As part of our Scary Stories issue we get to share some of our favorite spooky and weird stories that we’ve written. Enjoy!
Von Leitner slammed his sword into the beast and thick purple blood spattered onto his hand as a sick shriek filled his ears. He ripped the sword out with a satisfying ‘thunk’ and turned to his men, screaming, “Get the Tesla back up now Aspirant!” Oberleutnant Von Leitner scrambled back as his other men quickly reloaded and fired another volley, adding to the smoke filling the enclosed space and the bullet casings that littered the ground. He pulled his Colt from the holster and began to calmly place his shots, like he was once taught a lifetime ago.
“Organisier la formation!” he bellowed in French, the only language he could count on that most of his men spoke. But it counted for little, as the black smoke of the damned filled the room, held back only by the flickering glow of the arclights. Still they fired, shot after shot into the oncoming mass, the thick smack of bullets hitting unseen flesh but doing little to slow the advance. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Nothing was supposed to be like this. Von Leitner could always tell that something wasn’t right, like something had gone mad in a world that was already two steps ahead, and too far gone to notice anymore. Not since the Tear opened, and this started. Not since The Great War had devolved into The Last War, the Only War, or whatever the hell the historians would call it one day. Assuming that historians would be around to write it at all. Hoping that the planet wasn’t devoured by smoke and unseen fangs.
“Almost have it!” Aspirant Manier screamed back. He worked furiously on the Tesla device with hands covered in the small burns of someone that worked with electricity at a speed too quick for safety. “Un minute.”
“We do not have another minute Aspirant,” the Oberleutnant screamed as he reloaded his Colt. He glanced and saw the first man go down. A German Unteroffizer, Freeh, screamed as the smoke overtook him, and the unseen claws and teeth ripped him to pieces. The wet sounds of blood and meat filled the ears of the men, and hardened as they were, they could all feel the terror rise inside of them. The room wasn’t large, maybe 20 meters across, but most of it was filled with mist. Not a fog, but a mist, a “smoke” the men called it. Something that didn’t absorb light so much as devour it and making the air around darker somehow. The only thing that held it at bay was the chemical arclights that the men has so carefully packed and deployed. Something based on a device designed for the stage, and it filled Von Leitner with dread that it would fail now. For if it failed, they would fail, and it would damn more than them.
Another man now, and the Oberleutnant didn’t get enough of a look at him to know his name or rank. Maybe his comrades would. That was what the Russians called their Bruders, wasn’t it? Comrades? Von Leitner didn’t know enough Russian to know, but he liked the sound of it, and so did the rest of his men, regardless of lingua franca. With a start, Von Leitner realized that his mind had wandered for a minute, and he had lost count of his men. Sehr dumm. Now, in the smoke he could see, not clearly, but the outlines of the things that were coming at them. Inhuman outlines, not bipeds, or anything else like that. Their forms seemed to shift as he looked at them. Sometimes with wings. Sometimes with two feet, or three of twelve, but always with claws and teeth and tools for shredding and rending men. His men.
So Albert lined up his reloaded Colt, and fired a shot into what passed for its head. Like any other thing so inflicted, it reacted the same, a splatter, a quick jerk and stillness. Then the Oberleutnant lined up another shot, and another, firing into where the smoke was getting the closest, where his men were faltering the most. The Colt was loaded with tracer rounds, the hot orange streaks letting his men know that he was looking their way, that he was thinking of them, and fighting for them. Von Leitner always bought them with his own money, and his feuer fliegen always had the effect that he wanted : hope. Now, with his rifle gone, and the remnants of his battalion trapped at night, that was all he had to offer. Until after the hot flash of the last shot, that was gone too.
“Are we there yet gentlemen?” he screamed to the engineers working on the Tesla. He fought ferociously hand to hand, his officer’s sword covered in blood and slick in his hand.
“Just about sir!” Cavus Kemin al’Bey said, just before a wicked red claw dragged him screaming into the mists. His fez fell to the ground and rolled away from his screams. Without thinking, Von Leitner dashed towards the Tesla’s core and cut a swath with his saber. He dared not think about the specifics of what he was slashing, and gutting, but he knew that whatever he was hacking to pieces would return the favor if given the chance. With his back to the core, the Oberleutnant hacked and chopped at anything that came at him in those mists. Inhuman bellows greeted his chopping, and he grimly carried on. In the smoke his screams of fury, of rage, became every bit as inhuman as the creatures that came at him and died at his feet.
For the briefest of moments, Oberleutnant Von Leitner fancied himself a hero from the stories, like Sigurd of old. His officer’s sword held the power of Gram, and he slashed and hacked and would save the world. Albert would stand in this spot, and from here, the tide would turn. The beasts would stop, and they would return to their pit. Europe would not fall, and it would not be the power of technology that would save them, but the might of men.
Then, they were on him. Hands he could barely see snatched greedily at his flesh, and the burn of cuts quickly overwhelmed his ability to stand. He collapsed onto the ground with a wet noise, gripping his gaping stomach in a vain attempt to hold himself together. His fingers were slick with blood and he tried not to think about what he frantically tried to stuff back into himself. Albert looked up, and saw one of the bulbs for the Tesla, too weak from the sudden loss of blood to even move. All of this death for something so small. Maybe this was the key after all. Out of the smoke, he saw his men begin to fall, and the line collapsed. It was only a matter of time now – academic. This was a suicide mission, nothing more. Maybe, Von Leitner reasoned, the next life would be different. Better was a pipe dream to him, but different, maybe different he could live with. Sliding ever closer into shock, he saw the bulb flicker, and ignite.
It was the Battle of the Somme that caused it. That’s what they said anyway. Some of the men thought that. Something about the loss of life, that catastrophic killing on such a scale, an impossible scale, that did it. That was what caused the Tear to open up, and this new war to start. Others said it was God that did it, and these were the end times. Numerologists used their arcane methodology on the Bible to find the words “Somme” and “Verdun” that were “hidden” inside, but came up empty for anything useful to win. Others still said the creatures that attacked them were the vengeful spirits of the innocent dead.
The men that stood around the table were not concerned by any of these hypotheses. Instead the Englishmen, Germans, French and the other nations of the Coalition were focused intently on the map that was splayed out in front of them, covered in small, scrawled notations and held down in the corners by smoldering ashtrays. What they had discovered was that it didn’t matter what those beasts were, or where they came from or why they were here, only that it was possible to kill them. So the best tacticians on the planet poured over the maps in front of them and argued over the best way to kill as many of them while minimizing their own casualties. But it wasn’t as easy for them as they had hoped, because these creatures didn’t get scared, and they didn’t retreat. They fought and murdered so there was nothing left of themselves or their targets. Standard military doctrine had flown gracefully out of the window at that point.
This was how Von Leitner found them when he walked in, hat in hand and with a sharp salute. They returned his salute in the half dozen different ways that the continental armies would and got back to the job of unlearning everything that they had ever known about battle. General Von Stein waved him over with a brisk motion, and Von Leitner quickly stepped to his side, before handing his hat to an aide.
“General, sir,” the Oberleutnant said.
“Commander,” Von Stein said as he knuckled his mustaches. “When you look at this map, what do you see?” Von Leitner leaned in, and looked at the map of the Western Front. In the center of the map was a large red section that was simply labeled, “No Man’s Land” that extended from the what was the town of Mametz, and extended in 200 kilometers in every direction. The Tear was a jagged, and haphazard line in the center of it. Around that in concentric circles were the ever widening entrenchments of the Coalition.
“With respect,” Von Leitner said, “I see our defenses as they stand, but I see no way to retake any of this land. We are, treading water, at best.”
“Drowning,” Von Stein said. “We are drowning, and we don’t know it yet.”
“We are not drowning,” said General Smith-Dorrien in a clipped British accent. He was personally fighting a losing war to have everybody speak English.
“Like we weren’t drowning in La Cateau,” snickered a French Commandant whom Von Leitner didn’t now. They began to bicker among themselves and Von Stein continued.
“These,” he said, pointing at a series of green circles around the crimson perimeter of the “No Man’s Land’ with a thoughtful tap, “Are the one of the few things that keep us drowning and thrashing, instead of just sinking and dying. Do you understand?”
“Yes sir,” Oberleutnant Von Leitner said. “Tesla Towers power lights via a process of wireless electricity. The nachtmahrs cannot stand light. But this one?” he pointed as a green circle that had a black “x” marked through it in shaky ink.
“That one is why you are here Oberleutnant.” the Prussian fanned his big hand across the map. “You see, it is the northmost Tesla Tower. It protects Flanders, and to a greater extent, the English Channel.”
“I see,” Von Leitner said. He made a quick calculation in his head, and came to a conclusion that drained the blood out of his face. “It is broken,” he finally stated flatly, keeping the roiling in his stomach under control. “I am here because you intend to send the 57th to repair it.”
They called it a Tesla Tower, because they didn’t have anything else to call it. The words were even spoken in English because the device hadn’t existed long enough for a classic Babel situation to occur around it. It was almost exactly as it sounded, but did nothing that the name, as simple as it was, would lead you believe. The first time that Von Leitner encountered one, in the spring a year before, he didn’t quite understand how it was supposed to work. Half a kilometer out the hairs on his arms had begun to stand up, and the sounds of birds had stopped altogether. The feeling was unnerving, at the very least. Between the Tesla Tower and the Tear, Albert had felt trapped between two things that were somehow not right, as if there were forces that were at work against each other that were wholly unnatural, and ought not exist. Not really.
Then it had stood before him, a massive structure 350 meters tall, just shy of that oil derrick that the French had built. But unlike that iron lattice eyesore, a Tesla Tower was forged of almost solid copper, topped by a massive chrome ball. It had the effect of looking like an enormous bullet casing that cast a shadow 200 meters long.
Von Leitner had stood there dumbfounded. This, whatever it was in front of him was supposed to win the war somehow. It was supposed to stop the Alp. As he looked at the thousands of welded copper pieces hastily constructed and at great expense, Albert wasn’t sure if he should be proud of what humanity had achieved, or disheartened that this was the best that they could manage.
Leutnant Von Leitner was handed an oversized glass bulb by a Polish Plutonowy. It was glowing and had caught the Austrian by surprise, almost making him drop it. Then it had taken him a moment to realize that it was a trick he was seeing, some magic of science. Then the engineer part of his brain tried working out how the bulb in his hand was on, without being plugged into anything. There were no wires of any kind, and while Von Leitner examined it closely he began to work the mental calculations based on what he saw.
Based on when he first began to feel the static on his clothing and hair, Von Leitner thought that the Tower must work somehow using line of sight, but based on the height, that would give its power a range of 132 kilometers in diameter, and at that distance, they would need several hundred of these massive constructs to do anything. So, he reasoned, the energy must be carried through the air through some other method that that Wizard Tesla had worked out. While Von Leitner stared at the bulb glowing coolly in his hand, Plutonowy Bajor asked, “Would you like me to show you how it works Panie Leutnant?”
With a curt nod, Von Leitner agreed. When the Bajor had turned his back, the Austrian had smiled.
The trains still ran, which was probably the closest thing to an advantage that the Coalition had against their enemy. Infrastructure stayed intact, because the creatures were dumb and interested only in devouring things that were alive or seemed to be. Forests stood, but devoid of anything that breathed oxygen, stark and foreboding, full of shadows. Generally people stayed out of forests since the odds of emerging quickly approached zero after a couple of steps into the underbrush.
Trains though, they still ran, although they offered little in the way of actual protection in case the beasts that emerged from the Tear wanted to get at the meat inside. For that reason, any train that still functioned, was covered from end to end with arclight lamps. Blinding lights that arced brilliantly out into any darkness.
In between these lights on any space still available, were Vickers machine guns. Next to those machine guns were enough ammo boxes to keep the Vickers firing until the barrel melted down into slag.
The rest of fighting men of the 57th were packed into freight cars along with their supplies. They didn’t grumble, because they knew that the alternative was to walk, and they likely wouldn’t get very far before nightfall, and then would get no further. The Junior Engineers were packed no more comfortably into their own freight cars. Although they counted fewer in number, their cars were full of tools and equipment, including the massive arclights that Oberleutnant Von Leitner had ordered packed.
In the front the officers rode in re-purposed dining cars filled with tables and booths. Von Leitner looked warily outside at the French countryside and the miles of desolation that spread before him. While the creatures didn’t devour inert life, their smoke cast enough of a shadow that it wilted the plants and grasses in areas that they stayed for long. So mile after mile of dead fields rolled by his window punctuated by large areas where human battles had been fought and trenches dug back in the other war.
Across from him sat Aspirant Antoine Manier. Generally, an Aspirant would not sit with a higher officer, and certainly not of one from a different “military tradition.” However, Aspirant Manier was one of the few people in Europe that had personally studied the workings of a Tesla Tower with Nikola himself, and was an expert in how they actually worked. This let him into echelons of rank that would normally be well out of his purview. Also, Von Leitner liked him, and he could speak passable German.
Manier had been chain smoking cigarettes since before they had left, and seemed restless, like something was on his mind. Two hours into the trip, Von Leitner finally got it out of him as the train rattled along.
“Oberleutnant,” he said pensively, mashing his cigarette out after using it to light another, “I was thinking.”
“Yes Aspirant,” Von Leitner replied.
“Well, it had to do with the Lutin, with the Cauchemars. I don’t think this is the first time.”
“The first time that they’ve come?” replied the Austrian.
“Yes, yes, the first time they have been here. I…” the Frenchman hesitated. “I, how do I start? What, what do they fear?“
“The light. They cannot stand the light.”
“Exactly. It…It hurts them. That is why they bring this darkness with them, it’s why, why they bring that smoke.”
“Yes. And?” Von Leitner asked politely.
“It made me think a, a lingering thought. Maybe they’ve come before. Maybe they’ve always come,” Manier said as he sucked on his cigarette. “Maybe not this many at once, or like this. But I think that they’ve always, always come.”
“What gives you this impression Aspirant?” Von Leitner countered. “What makes you think that this isn’t some horrible aberration?”
“It’s the dark. That’s what it is. Why we like sunlight, and outside. I think it’s why we like what what we like and fear what we fear. They, they get stronger in the dark. It’s why we, as a species, learned to be afraid of that same dark.” He lit another cigarette and looked outside at the sun rising over the browned landscape. Then he continued. “The dark is where we di…I mean to say, the dark is dangerous, because that’s where they are. It’s why, it’s why…”
“But Aspirant,” Von Leitner interrupted. He could see that Manier was getting visibly agitated. “if you go back these, hundreds of thousands of years, it was not always this way. Not these alp, but other things hiding in the dark. Lions, and snakes and wild animals. These are all dangerous predators. Is it not possible that we learned from them?”
“Oh, yes. Yes it is possible,” replied Antoine Manier. “But since we developed fire, and tools and weapons there has not been anything on the planet more scary than us. Yet, we still fear the dark. So tell me, if there is nothing on the planet that in the dark, is more threatening than man, and there hasn’t been for a very long time, what is it that we are afraid of?”
Von Leitner sat back for a moment, and cracked a broad smile. “You are telling me ghost stories Aspirant. We will continue this another time, yes? After this war perhaps, when we can just share scary stories instead of living them.” Manier conceded with a wave of his hand. As he did so, they were jerked towards the front of the cabin, and a deafening metallic squeal filled their ears. Manier’s cigarette dropped to the floor, and smoldered.
The Frenchman looked around, confused, while the Oberleutnant jumped to his feet and dashed through the side door towards the engine. They had stopped. The train had stopped. Von Leitner pulled out his Colt, and strode towards the front of the train, the rocky dirt crunching under his boots. As he neared the front of the train, he saw what the engineer saw, and his mouth dropped.
Ahead the train track was gone. Not gone in that it has disappeared. It was gone in that what was there no longer resembled a train track by any stretch of the word. Shiza. The metal, 10 centimeter thick iron had been pulled up, and rent like some art project; bent and twisted as if it were nothing more than warm wax. The ties were splintered into chunks ranging from beam to toothpick sized. Von Leitner kneeled by the remains of the track and heard some of his senior staff walk up behind him, uttering curses or prayers in a half dozen languages. He ran his hand along the track and could feel the scratches, and he sunk his fingers into the depressions that his mind told him were made by teeth.
Von Leitner stood, and turned on his heel to face his staff. With his typical Austrian understatement he said, “Gentlemen. As you can see, the situation has changed.”
Minutes passed as the men in his staff attempted, and failed, to keep their composure. Then more minutes passed as they argued with one another. Then another handful went by as they yelled at one another. While this went on, Von Leitner gave an order to a German Fahnrich and then produced a half finished cigar from his pocket. He calmly smoked it while wearing a look that expressed patience, while also expressing that he did not have an abundance of it available. Eventually, his calm spread throughout the group like a balm and everybody remembered that he was their CO.
At this point, many of the 1000 or so enlisted men in the 57th Division had emerged from their cars with weapons ready. They had heard the yelling, and had emerged ready for battle and their NCOs had quickly established a perimeter around the train. In the meantime, they awaited further orders and sent messengers to get them. So by the time the Fahrich that Von Leitner had dispatched had returned with the maps, there were a collection of staff officers, and a handful of babyfaced runners in the back. The senior staff gathered around while Von Leitner spread the map out on the ground.
“It is good of you to quiet down,” he began. “As you may or may not know, we passed Montrevil about an hour ago.” Von Leitner placed his finger on the location of that village. “The engineer says that at the speed we were going, we are about 40 kilometers away from our destination at Tesla tower 4 and the rendezvous with the Americans, and will make that well before nightfall on the march” He then pointed to a hand drawn black X further along.
“300 kilometers to the north of Tower 4, is the English Channel. If the beasts can reach it, then can travel in darkness all over the globe. If we fail, they win. Worse, they seem to know that. This, “ he said and pointed over his shoulder at the ruined train track, without taking his eyes from the map, “Is something different. This is tactics. Our enemy has never shown this kind of thought before. This proves that they are not mindless beasts that we had thought, which means that our situation is far more dire than any of us have realized.”
He stood up from the map and turned in the direction of the Tesla Tower. “Consequently, I need to believe that the Tesla Tower was damaged by them in an act of sabotage to test our defenses, and, it must be assumed, to set a trap.”
Once the staff had realized what Von Leitner’s plan was and, to their horror, that it was the only plan that they had, they moved without thought and with the utmost haste. Messengers were dispatched, to the nearest telegraph if possible, and if that was destroyed along with the train tracks, then they had orders to move as quickly as possible to the front and relay what they had been told. Different groups were sent in an effort to ensure that one of them made it over the distance, but none of them were in any kind of hurry to volunteer.
The rest of the men quickly packed their items, and what equipment they could carry. A load light enough allow them to get to their rendezvous with the 6th Regiment in time, and still have enough equipment to do something useful once they got there was a balance that the troops quickly worked out, and within 20 minutes of the train stopping, they were on their way again. Von Leitner had given specific orders that the chemical arclights were to be brought with them at all costs, and to that end the engineers had broken them down to pieces that could be carried on carts.
Flanders was supposed to be rolling hills, sheep, green fields, and a sky so blue it looked like it was drawn in pastels. Von Leitner had received a postcard once from an uncle who had gone on holiday there, and had always fancied a visit there himself one day, but the breakout of the war had quickly put an end to those ideas. The land the men walked through now was barren and brown. The grasses lay dead and lifeless, ready to catch a spark and ignite with the faintest hint of provocation. In this way, the men were the same. They looked around warily, expecting an ambush at every opportunity in spite of the noonday sun that hung pallidly over their heads.
Worse was the quiet that was almost deafening. Only the crunch of the dead grass underfoot made a sound. The men were too wary to whistle, and too scared to even whisper. Instead their ears were filled with the pounding of their own heartbeats, and they glumly enjoyed that noise while they still could and held their weapons at the ready.
By midday, they were within a few kilometers of the Tesla Tower, and that’s when they got the first hint of the smell. Von Leitner had noticed that veteran soldiers can smell a fight, not that they would be able to easily explain it to you, but the stale smell of combat they know. The column stopped almost to the man when they finally did. The odor of smoke, and cordite, and spent shells and gunpowder hung in the air. Also, the blood. Specifically, the metallic earthiness of blood soaked earth, like the smell before a rain but without any of the pleasantness.
When they crested a short hill Von Leitner saw the killing field. For a few hundred meters in every direction the ground was littered like a slaughterhouse. The creatures had attacked, that much was obvious, and they’d attacked brazenly and in force. The order of battle was clear from his vantage. They had been attacked, from the front at first, and their enemy had poured into their firing lines. The Oberleutnant could see the blue black blood of the creatures singeing the grasses on the outer perimeter. Then, something had happened and they had fallen back, and this detail was illustrated by blood on the ground where he had assumed the outer lines were. From there the lines got ever smaller and more circular, as Americans were slowly pushed back towards the Tesla Tower. What was strange was that the last of the dead were more or less intact. It took Von Leitner a moment to piece together what had happened – the men of whatever company this was had fought until the dawn to protect the Tesla. The last of them to hold, would have the dignity of being able to have their remains sent home.
Of the other men in that battle, there was little left to mark out that they were anything more than meat. A gnawed bone here, a scrap of uniform there, but the alp were as ferocious in their eating as they were violent in their lust of death. Von Leitner kneeled down and pulled a shredded piece of cloth from the ground. Emblazoned on a patch was an Indian in a black diamond. They had reached their rendezvous with the 6th, and now they were completely on their own.
* * *
Night had begun to quickly fall, almost like a guillotine and for his men the result could be just as lethal. The men were spooked almost out of their heads, and under another commander that did not keep himself as calm as their Oberleutnant, they would have collectively lost it. As it was Von Leitner could tell that they were holding on to their composure with the ragged remains of their fingernails. Consequently, he gave no speeches, but would lay a reassuring hand on any shoulder he saw shaking. He found moving across the camp took him longer than it usually would.
In the short time his men had they dug a series of overlapping trenches. Von Leitner had recognized, that however the last battle had transpired, the 6th hadn’t left themselves an easy way out into a more defensible position. The Austrian was not about to make the same mistake as they had. So an outer trench was dug as an eight point star, with a Vickers guns at the tips. Von Leitner had been used to the MG08s, but had quickly had his troops change to the Vickers after hearing its praises sung by anybody with the good fortune to fire them. After seeing them in action he was now a member of that chorus.
After that on the second line, an even shallower trench was dug as a redan housing medium M1917s and the arclights that could be beamed out at whatever came their way. In between these spaces, lines had been run to white phosphorus explosives developed in Russia. For an enemy that could stand neither heat, nor light, Von Leitner planned to give them an abundance of both.
Once those fell, and the Oberleutnant was fully expecting that, the men would fall back into Tesla Tower 4, and it would act as their keep. Of course, all of this was simply another holding action, so that the engineers for the 57th could ply their trade and get the Tesla Tower back on line, at which point, the lights on the outside of the tower as well as the radio powered lights scattered throughout the area would turn on.
Von Leitner decided that while he considered the plan sound, he had no idea if it was any good. Although, he decided, it was the best plan that they had when it came right down to it.
It, however, had finally began to come down along with the temperature and the last shards of sunlight. Another messenger informed him that the engineers needed at least 2 hours to get the tower operational. Not, the messenger was quick to elaborate, completely online but maybe at 20% capacity, which was probably enough to secure the entrenched ground they stood on. In his head, knowing how an engineer thought, Von Leitner added an hour. If they were earlier that that it would be amazing fortune, but he had known too many engineers to take their first estimates for anything. He certainly wasn’t going to take their estimate when lives were on the line.
It was shortly after that, in the deepening purple of dusk, the first calls of warning sounded. On the southern horizon, darker than the night sky behind it, was a rolling mist propelled by a wind too fast for nature that none of the troops could feel. The arclights scanned the mists, and the mist seemed to hesitate, like something alive when the light shone on it in places. Meanwhile, it worked its way ahead wherever the spotlights wavered. Keeping the distances straight when it came to smoke was always tricky, but the platoon commanders knew at what range their guns could hit, and when the smoke was finally inside of 2000 meters, the distinctive teeth rattling tak tak tak tak tak of the Vickers rang out.
They could not see the targets that they were shooting, but the noise was enough – a heinous scream of pain followed quickly by inhuman howls of what they had to assume was delight. Throughout the war, the Coalition had never recovered a full specimen of any of the nachmahr. Even in battles that they had won. It was believed that direct exposure to light caused them to disintegrate. While that may have been true, the soldiers that had fought them knew the other reason – they devoured their wounded and their dead. Out in the open they would move with supernatural speed, but would slow to quickly rip apart their former comrades and eat them. Consequently, sustained fire would slow the advance, even if they could not always see what they were shooting.
Soon however, they didn’t need to hear just the howls, but the gunners could make out the faint thunk of bullets piercing flesh, and the skittering of feet, or legs or whatever the nachtmahr ran on. The lights scanned back and forth with abandon and occasionally the faint outline of one of the creatures would be seen, and the withering fire of the Coalition would be turned in that direction for a fraction.
Von Leitner watched all of this from the redan and at this point had ordered all units on the second line within range to open fire, so the sharp clack of the M1917s joined the sounds of rifles and Vickers guns. He checked his watch, and discovered that based on his estimate, the Tesla would need another 2 hours or more to become operational. Thankfully, his carefully overlapping star trenches and the accompanying crossfire was working just as intended.
It was then, much to his and the rest of the men’s horror, that the smoke struck out at them. Specifically, it struck out at one of the arclights, and completely shrouded it in darkness. The star point that it was lighting, was quickly and suddenly swallowed by the darkness. The men screamed for a moment, and then their screams were replaced by wicked howls and the soft, wet noises of butchery.
“Cover that zone!” he commanded, but by the time the nearest arclight swung around, that entire area was wiped clear of men. He could just make out the severed hand still gripping the Vickers stationed on that point. “Platoon 7,” he began, about to order them forwards to cover the point that had fallen, when another tendril of black mist leapt out of the mass and engulfed another arclight. This time, Von Leitner was ready. “Concentrate arclights on Point 3!” he screamed, and the lights quickly swung around to that point just as the mists swooped into the low trenches.
In the half concealed darkness, the Oberleutnant could almost make out the desperate fighting with bayonets and pistols and trench knives, the men fighting furiously to fall back into the lights. He watched as some of them were drug screaming back into the darkness of those mists, and others fighting bravely with their comrades and ramming weapons home against enemies that he could not clearly see. Not yet. But the smoke had retreated for a moment, and the exhausted men in that area quickly regrouped and manned the machine gun.
They are testing us, Von Leitner thought. They are smarter that we had hoped. As soon as those thoughts occurred to him, another tendril reached out and engulfed the arclight he was standing next to him. To his amazement the light actually seemed to wither somehow, before it shorted out, and failed. In horror, Von Leitner realized that these wisps of smoke were more than a defensive measure, but they were an attack.
He quickly gave orders to his messengers to fall back to the redan. When they had gone, he began to scream, “To the second position! To the second!” The Vickers, if they could be moved safely were picked up and moved with their crews. However, and Von Leitner had realized that this would be the case, whomever was doing the rearguard action would probably die. He didn’t ask how the squad commanders had figured that bit out, but he saw the few dozen men who had drawn the short straws fight valiantly as their brothers retreated into the second line. They wore mismatched uniforms of different militaries, and probably spoke a dozen languages between them, but they fought together now. Then in another moment tide had come in. The nachtmahr crested and crashed over them like a wave, and they were slaughtered to the last.
At this point, Von Leitner was well within rifle range of the mists that obscured the creatures and he stood calmly, and quickly fired into it to try to cover the retreat. Like he had been taught as a boy – fire, slide, reload, fire with a continual and smooth motion while picking your next target. Now, like when he was a child, Von Leitner was an excellent shot. A trick he had learned since becoming an officer was to issue orders in between the pulls of the trigger.
“When the redan,” click, fire, “…is cleared…” click, fire, “…spring the trap.” The Oberleutnant didn’t see the messenger salute, and hence didn’t know which of the dozen salutes that he received. For that matter, the messenger didn’t need to have it explained what the “trap” was, since that was a given.
The men, acting calmly in spite of the animal fear of being hunted that was rising rapidly within them, finally made the redan and threw themselves down into it. The Vickers crews began to set up their equipment on the inside points of the star, with an abundance of panicked shouting. Von Leitner checked his watch, another hour and a half by his estimation for the Tesla to get back online. He almost snarled at the time. The thick black smoke of the nachmahr was getting close, maybe 10 yards out and closing quickly when a klaxon rang out and for a second the sounds of gunfire all ceased. For a second, they could hear the sounds of creature’s footfalls on the dirt heavy and skittering at the same time. In the rear, the unmistakable noise of ripping and tearing flesh. Von Leitner pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes so he wouldn’t see.
He did not do this because of the horrors that he was looking at, but because he didn’t want to have his corneas fried like a Kartoffelpuffer. What he didn’t see was the detonation of 200 kilos of white phosphorus. The Russian bomb was unique in its design, in that it first burst a charge that scattered the phosphorus along a linear projection – in this case, parallel to the redan. Then after a about half a second, the outer coating of the phosphorus would have burned away and it would ignite. The resulting explosion created a curtain of blinding white light that burned at 2700c and lit the battlefield like it was noon. Depending on the curiosity of the viewer, the glare either had the good fortune to hide the shapes of the alp, or was a wasted opportunity to see them flail and burn to ash. The unnatural, but clearly pained sounds they made almost brought a smile to Von Leitner’s shockingly illuminated face, but he has too busy formulating the next sequence of tactics in his head.
He could never get over the sharp metallic smell that was left over, and especially not when it was mixed with the odor of whatever those creatures were made of – a smell almost like cindered mildew and licorice. The Oberleutnant spit out the smell, and turned to see the white embers of the phosphorus snow to the ground.
“Retreat into the tower,” he said calmly and slung his rifle over his shoulder. This time, the men began to fall back smoothly. At first at least. As far as Von Leitner had seen, Russian technology was rugged, almost to a fault. It was effective, and would be exactly what you needed most of the time, and worked when you had a million men using it. But it wasn’t clever or ever elegant. When it failed, it didn’t have a backup, and usually failed catastrophically. On Point 7, such a failure had occurred and instead of creating the belyj ogon’ zanaves it simply fizzled, and then exploded into the lines and burned too quickly to be of much use as a defensive measure.
Consequently, the men in the way of that explosion experienced the most exquisite pain from the phosphorus before being ripped into chunks and having their seared flesh devoured. The black smoke then flowed across the ground like spilled oil through the gap. Then Point 8 was engulfed in the mists and the proud Vickers fell silent as did the men after the shortest of collective screams, just long enough for the troops of Point 1 to realize what was going on. They then had a few agonizing seconds for them to contemplate how doomed they were in a way that, “over the top,” had never quite achieved. They managed a flare in the seconds between their understanding that their death was coming, and when it finally swept over them like the tide and pulled them away from the shore.
The orders were explicit regarding flares, and so when the men saw a crimson comet arc gracefully over their heads the retreat became a full rout. When surrounded on all sides by darkness it takes a certain kind of person to not feel like a trapped animal, to not feel an overwhelming sense of dread. It takes an exceptional person to not do this when thousands of his comrades are doing exactly that. Von Leitner was a certain kind of person, but it shamed him to admit that he was not an exceptional one. So in the face of the unknown, he turned and he ran like everybody else, and the tactical part of his mind was drowned out by the stupid ape part that simply wanted to get away. He lost his rifle somewhere along the way, and managed to be on the front of the pile up to get into the Tesla Tower, to que up like cattle for what amounted to some kind of safety. Some of the men, heroes whose names Von Leitner would never know, turned and fired as the black clouds approached from all sides. Their desperate shots into the darkness bought those too terrified to fight for themselves a few precious seconds to find the soldier inside of them again.
At the very least, the 57th was destroyed. Albert remembered something as he and the survivors slammed the doors behind them. Some horror on the other side was smashing into the outer metal hull and sending them all reeling with every crushing blow. Albert remembered why everybody was looking at him with a desperate look. A look that simply said, “Please.” At first, the stupid part of his mind was too focused on trying to steal another breath. But then, his memory returned as his eyes cleared. He was not just Albert, his mother had called him that. These men called him Von Leitner. These men would call him Oberleutnant, even the Englishmen who could barely pronounce it. These men called him sir.
Von Leitner stepped away from the doors, and another man quickly stepped into his place. The Austrian looked around to see the pipes and catwalks that made up the inside of the Tower, stretching for hundreds of meters into darkness punctuated by the lights of the workers trying to get the tower back on line. He pointed to a catwalk damaged beyond repair in the corner. “I need a dozen men, now!” he bellowed, and they quickly slid the catwalk against the doors. The men, having a moment to catch their breaths realized what he was doing, and all began to quickly do the same and within a few frantic minutes the door was sealed from the inside by a massive pile of iron and copper. In another few minutes, the floor was littered with the crimson red flare sticks of the survivors.
“I need excellent news,” Von Leitner said to Aspirant Manier. Behind him, the survivors were forming into ad hoc companies led by whatever senior staff or NCOs were still standing.
“I don’t have it sir,” Manier said. “We need more time.” They turned and looked towards the door. Some inexorable force was pushing it open, inch by inch in spite of the tonnes of metal in the way. Above them, the horrible shrieking of metal being cleaved asunder vividly rang out. The beasts were climbing the outer hull of the great tower, like ants on a sugar cube, and like the ants would soon carry it away. Around him, his men, the last of his men, worked furiously. They all knew what they needed to be doing, and within the black clockwork of the Tesla, they ticked like gears around Von Leitner.
The industrious yells of the men of the 57th rang out in spite of the tearing noises that came from almost every direction and echoed through the massive chamber. Maybe, he thought, the creatures of the Tear were always here. Maybe Manier is right. Von Leitner allowed himself a moment of despondency and thought it possible that their militaries cannot beat them, and they are too much. That their science is not enough either. For creatures not of this world, but born out of its madness that more madness can not be the answer. Von Leitner shook his head, and realized that these were somebody else’s thoughts and questions that he was not in a position to ponder. These were questions for another day. So he looked around, and saw the barricade begin to give way under massive strength, and the few dozen survivors of the Coalition 57th Engineering Division array themselves for battle. No, he decided, we are here so another day can happen. We bleed to give somebody the chance to answer why.
Von Leitner turned on his heel and spoke out in German his voice ringing out through the massive space. “Gentlemen. My brothers. We know what we do here today, and what our mission means.” In the distance, he heard his words repeated in different languages. He pulled the sword from his scabbard and pointed it at the shivering door. “So today, if you must, I give you permission to die. But today you do not have my permission to fail.”