm and backhanded a soldier, the blow audibly cracking bones and sending his limp body cartwheeling into another soldier, who was swept from his feet by the colossal impact.
Then, abruptly, the vampire was engulfed in flame, a white-hot blinding geyser of naptha spraying over it as someone lit off a kleinflammenwerfer, a serpentine stream of liquid fire playing across the creature and spattering burning droplets everywhere, as a lake of blue-burning pitch pooled at its feet.
Screeching in genuine pain, finally, the vampire tried to flee, clawing at its back and thrashing as the flames surrounded it with a column of fire. But first one, then another soldier blocked its path, like miniscule picadores, thrusting their bayoneted rifles or boarspears into its flanks and belly as it tried to charge through a gap in their lines, only to be met with silver and steel.
Ampoules of blessed oil suspending phosphorous crashed into the immolating demon, while bayonets sought out vulnerable joints. The monster lunged and clawed, killing one man by simply siezing his body and tearing it in half, then swatting one after another to the ground in crumpled ruins, but comrades rushed to take their places and barred its way with redoubled determination.
Finally, the beast staggered and fell, dragging half a victim with it like a grotesque ragdoll as it pitched over backwards, trying to smother the flames clinging to its back as it thrashed in the dirt. But the flamethrower coughed again at the momentarily stationary target, and spat another white-hot jet of flame into the surreal melee, burning indiscriminantly as it played over the predator and the remains of its victim alike, spatter scorching at the leather armor and steel breastplates of the Jaegers keeping it pinned with no heed for their own safety.
Choking at the oily stench and blinded by the light, Felix loaded and fired his drilling almost entirely by feel, volleying into the flaming apparition at the center of the pyre as it rose and charged his side of the semicircle, the skeletal core of the beast staggering as unnatural regeneration struggled against the hungry flames. The triple-volley was rewarded by a screech as at least one barrel found a target, and he reloaded as four measured shots rang out far louder than the mere 8mm rifles and sharply crackling pistols. As if repulsed by the thunder alone, the thrashing demonic pyre seemed to sag and falter even more, but still found the force of will to lunge toward the pair of Nachtjaeger stitching it with the captured Hotchkiss.
Almost falling on the gun as it leapt ten yards in an instant and flung spearmen aside like broken matchsticks, the vampire reared up, still aflame, and siezed the gun from the grasp of it's wielders. Lifting the heavy millitirauer by the barrel and swinging it like a club at the fleeing gunners, it roared in anger, even as bullets churned the flames clinging to its back. Staggering with the machinegun still held high, it keened in pain as one leg buckled underneath it. The flesh ran and reformed beneath the dancing flames clinging to its torso, but slower, fat started to crackle and char as it levered itself erect using the heavy machinegun like a crutch. But it staggered again as the unmistakable sound of a rifle-grenade discharge melded with a wet thud, and a gewehrgranate burst from where it had lodged in its side, sending chunks of burning bone and gristle spattering out with the shrapnel.
Heedless of their own safety, Nachtjaegers charged for the kill, hammering the thrashing, burning monster from all directions, the risk of overpenetrating or ill-aimed bullets so great during the charge that most desperately tried to drop the monster with bayonets and spears alone, while the few who held back were forced to pick their shots with extreme care.
Burning and splashing flecks of burning oil as it thrashed and convulsed, the vampire screeched in alternating guttural tones and ear-piercing squeals as blades jabbed into the flames and bullets fired downward from point-blank began to force it prone.
The firing and stabbing seemed to go on for hours as the burning tangle of sinew and bone wasted away in the flames without conceding defeat. Ear-rending keening and razored claws tore at the soldiers as they hammered at the beast, working in teams to try to pin the sweeping arms and kicking legs as Father Pieter limped into the circle of light cast by the conflagration.
Helmet missing, puttees stained with blood, and badly favoring one leg, the chaplain nonetheless raised a hand and began to intone. The keening intensified as he drew closer, and the rosary beads knotted around his upraised right hand took on a brilliant gleam. A soft white light mixed with the hard-edged moonlight, and seemed to eclipse the red and bloody light cast by the crackling flames. The glow suddenly shone brighter and the envelope of crackling pitch and oil clinging to the creature guttered and was snuffed out by the almost tangible glow emanating from the priest.
Desperately, the vampire tried to rise onto an elbows and throw itself away, but no sooner had it begun to lever itself up than a spear sank deep into its heart, the soldier wielding it leaping across the monster's abdomen with the grace and bravery of a banderillero, and the feeble swat that followed him as it tore a pinned hand from where it had been staked to the ground by another soldier served only to snap the haft from the head of his weapon, leaving the barbed silver lancehead buried deep in the blackened torso. As it feebly struggled to reach the head and wrench it free, the priest further pinned the vampire into place with the light of his dedication, the force of his faith acting like physical pressure against the unnatural creature, crushing its wasted form against the charred ground as surely as a boulder.
Momentarily struck by the scene, Felix was shocked when Pieter opened his eyes and looked at the circle of spear and bayonet-brandishing soldiers surrounding and pinning the burned and shattered demon with a look of utter incredulity. Making a frantic and expansive gesture at those forming the perimeter, he barked. "What are you waiting for? Kill it! Kill it now!"
Swarming onto the prone husk of the monster, blades sank deep into the pebbly gray flesh, the ever-weakening throes diminishing with each silver blade that embedded itself into the skeletal ribcage and pierced the pitiless black heart within. A steady rythm of pistolshots delivered at point-blank popped and cracked as the disoriented monster was methodically blinded over and over again, the bullets piercing deep into the hate-filled eyes in a splatter of ichor, then being spat, sizzling, back out of the burning vampire flesh. The ebon globes regenerated almost as fast as they could be shot out, a new eye forming inside the hollow socket like an oily bubble rising to the surface in a lake of gore, but each time the fury seemed weaker, dwindling as the vampire was shredded and perforated by the attending hunters.
Throwing aside his second carbine and pushing through the ring of shooters, Adolf expertly drew the entrenching tool from his side and flipped it open one handed. Savagely, he drove his hooked hand down like a pick into the underside of the monsters' muzzle, catching the jaw and wrenched the shattered head back, and drove the shovel-blade down into the exposed throat with all his might.
A grisly squish and the grating sound of a steel edge scraping bone echoed on Felix's ears louder than all the muted echoes of rifle fire, exertion, and pain as the battered head abruptly yanked free, leaving a stump and a spreading lake of black ichor.
Thrashing once, spasmodically, as it was decapitated, the withered and charred body abruptly relaxed. There were no cheers as the husk pinned to the ground began to melt, flesh turning to liquid obsidian and dripping from the bones, but the hunters knew it was over and their weapons fell silent. Weary sighs of relief were shortlived as the cries of the wounded began to register in the hushed aftermath.
Shocked, exhausted soldiers moved as though in a daze, mechanically reloading weapons and patting each other awkwardly in reassurance that they were still alive and whole, looking around at the devastation from the battle as though it were their first moment of life.
Then, after a few seconds, awkward smiles began to emerge behind the haggard faces, joy overpowering the traumas of the past five minutes even as they moved to aid their fallen comrades.
There were wimpers from the crushed mass of one machinegunner, Father Pieter hurrying over to administer last rites before an attending soldier drew his Parabellum and granted the dying husk a final mercy. Not even the clearly dead were spared a bullet, followed by decapitation and quickly being laid alongside the already smouldering field-hospital. The guttering ruins of the tents smoked and cast glowing embers into the air, the chemicals in the waterproof paint lending the flickering flames an eerie blue-green color where fabric still burned, charred ruins of ruined camp furniture thrusting forlornly up from the ashes.
Grenadiers resumed their work of burning the field hospital, the few remaining phosphorous ampoules thrown through through the small, barred windows and revealing the structure to be little more than a stable for the undead, while others pulled open heavy barred doors to allow air to feed the flames. The floor was littered with gnawed human remains and a few, quickly dispatched, immobile undead. Reverently, but conscious of the growing flames, the remains of the dead Nachtjaegers were quickly borne inside and doused the last hissing sputter from the flamethrower tank.
"Klein, Miller, Hoffman, Meyerhoff, Rupp, Heller, Keller, and Spiegel are dead." Father Pieter announced, using a discarded rifle as a crutch to hobble out of the growing inferno, the crackling flames silhouetting him. He proferred a loose handfull of dogtags to Otto with a grimmace. "Not many casualties, considering the strength of that vampire. But always more than we wish."
"They died well, at least, brave and proud, rather than stuck in some squallid shellhole waiting for a Frenchman to bayonet-charge them." The moustached leader pronounced, accepting the bundle of steel half-discs and reverently folding them in a handkerchief, their import a greater burden than the few grams of metal in his palm.
Father Pieter seemed relieved to have passed on the burden, but he paused to touch Otto's armored shoulder. "God is with us, we must believe that, or we are lost."
"What forces oppose us are what make me worry..." Otto growled, brushing the priest's hand from his arm.
Nearby, two soldiers were helping Adolf stuff the vampire skull into what appeared to be a pillowcase.
In the distance, the thunder of morning barrages broke the stillness of the predawn darkness, and the dark plume of smoke rising from the burning hospital mixed began to take on a faint glow as the distant horizon began to show the first faint glow of daybreak.
Despite only a moment to compose themselves since the death of the vampire, the Nachtjaegers spurred back to action, reforming their squads, checking over weapons, and sharing amongst themselves the last of their precious silver ammunition.
"Time to get back!" someone muttered excitedly, as the hunters began to fall into column.
Apparently showing his exhaustion and shock through the numbness he felt falling into line, Felix was jerked back to the present as Otto clapped him on the shoulder.
"You did well tonight, Hirschjaeger. Now we go home. If we can make it back..."
Stupefied by the sudden weight of his actions, Felix could only stare blankly at his commander for a moment.
"We're kilometers behind enemy lines, and between two French regiments." Otto added helpfully, as realization wormed slowly through the fog of weariness clouding Felix's mind. Yawning uncontrollably as he shouldered his drilling, Felix nodded groggily.
"That sounds easy enough, after tonight."
Soldiers nearby laughed, then someone began to hum, and soon the entire unit had fallen into an easy march, grisly trophy bags dangling from belts and limping soldiers aided by comrades.
The war was far from over, and who knew what lurked in the night. But with the sky lightening and friendly lines closer with every step, Felix couldn't help but grin and join in the chorus, the lyrics familiar and comforting despite the foreign language.
It's a long way to Tipperary,
It's a long way to go.
It's a long way to Tipperary,
It's a long long way to home!