Carl laid there on the bank, the water lapping the inside of his right leg, up to his calf and the sodden sand, gritty and uncomfortable lined his fatigues. There was blood too, of course there was. It polluted the waves as they ran back from the shore; a red puddle, filtered and disseminated among millions of gallons. He let his hand search for the source, a scratch or a tear, whatever; just don’t let it be…but it was.
The bullet had torn through, in and out. His finger tentatively filled the hole. He couldn’t feel it. The cold water had numbed his wound; cleaned it too, as it happened. Carl’s med-kit was in his left chest pocket. He reached in and pulled-out a strip of gauze and a bandage. The morphine was smashed. That would be a problem to look-forward to later. The tiny vial fragments dug into his fingertips. Carl picked them out with his teeth and enjoyed a calming sensation from the remaining drug on his tongue.
The wound wrapped, Carl did his best to sit-up fully and survey his situation. His weapon sat, cracked and beaten on a rock off to his far left. No use there or here he thought. He wiggled his left and then his right foot; both played-along, although the right took some persuasion. His uniform was mainly intact and but for the dampness, he didn’t feel too cold. The morning was beginning to warm and the sun was breaking through the pine trees.
Where is everyone?
It was so quiet. The trees stood still, the ground failed to rumble and even the river walked. Carl pulled his legs to his chest, pushed down and thrust himself skyward.
The pain shot up his leg, through his calf and thigh and up to his hip. Carl took a series of quick, panicked breaths, until the searing heat passed and the tears had stopped streaming from his eyes.
As he was about to start-out in earnest looking for his squad, a shriek filtered through the forest and flooded his ears. He twisted around on the spot. His leg joined-in the screaming and together, he and the forest cried. Falling to the muddied earth, Carl grabbed at his leg and begged the pain to subside.
Another desperate sound echoed. Carl took a deep breath, struggled to his feet and forced his legs to move in the direction he thought the sound had come from.
A sound, any sound is better than nothing and it might be them?
The sun was chasing Carl. He could feel it on his back. His legs began to dry from the river only to be sodden once more with sweat. He’d thought to fill his canteen before striding-out to meet them, whoever they were, but it was fast emptying. His thirst over-rode his survival training and by midday he was down to a quarter remaining. Realising his folly, Carl stopped and rested. He hadn’t heard a scream for over an hour and there was little chance he could find them without it.
What could be happening over there? Why haven’t they come for me?
Carl took the opportunity to inspect his wound. The gauze had come loose. It wasn’t sweat after all. He used as much water as he felt he could spare to re-cleanse the wound, applied a second gauze and wrapped the leg again. The throbbing was beginning to sound in his head, a pain that echoed the repetition of a train. If Carl hadn’t known better, he’d of said there was something inside, kicking and punching, desperate to get-out.
Wiping his forehead with his cuff, Carl saw something, just out of the corner of his eye. The bush rattled and then silenced.
A mouse, no, probably a badger?
He shrugged-it-off when it didn’t move for a few minutes and struggling to his feet he carried-on. The sun was finding it harder and harder to break through the tree canopy and the deeper Carl strode, the safer he was from its attempts, but something was playing-on his mind and he couldn’t place it.
The bushes moved behind him. Carl turned as fast as his leg would allow, reaching for his service knife and readying himself for an attack. Silence, again. This time he would wait-it-out. His heart was thumping, the beat out of sync with his wound. Carl’s eyes surreptitiously spied left and right, waiting, ready. He waited longer than he thought he should and just as he was about to give-up, it moved. Carl, knife in hand, blade pointing down, dove into the undergrowth and struck for all his worth. His hand stabbed and stabbed and stabbed. The blood flew into the air and rained down on his back, arms and dyed his hair.
After what seemed like ten minutes, Carl stopped and stared. There was little left to identify it, but it wasn’t the enemy he’d feared. Pelts of fur dotted the pine needle ground and his hand shook, enflamed, his knife satisfied of its purpose. Carl sat there, stared and broke-out laughing. He laughed so much his pain subsided. Wiping the blood on the ground and replacing his knife, Carl heard something.
Then he realised, his laughter must have carried.
It was a voice; strained and pitiful, but a voice none-the-less. Carl scrambled to his feet and limped as fast as he could before the whimper finished. His legs pulled the earth after him and made the going, slow, but he continued on. The sound was growing fainter, but he could tell he was nearing it. Then it stopped. Carl turned and called-out.
Foolish, he knew. There was no guarantee this person was friendly, but he couldn’t risk staying alone in the forest, without food and water and no means of rescue. It was getting dark, sooner than it really ought to.
Then the answer returned. Carl looked all around him; nothing, not even a track. But the sound was there, definitely there. How could this be?
“Where are you? Show yourself!”
Rain started to fall, lightly at first and then almost torrential. Carl tried his best to blink-away the wet, but it wouldn’t budge. It caked his face and the more he tried the greater it poured-down. He paused and took a breath. It would do no good to scream over the rain. He breathed again.
Carl lowered his eyes and stared at his red, sodden hands. His legs, chest and shoulders had all transformed from a camo-green to an iron-reeking red. Twisting his head to the side and up, there he was. There was the source of the cries, crying no more. The legs were bound by something strong and vine-like, the arms dangled free. Carl’s face struck a similar expression as that on the body, only his was substantially less calm. He heard another cry, but this one came from within.
His feet pounded the ground, pain-be-damned, he was running!
Carl; knife clenched tight in hand, arms pumping, feet crashing down and desperately pushing forward, rushed through the trees. His arms scraped against bark left and right and his teeth bit into his gums as he fled. He couldn’t hear over the blood thundering through his ears, but Carl was convinced that should he dare to stop, dare to glance back, the cries would continue and if not from outside, then from within and this time they might not stop.
The sky was almost black and the further he ran, the darker it appeared to get. Then it all went dark.
As he came-to he realised he wasn’t stationary. His legs were elevated, his arms dragged along and the bulk of his weight rested on his back. Carl’s eyes fought the fog and after some effort, they cleared. He frantically turned his head around as best could. The pine needles dug into his sides and more than a few had found their way under his fingernails. He groaned and raised his head. What he saw had no rhyme or reason. It simply couldn’t be, but if it weren’t real, how could this be happening?
Fingers gripped his left leg at the calf – black, matted and desiccated fingers. The tips glistened and reflected his fear. Following the hand upward, Carl saw the wrist and forearm, the double-jointed elbow, the obscurely long biceps and on. The legs seemed to work in reverse, jarred and irrationally long, leading down to a hooven step. Carl could barely bring himself to look at the head, but look he must. He had to know what he was dealing with and what could be done.
If nightmares could speak, if terror could breath and if fright we made manifest, it would look like it.
In the night, with the dark at its side and all around, it shimmered and almost vanished. A crooked skull, indented and yet smooth, ears hidden within, hair, a strand or two, but no more, not anymore; it defied science and beggared belief. As Carl struggled to comprehend this creature, his mind turned to the more immediate problem, that of escape. Just then, it turned and flashed a brilliant smile – delightful in its devilry and pure of malice.
Carl’s heart paused – the shock took hold and his cognisance vanished once more.
Time passed, but it was impossible to know how much. A shooting pain seared up his leg and Carl woke with a shriek – familiar to that which he’d heard before. Blinking the pain away he turned his head. Everything was upside down. The trees grew from the sky and the ground hung above. He dangled like that poor soul earlier…but he was no longer alone.
What looked like the rest of his squad hung there too, all unconscious. He counted them-off; Jeffers, Hull, Fletch, the new guy, Linus, he kept going, all there and more, in different uniforms; the enemy too? This didn’t make sense, why would they do this to themselv…
Carl was never the sharpest tool in the box, but even he realised that this wasn’t war, this was something else and it gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘No Man’s Land’. They all slept; or at least, he hoped it was sleep. He frantically twisted around and scanned the darkness. He couldn’t see it, but being dark too, it could be anywhere. That smile flashed across his mind and Carl had to fight to be rid of the grin.
A crack sounded beyond the treeline or nearer, he couldn’t tell, then a flame ignited and the clearing revealed itself. Circled and as if in chant, five of them, prostrate and rhythmically rocking to and fro. The sound was guttural and sickeningly sweet at the same time. Starting slowly, the chant rose to a tempo where the individual noises blended together and then, mid-moan, then halted. In unison they turned and faced Linus. His eyes pleaded but his mouth made no sound. Not then, not during and never after.
A pair of outstretched, elongated arms rose skyward and pulled him free of his bondage. Carried, as if by rite, he was laid upon a slab. No utensils required. The fingers made light work. Over and over, their nails dug deep. Piece by piece, Linus was excavated and divided into receptacles. He couldn’t hold it in. The vomitus fled his stomach in a steady stream and pooled beneath him.
They never even bothered to look.
When he’d finished his evacuation, Carl turned and saw why Linus had never made a peep. His throat had been slit, from under chin to chest.
This ritual repeated over and over. They’d all leave, return with wood, stoke the fire, chant and disembowel. They didn’t leave a sentry, they needed worry. Bound and traumatised we barely managed to breath. At some point the terror reached a point where Carl was no longer there. No longer in the moment and instead somewhere numb and he wasn’t not alone. The others had the same glaze in their eyes.
Two remained; Fletch and another.
The chant ended and the next victim was chosen. Torn from his shackles, the German seemed different. His eyes were clear and you could almost see his mind at work. Oblivious to his conscious state, they carried him to their table and began to peel. That’s when Carl saw it. His belt, a full half dozen and on his ring finger, a pin, primed and ready. He stared at Carl, screaming at him with his look.
The explosion shook the clearing and blew so fiercely that Carl was thrust against the tree to which he was tied. A searing pain rippled through him. When the blast wave had settled Carl looked over at where the German had lain. He was everywhere and they were nowhere to be seen.
Carl reached-up; craning his neck and crunching his stomach as hard as he could and there it sat. The knife he’d been carrying when it took him had settled in his leg, near where the bullet had lain. Gripping the knife and pulling as desperately as he was able, a shot of blood spurted free and hit the ground. A steady trickle slid down his leg.
Carl repeated his efforts and pulled himself up to begin. The knife made hard work of the rope-like substance. Sawing and flailing, Carl slashed and gnawed at it until it began to fray or peel and break. He fell to the ground, a full ten feet and landed on his shoulder. The pain was reminiscent of his youth, when he’d dislocated his shoulder; the same shoulder. Staggering to his feet, Carl took hold of his arm and ran at the tree. The shoulder made a pop and Carl’s eyes watered but he made no weep.
The clearing reeked. Under the orange death of the fire, the red turned black, but the smell remained.
Carl ran, as fast as his legs would carry him, over to Fletch. He couldn’t bring his mouth to move but the message was clear. Carl passed the knife to his friend and while he sawed, Carl surveyed the clearing. Many of the weapons sat in a pile. Cherry picking the functional and the loaded, Carl stood armed with a mish-mash of Allied and German ordnances. Returning just in time, Carl extended his arms and half-caught, half-dropped his friend.
One foot after the other, the pair strode, arm over shoulder and weapon in hand into the woods and as best they could remember, towards the riverbed.
Having barely cleared the slaughterhouse, a call rang-out. It wasn’t that sweet tune that had lulled his mind, but a dread cry, full of hate and devilry and purpose. Their feet crashing into the ground and their heads flashed back and all around as the sound neared and the trees and brush and leaves cracked and broke under the pursuing hooves.
Bursts of machine gun fire fled through the forest, more desperate to escape than the two soldiers. If they’d had a mind of their own the bullets might have been guilty of deliberately avoiding the creatures and flying free. The sky was beginning to open and the more they ran, the brighter the world became.
The trees began to thin, as did their ammunition. Pine needles began to shower their hair and as they stopped and looked, a shadowed beast descended upon them from the canopy. The pair fell backward, spraying their remaining bullets at it. They either missed or the bullets had no effect as the monster landed on them and began to slash. Fletch bore the brunt of it and as Carl rolled free he pushed his friends’ outstretched, desperate arm away.
Carl’s last few strides towards the river bank were punctuated by meek calls he felt sure would plague his mind. He could have done something, maybe. Maybe his could have kicked it, punched it? He still had a grenade…
Wading into the water, the current now carrying him away, Carl watched as they stood there, gripping his friend and each taking a limb in their hands tore his wailing body in four. The last thing Carl remembered, before his mind fled and his eyes closed was the crying, punctuated by the raucous laughter.