The Night Children
illustration by Steve Argyle
Presenting a new Escape from Furnace story, “The Night Children,” by Alexander Gordon Smith.
It is December 1944 and Europe is still gripped by war. In the densely forested mountains of Belgium one of the conflict’s most brutal battles is raging. Cut off from the front, a ragtag group of young British and American soldiers finds itself being hunted by a patrol of elite German Special Forces, including a newly commissioned officer called Kreuz—a teenage boy who will grow up to become Warden Cross (the fearsome prison director who will one day rule Furnace Penitentiary, the terrifying underground prison specially built for teen offenders).
As both sides fight for their lives in the unforgiving terrain, however, they start to realize that there are worse things hiding in the snow than soldiers. There are creatures out there with gas masks and piggy eyes (ancestors of Furnace prison’s “wheezers”)—demonic entities that cannot be killed by guns and grenades, monsters who do not care what uniforms their victims are wearing so long as they bleed, and so long as they scream...
The Ardennes, Belgium, 16 December 1944
He had always thought that hell would be hot. But here they were, right inside the mouth of it, and it was freezing.
Splintered trees littered the icy ground like loose teeth, branches embedded in blackened, gum-like craters. Overhead roiled a sky of smoke, as thick as rock, as if the whole world were being engulfed by a cavernous maw. The air carried the stench of death, of misted blood, of terror, a breath that seemed to rise right from the gullet of the underworld. And there was deafening laughter, too, a series of barked explosions that rocked the forest like some demonic chuckle.
Corporal Donnie Brixton crouched in his foxhole, too numb to feel the cold anymore. Pressed up against him on one side was Eddie Argento, and on the other Michael Levy, the same tremor passing through all three men. They faced south, where fire blistered the trees a half-mile away. Another explosion detonated in the middle of the inferno, turning night into day, the shock wave forcing drifts of snow to rise up and dance around them.
Donnie couldn’t remember the last time anybody had spoken, or moved. They could have been fixed here for years, for a lifetime, statues discarded in the forest. The only reminder of life was the clouds of breath squeezed from blue lips, which floated momentarily toward the distant chaos before rising abruptly, escaping. Donnie watched them go and felt that with each exhalation he was watching a little piece of his soul drift away.
But that was okay, because surely here it was better not to have a soul.
More explosions, three, four, the light so bright that Donnie had to squint. Something more than mortars. More than artillery. Tigers, maybe. Whatever it was, nothing could be left alive back there. Which meant the platoon was gone, which meant there was nothing between this foxhole and Bastogne but Germans.
Footsteps, fast and hard, and then a shape skidded into the ditch, a welcome warmth against Donnie’s back.
“Nothing,” hissed Henry Grady, his teeth chattering. “Can’t reach Hayling, can’t reach division neither.”
Donnie swore, cold locking the word inside his mouth. He turned away from the inferno, sliding down the side of the foxhole and pulling his coat tight against his neck. The others hunkered down around him, their eyes wet with fear, their skin as white and as delicate as bone china. Four boys, and even if they pooled their years they’d be well short of a century. He was the oldest, at twenty-three. Eddie was the youngest, eighteen but looking half that as he pushed his helmet up from his nose and sneezed quietly into his sleeve.
“What now?” said Mike, patting his pockets for a cigarette he didn’t have.
“We’re cut off,” said Eddie, sniffing. “Right?”
Donnie nodded. They’d left the front maybe thirty minutes ago. If they’d stayed for one more cup of joe then they’d never have left at all. Nobody had seen it coming. Not tanks, not here. The Germans were supposed to be exhausted, underequipped. For days now the platoon had been camped in the snow and the wind, and the most action they’d seen was a couple of firefights and a mortar attack that had fallen well wide of their foxholes.
But now? Donnie screwed his eyes shut, trying not to think about his friends back on the line, the men who had been pummeled into the earth by a fist of fire and fury. Acid boiled up his throat and it was all he could do not to cry out. They weren’t your friends, he had to scream at himself. You don’t have friends out here, you can’t have them, it costs too much.
“Donnie?” Eddie said. “What do we do?”
“We carry on,” he said eventually. Thunder ripped through the trees, a blast that made the ground tremble. There was a crack and a shuddering groan as one of the ancient trees splintered and fell. “We’ve got a mission.”
“What good’s finding Cuddy and his men gonna be now?” said Mike. “We should get back to the line, gonna need everyone they can get.”
“You think the four of us can change what’s goin’ on back there?” Eddie said, his voice a shrill whine. “We’ll get burned up along with the rest of ’em.”
“You’re yella, Argento,” said Mike. He turned to Donnie. “You, too, Corporal.” He spat out that word as if to say, We pretty much got the same rank, you and me, except for that extra chevron. “You’re yella, too, if you don’t take us back.”
“We’ve got orders, Private,” Donnie said, meeting Mike’s dark eyes and holding them until the other man looked away. “We find Sergeant Cudden, we find his men.”
“Yella,” muttered Mike in disgust. And it was true. Donnie was more scared than he had ever been, and wasn’t it better to march into the forest, into the cold, empty night with death at their backs, than to step further into the hellmouth, to give themselves up to the flames? He tightened his grip on his Garand, his fingers frozen to the metal. Shooting at tanks with this would be like throwing pebbles, especially when they had less than fifty rounds among them.
He waited for the tremors of another detonation to fade, then peeked over the top of the foxhole. The forest was illuminated by golden light, every knot on every trunk picked out in perfect detail. There were no shapes in the flames, nothing human. But it wouldn’t be long before the German infantry moved in, rounding up the wounded and hunting down those who fled.
“Come on,” Donnie said, clambering out, and offering a hand to Eddie. “Let’s move.”
It was two days ago that Sergeant Bill Cudden had led a squad of seven men away from the front. Their mission was to head north, then cross over into enemy territory, to find a way into a small logging village where the Germans were camped, and to blow it to kingdom come. It was about as dangerous as assignments got, but all eight men had volunteered without so much as a pause for breath between them. Donnie knew because he’d been there, too, and when the call had come he’d kept his hands tucked into the warmth of his armpits and his eyes locked on his shoes.
Because you’re yella, he told himself in Mike’s Jersey accent, and his shame was like a creature biting at the inside of his throat. But he’d seen death. He’d seen men punctured by bullets, their limbs blown off, their teeth shattered. He’d seen what men were made of, and how easy it was to turn them inside out—he’d done it himself with his rifle and his grenades. But worse, he’d seen what happened to their eyes as they writhed on the ground waiting for the medic, for morphine. He’d seen death in that blinking wetness. He’d seen the terrible, gaping oblivion that waited for all of them.
He realized Eddie was talking to him. The kid was by his side, so close that they could have been walking a three-legged race. The front was an hour or so behind them now, far enough that the light from the fires had faded. But night still hadn’t been allowed to fall here, even though the stars occasionally peeked through the motionless canopy, even though the moon sat on the branches like a fat, silver-faced owl. Light seemed to radiate from the snow, unearthly, unreal, as if this forest and everything in it had been painted over a glowing bulb.
He shivered as Eddie called his name again.
“What is it, Private?” he said.
“Got a girl at home?”
Donnie frowned. They’d already had this conversation, sitting in a foxhole on the front drinking coffee and imagining themselves back on a stoop in San Fran or Chicago. He turned to remind Eddie, then saw the kid’s face, so drawn that it looked as if somebody had scooped out the meat from under his skin. His eyes were on the ground, watching for loose branches and stumps, which he hopped over like a rabbit, pushing his helmet back after every fumbling leap. The boy glanced up with a nervous smile and it seemed as though he’d lost another five years between the front and here, as if the forest were pickpocketing them from him every time his back was turned.
Please, sir, his face said. Tell me again, because it’s too quiet here, just talk to me.
“Yeah, sure I do,” Donnie said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a photo. “Betty, she’s a looker, right? And waiting for me.”
The Ingrid Bergman double that stared back from the photo was called Betty, although she wasn’t his sweetheart. She was his next-door neighbor back in Lafayette and they’d been friends since before they could walk. But everyone needed somebody to take to the front with them, and when he’d asked her for a photo to show the boys she’d been more than happy to pose as his beloved. Betty. Sweet Betty Marmalade, he’d called her when they were growing up. He couldn’t remember why.
“She’s real pretty,” Eddie said, his teeth chattering. “Wish I had a girl like that to keep me warm at night.”
“Plenty of time,” Donnie said, clapping an arm down on the kid’s shoulder and feeling the icy air nudge its way into his coat. “You’ll be a hero when you get home, all the girls will want a piece of Eddie Argento. You’ll need to keep hold of your rifle to beat them back.”
Eddie giggled, nudging his helmet up.
“I know, kiddo,” Donnie said. “I know.”
“Much longer?” Eddie asked, and Donnie thought he was talking about the war until the kid nodded into the trees. Henry was up there, on point. He was a scout, and a good one. He’d been the guy to suggest going after Cuddy and his squad when they didn’t radio in on their first night. This time there hadn’t been a call for volunteers, their platoon sergeant had just picked the men who happened to be sitting in the same hole—Donnie, Eddie and Mike—to go with him.
“Not sure,” Donnie said. “No way of telling how far they got.” They had been supposed to cut out and around, flank any Nazi lookout posts along the front, then sweep in when they got to the village. That meant moving pretty far north before heading east. “Henry’ll know, he’ll find them.”
And right then he knew that he and Eddie were thinking exactly the same thing. They were hoping that they wouldn’t find them, because then they’d find out what happened to them. And when a squad didn’t radio in when it was supposed to, didn’t make contact for a whole twenty-four hours, that could only be bad news.
They stumbled along, leaving a trail of ragged breaths behind them. And Christ was it quiet now, no wind to blow the pines, no creatures chattering, not even the distant thunder from the front. The forest was gripped by a profound, deafening silence—as if it were holding its breath, as if it were watching them go. How old is it here? Donnie wondered. How many centuries have these trees stood sentinel? He had never in his life felt so insubstantial, so fleeting, as here among these voiceless methuselahs, this ancient and unforgiving place. It would swallow them all whole as punishment for their trespass, without making a single sound—the way a shark swallows a fish whole in the deep, dark ocean. Nobody would ever know. Is that what happened to Cuddy’s squad? Not shot, not captured, just devoured in an instant as the snow and the dirt opened up beneath them then closed over their heads. Here one second, gone the next, and trapped for all eternity.
The forest watched them walk. The lunatic moon grinned down at them. And it was all he could do not to scream.
Donnie saw Henry signaling up ahead and instinctively ducked down, fumbling for the rifle looped over his shoulder. Eddie crashed to a heap beside him, swearing under his breath as he reached for his own weapon.
Henry was a hundred yards away, crouched against a shallow bank, just a smudge of green against the dirty snow. His hand was raised, palm out, which meant he’d spotted something in front of him. Donnie checked his watch, blowing frost from the glass face to see that it was just after midnight. They’d been walking for nearly three hours now, which put them roughly nine miles off the front and still following Cuddy’s tracks.
He glanced over his shoulder to see Mike crouched against a tree nursing his Garand, his jaw flexing relentlessly as he chowed down on some gum.
“Hold here,” he whispered to Eddie. He bolted as quietly as possible to Henry, skidding down beside him in a storm of white powder. “What is it, Private?”
“Hell if I know,” Henry said, pure Mississippi. “But somethin’s moving up there.”
Donnie eased his head up over the bank to see the same forest—the same trees, the same snow, as if they were walking along an endless, changeless Möbius strip. There was no sign of movement. He could have been looking at a photograph, and the forest still possessed that same pregnant stillness, as if it was waiting with bated breath for his next move.
Then he saw it, something fluttering behind the scrappy skirt of a large conifer—there for an instant, then devoured once again by stillness. He eased his rifle onto the tip of the bank, his heart drumming as if to make up for the silence. It might be a bird, a deer maybe. But it might just as easily be a German patrol scouting south or west, maybe even tracking them up from the front. He waited, counting his heartbeats—three for every second—suddenly sweating despite the cold. There it was again, a flicker of color darting out and back in again, like a head popping up from cover. It could have been their mirror image, and Donnie imagined the four of them running into themselves, their doppelgängers. It was insane, but this forest, definitely not sane, felt as if it could bend reality around in splintered circles.
Donnie glanced back, waving the others forward. Then he turned to Henry. “Keep your gun on it, whatever it is, I’ll go around.”
“Sir.” Henry nodded, lining up his weapon. Donnie waited for Mike and Eddie to scuffle down beside him; then he shrugged off his pack and crawled along the bank to his right, trying not to make a sound even though each chattering breath sounded, to him, like a Liberator taking off. The conifers were thick here, growing up on either side of him, their branches bowed with needles and snow. He felt safer in their shadows, and it was tempting to crawl into the darkness beneath their arms and just wait there for the war to end. But he pushed on, his hands numb, until the pines thinned.
There was no bank here, just flat ground, and he edged out as slowly as he could. He located the tree they had been watching before, and from this angle he could see the shape there. It was a lump, maybe human-sized, and scraps of cloth fluttered from it in a breeze that Donnie couldn’t feel. The whole thing shifted, seeming to breathe in and out.
He slid his rifle back over his shoulder and pulled his .45 from its holster. Moving this way was easier, and he slid through the forest without a sound. Glancing to his side he saw Mike moving parallel to him on the other flank, the Garand stock wedged against his shoulder. They walked in time, closing in on either side of the shape that shuddered and shook against the tree.
When they were close enough, Donnie glanced at Mike, held up three fingers, then two, then one, and together they charged.
“Don’t move!” Donnie yelled, almost tripping over his own feet as he ran around the tree. “Don’t you—”
The gunshot almost deafened him, and this time he did lose his footing, dropping to his knees. Mike ran up, his rifle smoking, as the shape thrashed against the tree.
“Christ,” said Donnie, hearing his pulse in the word. It was a parachute, ripped and torn and held in place by a satchel. He put his finger through the hole that Mike’s shot had made. “I think you killed it.”
“Screw you,” Mike said. “It was moving. I thought it was going for a gun.”
Eddie and Henry appeared, lowering their weapons when they realized there wasn’t any danger.
“Weird,” said Eddie. “What’s that doing all the way out here?”
“And is it one of ours?” Donnie said, and would have added more if he hadn’t felt the cold steel of a gun against the back of his neck and heard a whisper in his ear, the accent unmistakable:
“No. It isn’t.”
* * *
“Drop the guns. I will not hesitate, boys, to blow your goddamned heads clean off.”
Donnie did what he was told. He didn’t think he could hang on to his pistol even if he’d wanted to, the weight of it suddenly unbearable. It thudded into the snow, followed by two rifles. Mike held on to his, looking at whoever was behind Donnie with a sneer on his face.
“Yeah?” he grunted. “I don’t think so.”
The pressure on the back of Donnie’s neck increased.
“I do,” said the voice, little more than a whisper.
“Drop it,” Donnie ordered. Mike hesitated a moment longer, then let the gun slide from his fingers. “We’re not alone,” Donnie went on, hoping the lie wouldn’t show. “There’s a bunch more of us on the way.”
“You Yanks,” said the voice, louder now and too high, too musical. “Always the same with your bravado and your shoot-first-ask-questions-later and your gum.” The weapon was lifted from Donnie’s neck, the skin there prickling. “I could hear you chewing from a mile away, and they must be able to smell Juicy Fruit all the way over in Berlin. Turn around, let’s take a look at you.”
Frowning, Donnie did as he was told, making sure to keep his hands well out from his sides. Standing there was a pilot, dressed in the uniform of the British Royal Air Force. He was wearing a leather flying helmet, and there was a scarf pulled tight around his mouth. He was small, at least six inches shorter than Eddie; painfully thin, too. He was holding a Webley, the pistol enormous in his slender, gloved hands.
“What’s your name and rank?” he asked.
“Donnie. Corporal Donnie Brixton.”
“Which unit are you with?”
“506th Infantry,” Donnie said after a pause.
“506th? What’s your nickname?”
“Why?” asked Mike.
“So I know you’re not Nazi spies. Your nickname, tell me.”
“Currahees,” said Donnie.
“Good.” The pilot lowered his weapon, but he didn’t take his finger from the trigger.
“What about you?” Donnie asked. “Didn’t think the Brits had any men this far out.”
“And you were right.” He removed his helmet and loosed a cascade of brown hair, then tugged at the scarf to reveal a face that belonged on the front of Titter magazine. Donnie’s jaw dropped, and the others must have had a similar reaction, because the girl laughed at their expressions, a sound that seemed to make the forest shrink back.
“Now I can see your gum as well as smell it, thanks, boys.”
“You’re a woman,” said Mike, picking up his rifle.
“And you’re a sharp one,” she replied.
“What are you doing out here?” Donnie asked, collecting his own pistol and holstering it. “Are you alone?”
She nodded, tucking her weapon into a huge pocket in her jacket.
“I was escorting a bombing run, heading east, AAs took me down.”
“But you’re a broad,” said Mike.
“Your friend there,” she said, leaning in to Donnie and tapping her temple. “Is he shell-shocked? Or just a little slow?”
“Got to admit it’s a little weird, Corporal,” said Henry. “Out here alone, a woman. How do we know this isn’t a trap?”
“Yes,” said the girl, her voice laced with sarcasm. “I’m German. The Führer ordered me out here especially to lure down four hopeless American boys, all of whom—presuming, Mr. Brixton, that you are the leader of this ragtag group and you’re a corporal—have attained the superior rank of privates.” She barged between Donnie and Mike, picking up her parachute and shaking it loose. With a deft swirl she wrapped it around her shoulders, tucking it into the collar of her jacket. Then she looped her satchel over her shoulder to hold the improvised cape in place. “The success of the Nazi war effort and the Third Reich depends entirely on me luring you lot into a cunning trap. So come on, follow me.”
Donnie was speechless. He looked at Mike, who was fuming, then at Henry and Eddie, who both shrugged. After what seemed like an eternity he finally opened his mouth.
“What’s your name?”
She grinned at him.
“Flight Sergeant Joan Forbes.” She snapped a sharp British salute. “His Majesty’s Royal Air Force.”
“We heard the antiaircraft guns, the night before last, right?”
Donnie stoked the fire as he spoke, the timid flames topped with his steel helmet and surrounded by a perimeter of wood to conceal the light. All five of them hunkered around it, shoulder against shoulder, grateful for the warmth even though it was barely enough to seep through their gloves into the numb flesh of their fingers. Water stirred inside the helmet, slowly coming to the boil.
“Yes,” said Joan, brushing a strand of hair behind her ear and staring into the flames. She was remarkably skinny, her face gaunt with shadows beneath her sharp cheekbones. And yet there was no denying she was attractive, dazzlingly so in the firelight, and when she smiled her eyes brightened in a way that made Donnie’s throat tighten. She was still wearing her parachute like a shawl, the white silk almost invisible against the eerie glow of the snow, and she clutched her satchel to her chest. “We were heading for Heilbronn, follow-up raids. I was an escort, but I took some flak and that was that.”
“What do you expect?” Mike said. “Letting a broad fly a plane. Only you Brits would be that stupid. What next? Pig pilots?”
He snorted at his own joke, but Joan didn’t even seem to hear him.
“I managed to bail, landed a few miles north of here. Had no idea where I was, other than smack bang in the middle of the Ardennes. But I knew Allied forces had to be south of my position, so I headed this way.”
“What’s with the ’chute?” asked Eddie.
“I wasn’t lying when I said I heard you from a mile away. Didn’t know if you were good guys or bad guys, so I left it there as a decoy and waited to see who approached. Luckily for me, it was you chaps.”
“Yeah, you are lucky,” said Mike. “Lucky we didn’t spot you first and think you were a German.”
“Yes, I’m still quaking in my boots, Private Levy, at the thought of what might have happened had you actually been walking with your eyes open and your mind on the job.”
Her sarcastic humor was strangely infectious and Donnie found himself smiling. For some reason, even though the forest remained graveyard quiet, even though the moon still loomed overhead like a dangerous, grinning fool, some of the fear had ebbed away. Maybe it was having a woman for company, it made him think of home, of Betty next door. It made him feel safe.
“Seriously, though,” he said. “I didn’t think you girls were allowed in the RAF.”
“Technically we’re not,” she said. “Technically I’m in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, but that’s such a mouthful. Most of us WAAFs are just civvies, we transport planes at home, and do a great deal more to keep our boys safe on the front.”
“And you?” Donnie asked.
“Well let’s just say when you can outfly and outgun and outswear every single chauvinistic arse of a pilot in the King’s Air Force then they can’t keep you away from the action for long. I convinced them to give me a Spitfire and there you have it. Sixteen successful missions then one lucky Kraut with an 88 and here I am drinking tea with four fine American gentlemen.”
“Coffee,” said Donnie, fishing a tin from his pack and tipping some pre-roasted beans into the boiling water. The smell of it seemed to fill the air instantly, reinforcing that feeling of calm. “And I’m not sure if we qualify as gentlemen.”
He gave the coffee a stir with his knife, then gestured to the helmet. “No cups, I’m afraid.”
“As long as it’s hot,” said Joan, scooping up the helmet and taking a mouthful. She winced as she swallowed, then passed it to Eddie. “What about you? Why so far from your foxholes?”
“We’re looking for someone,” said Donnie. “A sergeant left camp a day and a half ago, took seven men with him. Then they disappeared, haven’t checked in since. We were sent out to find them.”
“Or to find out what happened to them,” added Henry.
“Right,” said Donnie. “So . . .”
He trailed off when he saw Joan’s face. It seemed to have grown thinner, almost skeletal, her lips a razor-thin line. She glanced at him—her eyes dark, no trace left of that brightness, that sparkle—then quickly back at the fire.
“What?” Donnie asked.
“Eight men, you say? Were they heading north?”
“Yes, did you see them?”
She didn’t reply, lost in the quiet rage of the flames.
“Don’t go after them,” she said, and with that soft whisper the forest found its power once again, the silence crashing down around him with such force that even the fire seemed to shrink. She looked up at him again and Donnie’s skin crinkled into gooseflesh. “Turn back, there’s nothing for you to find up there. Nothing good.”
“What do you mean?” Donnie just about managed to find the words. “Did you see them?”
“I saw,” she started, swallowing hard. “I don’t know, I don’t know what it was. I didn’t think it was real. But trust me, something bad happened to them. Your friends are gone, you can’t help them. And if you try . . .”
They all watched her with wide eyes, watched her seem to shrink into her parachute.
“If you try, if you go after them, then something bad is going to happen to you, too.”
“I don’t trust her.”
Mike spat the words into Donnie’s ear even though there was no way Joan could hear him. She stood by the charred remains of the fire twenty yards away drinking the last few swigs of coffee from the helmet. Eddie was chatting to her, his arms gesticulating wildly, although Donnie couldn’t make out what he was saying.
“There’s a reason she doesn’t want us to keep going. Something she ain’t telling us. I know it.”
“Like what, Mike?”
“How the hell should I know? Ask me, she’s probably a spy. Hitler’s got a whole army of ’em, broads just like her who sound right and look right but who’ll gut you while you’re swooning over ’em. She already admitted she was sent here to trap us.”
“She was joking.”
“Yeah? Maybe, maybe not. She’s been sent to knock us off the trail. There’s something up there, something they don’t want us to find. A base, or a weapon, maybe just a load more Hun troops ready to make the push down to Bastogne. Maybe Adolf himself is up there wearin’ furs and makin’ snowmen.”
“So why don’t the Germans just kill us?” Donnie asked.
“Because it causes too many questions. Cuddy dies and they send us. We die and they send someone else. They die and sooner or later the whole 101st marches up here to find out what’s going on. No, they’re sly. She’s sly. She scares us off south and we go back sayin’ we didn’t find anything and leave them well alone.”
Donnie had to admit that he had a point. If Joan was a spy, a German agent, then that’s exactly what she’d be doing. But she wasn’t. He didn’t know how, but he was sure of it.
“It doesn’t matter anyway,” he said. “Because we’re not turning around. Hell, we couldn’t if we wanted to, there’s nothing back there but Panzers. We keep going, we find whatever it was she saw and we know for sure what happened to Cuddy.”
“And her?” Mike said. “Somethin’ tells me she ain’t gonna come with us.”
Donnie sighed, pulling his collar tight around his neck, the night so cold he could have been hollow, a breeze blowing inside him from his feet all the way up to his skull. Joan must have sensed him looking, because she turned and smiled, and in that smile he saw that even though she was strong, even though she could probably survive out here longer than any of them, she didn’t want to be on her own. Out here, being on your own would make someone as crazy as the forest and the moon.
“She’s one of us,” he said, patting Mike on the shoulder. “She’ll come.”
He left Mike to his muttered curses, walking back to the fire.
“Empty?” he asked Joan, nodding at his helmet. “Wouldn’t be the first time I’d put my tin back on and soaked myself.”
She smiled, handing it to him. There were a couple of mouthfuls sloshing around inside and he knocked them back, grateful for what little warmth the coffee still had. He tipped the beans away, then planted the helmet back on his head.
“We’re going north,” he said.
“But—” Eddie started.
“North, those are our orders. I believe you, that you saw something. But we have to see it for ourselves.”
“You won’t like it,” Joan said, getting to her feet. “I can promise you that.”
“I don’t like anything I see in this place, but I’ve got a job to do. We all have.” He picked up his pack, heaving it onto his back. “You with us?”
She sighed. “Well, seeing as I’m out here with no rations, no map, no clue to where I am—not to mention what you’ve told me about the Germans moving in south of here—I don’t really know what other choice I have. Lead the way, Corporal.”
Donnie nodded at Henry, who started trudging through the snow. Eddie followed, stumbling, then Joan. Donnie kicked out the fire, sweeping snow over the ash to hide it. Then he set off after them, hearing Mike right behind him, the other man still mumbling: “I don’t trust her.”
It was snowing again, had been for maybe fifteen minutes now. The flakes drifted down slowly, delicately, but their graceful beauty was an illusion, one quickly spoiled as the world began to disappear. It was as if somebody was taking a giant eraser to the forest, wiping out the tops of the trees, then the branches, then the trunks, and finally the ground, leaving them in an ocean of utter nothingness where they would quickly drown. Out here, snow was as dangerous as mortar shells. And it wouldn’t be a quick death, no, nor a peaceful one. It would be a protracted, painful end as the chill crept through your marrow, locking itself in your bones and muscles, paralyzing you like a spider bite and leaving you for the forest to devour at its leisure.
“You see anything at all up there?” Donnie called ahead to Henry. “You want to stop?”
“No, this is right,” said Joan from Donnie’s side, checking her own compass. “We haven’t strayed off this bearing, and neither did I coming south. Kept the line as straight as I could in case I had to retrace my steps.”
“How much further?” he asked.
“I’m not sure. My watch got broken when I bailed. But it was after nightfall when I found the . . . When I found your friends. Maybe eight or nine. Maybe later. It won’t be much longer.”
Donnie nodded. They’d have to stop again soon anyway and eat something. They had packed enough rations for three days, but now they had an extra mouth to feed, and when the weather was like this even the egg disappeared fast. With any luck they’d find out what happened to Cuddy tonight; then they could worry about what came next. They couldn’t turn around and head back to an occupied camp, but there were Allied positions west of here that they could trek to in a day or two.
As impossible as it was, the snow had plunged the forest into even greater depths of silence. Donnie felt like he was underwater, kept swallowing to pop his ears the same way he did when he dived too deep in the quarry back home. Occasionally there was the whipcrack of a branch breaking under the weight of the fall, but other than that the crunch of their feet in the fresh drifts, and the chattering of their teeth, was the only sound.
“So,” he said, wanting to speak, to say anything to make the silence less deafening. “You got a fella back home?”
“Two,” Joan said, looking at him over her shoulder. Her skin was icy blue, her eyes the color of chestnuts.
“I have two fellas,” she said this with a clumsy American accent, “and a lady, too.”
Donnie tried to whistle, but the cold turned it into a sigh.
“I didn’t take you for that kind of girl.”
“I’m not,” she said, laughing. “I’m engaged, to a dope named William. We’ve got two kids already, George and Grace.”
“Seriously?” Donnie said. “You don’t look old enough.”
“Thank you. I’m probably older than you think. George is six, I had him when I was twenty-one, before the war. Grace is four, from back when I’d never have dreamed of being up in a Spitfire.”
“Got a picture?”
Joan bent down and reached into her boot. She pulled out a transparent envelope which contained a letter and a photograph. He recognized the letter. They all had one tucked away in a pocket; I’m sorry I didn’t make it home, please don’t forget me, I love you. She handed him the photo. It had obviously been taken in a studio: a tall, bony man wearing glasses and a goofy grin; a kid on each knee, the little girl clutching a doll and looking out of the shot, her face blurred as though she’d turned just as the picture had been taken, the boy fair-haired and holding a toy plane above his head. Joan was there, too, standing behind the others in a dress uniform as if she were a canvas backdrop, rounder in the face, her cheeks flushed, her hair up, and a smile that could have lit the scene without a single photographer’s flash.
Beautiful, Donnie nearly said, settling for, “You miss them?”
“Of course,” Joan said, tucking the picture back in the envelope and sliding it inside her boot. “More than anything. Well, the little ones anyway. William, he’s . . . he’s what we call a wet blanket. But he’s good, and he’s safe, and he loves me. He works for the government, nothing important, just number crunching in Whitehall.”
“Wet blanket, eh? Why you with him?”
Joan shrugged, obviously embarrassed.
“He’s my parachute. When I come back, when I come home after a mission, he makes sure I land safely.” She looked as if she wanted to say more, but didn’t. “What about you?”
“A gal? No.” He shook his head and thought of Betty, Betty his neighbor, his best friend, Sweet Betty Marmalade who got married a year ago to a milkman called Joe. “No, I kind of missed the boat on that one. We maybe had—”
Donnie turned, saw Mike a dozen yards behind them half lost in the falling snow. He was holding up his hand. Donnie stopped, making the same signal to Henry and Eddie up front.
“Trouble?” said Joan.
“I hope not,” he replied, scampering over his own footprints until he reached Mike. The other man was staring the way they had just come, the snow a curtain of gauze which smudged everything into nothing. Donnie stared into the forest, turned to bone by the idiot moon, and the forest seemed to stare back.
“What is it, Mike?” he asked. Mike didn’t reply, he didn’t blink. Donnie’s flesh squirmed, and he swore he could feel somebody’s eyes crawling over him. He squinted into the haze, nothing there aside from the sentient trees thinking their old, slow thoughts.
Mike turned to him, and there was fear there in the darkness of his eyes and the way his jaw clenched. Donnie didn’t like it. Mike was a sonofabitch, but he was a brave sonofabitch, no doubt about it. He was too stupid to be anything other than brave.
“What is it?” Donnie repeated.
“Can’t you see it?” he whispered, flecks of spit in the corners of his mouth.
“See what?” Donnie said, shaking his head. “Mike, there’s nothing there, just trees.”
“Between the trees,” he replied, his words little more than breath. “Don’t you see them?”
Donnie looked into the snow. He looked between the trees, where the flakes fell and danced in tight spirals. He looked and did not blink, looked at those shifting loops of white against white which seemed for an instant to form shapes there—not quite solid, not quite not, like figures waiting just under the skin of the world—then split apart to be nothing more than snow again. He looked, and he saw, and felt the forest peel away a piece of his sanity as a trophy.
“Come on,” he said, grabbing Mike’s sleeve and dragging him away. “There’s nothing there. Nothing real.”
Mike resisted for a moment, then turned and followed, still not blinking.
“Nothing real,” Donnie insisted.
But something was definitely watching. Something with a smile on its face.
They were the first words that anyone had spoken for over half an hour, and the forest gobbled them up so quickly that Donnie had to ask Joan to repeat them.
“This is it, I’m sure of it,” she said, folding her arms over her chest. “Just over there.”
Henry had stopped at a shallow gully, and when Donnie caught up he saw that the water below—what little of it wasn’t hidden by the fall—had frozen. On the other side was a bank that rose to a tight-knit line of short, fat pines.
“You sure?” Donnie asked, unclipping his holster and trying to pull out his pistol. His fingers were too numb, and he went for his Garand instead, swiveling the rifle into position.
“Looks pretty quiet,” said Henry. “No tracks.”
The snow had stopped a while back, although the trees continued to shed a mist of flakes. Nobody had been this way for at least thirty minutes, unless they’d thought to brush over their footprints as they went.
“I remember I came through those bushes so fast I didn’t see the ditch,” Joan said. “Nearly broke my neck.”
“What were you running from?” asked Eddie, his face mouse-like in its apprehension. Joan looked at him.
“I told you. Something bad.”
For a while, nobody moved; they just stared at the bank opposite and felt the silence drip from it in great, invisible chunks.
“It won’t do any good to go over there,” Joan said.
“This is crazy,” said Mike, pushing between them, rifle in his hands. “She’s a broad. You coming or not?”
He scrambled down the side of the gully, and managed to keep his feet as he stepped gingerly over the ice and up the other side. Donnie didn’t look at Joan again. He was frightened that if he did, if he met her eyes, he’d somehow see what she had seen and he wouldn’t be able to find the strength to carry on. He waited for Henry to move, for Eddie to slide down on his backside; then he half jumped and half fell onto the frozen river. Mike was waiting for him, hand extended, and Donnie let the man haul him up. When he turned, Joan was still standing there, a ghost against the glowing night, the snow on her helmet and silk parachute shawl making her look almost transparent, fading fast. Maybe we are specters, Donnie thought. Maybe we died back there, somewhere, and this is where we spend eternity.
“Joan,” he called, if only an attempt to keep her here, to stop her from dissolving into the night. “Come on. We’re safer together.”
She shook her head, but made her way across the stream anyway.
“A hundred feet, maybe,” she said as he carefully pulled her almost weightless frame up the bank. “Can’t be any more than that.”
Mike took the lead this time, walking too fast as if to prove that there was nothing to fear. But Donnie remembered his face, his grinding jaw—something between the trees—and knew that they were all feeling that same tug of panic in their guts. He jogged a little to catch up with him, rifle ready.
“Keep your eyes open, Private,” he said. “Could be anything up here. And spread out, all of you, five-meter intervals.”
The men fanned to either side of him, treading carefully, hunched over their rifles. There was nothing different about this stretch of forest—the same trees, the same snow, the same moon—and yet the pressure in Donnie’s ears was even greater, almost painful, like being back inside the transport plane as it took off from England heading into Fortress Europe. His pulse sounded as if something were furiously grinding its teeth inside him.
“Sir,” said Henry, nudging his Garand forward. “Over there.”
He saw them. Shapes between the trees. Only these weren’t phantoms of snow and wind. He lifted his rifle, peering down the sight as he took step after stumbling step.
“That’s Cuddy,” said Eddie. “Oh Christ, it’s him.”
And it was. Sergeant Bill Cudden stood there on the edge of a small clearing, motionless. There was something wrong with his face, and it took Donnie a moment to understand what.
It wasn’t attached to anything.
It had been cut loose, and hung like a flag from the top of a wooden man. Moonlight shone through the eyes and mouth, nestled like a halo in his hair, giving him the appearance of a saint. His body was a collection of sticks and branches, standing maybe eight or nine feet tall, a rifle for one leg. A coat had been draped over his shoulders, twigs poking from the bloodied cuffs and the pockets stuffed with straw. Donnie stared at him, at this human doll, and felt something break loose in the engine of his mind.
“No,” somebody sobbed. “It isn’t . . . It can’t be.”
Donnie staggered forward, his rifle hanging by his side, forgotten. Cuddy hadn’t suffered his fate alone. Two more men had been propped around the circumference of the clearing, each just as tall, each facing inward as if attending a bizarre midnight rendezvous of quiet giants. They, too, were puppets of flesh and wood, their faces leather masks worn by crude, knotted mannequins. One—it was Albert Connaught, Donnie thought—held his helmet against his chest with twig fingers, like a pious man entering a church. The other, unrecognizable, had a deer’s skull for a torso, the antlers pushing up the arms of his jacket as if he had frozen midway through a lumbering dance. His legs were saplings thrust through the eye sockets of his improvised chest.
The world came undone, spinning on a brand-new axis. Donnie swung in a wild circle, the dead men surrounding him, and were they closing in, taking clumsy steps with their stick-legs, their gaping mouths uttering voiceless truths? He felt his body give way, shaking hard, and it was only the adrenaline that kept him on his feet, the thought that if he lost it here then soon it would be his face hanging there, eyes like buttonholes.
He looked back, saw Eddie on his knees clutching at his throat, Henry and Mike to either side of him, suddenly aged. And Joan, standing there shaking her head as she sobbed into her hand, I told you not to come. I told you it was something bad. But never in his life could he have understood.
He opened his mouth, croaked out a word, cleared his throat and tried again: “Mike.”
“Private Levy, Private Grady, look at me.”
Mike’s head swiveled around on his shoulders like a mill wheel, his bloodshot eyes fixing on Donnie.
“Pull yourself together,” he said. “Both of you. That’s an order. And get Eddie on his feet. Do it!”
Mike flinched at the barked command. He hooked an arm under Eddie’s armpit, hoisting him up. Donnie walked over and cradled the boy’s head.
“Eddie,” he said to a gaze that was about as far from here as it was possible to be. “Eddie, look at me.”
He did, although it took an age for him to focus. He was going into shock. It usually happened with an injury, a bullet wound or shrapnel, but Donnie had seen minds snap for plenty of other reasons, too. He clicked his fingers until he had the kid’s full attention.
“Listen, Eddie, it’s not real. It’s some Nazi trick. You know what they’re like, they’ll try anything to get into our heads. You, uh, you remember those pamphlets Gunny found back in Bastogne? The ones about the gas?”
“The gas that makes your pecker fall off?” Eddie said, a distant glimmer of a smile.
“Yeah, the pecker gas. All lies, Eddie, lies. Scaring us is half the battle.”
“But that’s Cuddy,” Eddie said, trying to look over Donnie’s shoulder. Donnie held him in place, kept eye contact.
“Cuddy’s dead. But is that any different to the other guys we’ve lost? Davidson, Crawford on that mine. This is war, and you’ve seen worse. We all have.”
Eddie swallowed; then he nodded, some of the color seeming to find its way back into his eyes.
“Don’t let them get to you, kiddo, okay?”
He let him go, left his arms hanging there in case Eddie slumped to the ground again. But the boy stayed standing. Donnie checked Mike, then Henry, both pale but alert. Then he walked to Joan.
“You see anything else?” he asked. She shook her head, then nodded it, tears as bright as diamonds etching down her cheeks.
“The ground. In the snow, there was blood. A pattern.”
“A pattern?” he said, and he realized he was snapping at her, leaning in too close. “What kind of pattern. A swastika? What?”
“I don’t remember,” she said. “Something with circles.”
Donnie swore, marching back into the clearing, refusing to look up at the crinkled, old-men faces of his friends. Fresh snow had fallen here as it had everywhere else, and he kicked it away until he found the crimson ice below, sweeping his way from side to side, back to front, until he stood in the center of a spiderweb of frozen blood that ran from corpse to corpse to corpse in perfect symmetry.
Three circles, one beneath each body, arranged in a triangle and connected by lines.
And in the middle, right beneath his feet, four words that even Donnie’s halting German could translate: Sie sind alle gerettet.
They are all saved.
“Mike, secure a perimeter, make sure nobody else is here. Henry, get on the radio and see if you can find the nearest squad.” Donnie paced back and forth just outside the clearing, helmet off, running a hand through his hair. “Eddie.” The boy stood like a puppet in the rack, strings slack. “Eddie! I need you to check for prints, for broken trees, anything that might tell us what happened to the rest of the squad.”
“We’re not going after them,” he replied, a statement rather than a question. His face looked so drawn that it too seemed as though it had been worked loose.
“No, we’re out of here just as soon as we have coordinates. Whatever happened to the rest of Cuddy’s men . . . We can’t help them, not on our own, not now.”
He felt sick for saying it, and he knew the others could see the cowardice in his eyes. But he could see it in them, too, even in Mike, who looked away without a single word of protest. Nobody would argue, not this time. If the rest of Cuddy’s squad was still alive, and that was doubtful, then they’d be far from here by now, probably heading for a POW camp or a firing line or something. Do they still have their faces? he wondered, and saw them marching through the forest, a line of men with moons for heads. He almost giggled, he almost broke.
“But if we have an idea of which direction they went in,” he said. “Then we’ve got something to report.”
Eddie nodded, pushing his helmet up.
“Go with Mike,” Donnie told him. “Stay close, just keep your eyes open, find out where they went.”
“Sir,” Eddie said. He walked to Mike, so small and so close that he could have been a kid hanging on to his father’s coattail.
“Keep your eyes open,” Donnie repeated. “Just call if you see anything.”
They crunched off into the snow, keeping well wide of the clearing and its conference of the dead as they vanished behind the pines. Henry had the radio out and was speaking softly into the handset. Donnie wiped a hand over his face, the skin there so cold it was burning.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” Joan said quietly from his side. “Mutilations, yes, but never skinned and posed like . . . like china dolls. I don’t understand it.”
“They’re trying to scare us,” Donnie said.
“Out here? Miles away from the front? Who is going to see it, Donnie, aside from the birds?”
“They must have known we’d come looking,” he floundered.
“And all this just for you, a handful of boys? It must have taken hours. It’s . . . It’s like something a child would do, making toys and dressing them. And the words, gerettet. Saved? How on earth are they saved?”
Donnie’s head was ringing, that same pressure, as if something up there was about to blow. He stepped away, trying to think of something else, trying to think of home—of Betty laughing on his stoop, Betty taking his hand, kissing his fingers, Betty leaving with tears in her eyes—until the pain shifted and dulled.
“You get anything?” he asked Henry. The man looked up, shaking his head. “Ah, screw this, let’s get the hell out of here.” He put on his helmet, shouting: “Mike, Eddie, get back here.”
“What about the radio?” Henry asked.
“Forget it, we’ll try again west of here.”
“And them?” Joan asked, nodding into the clearing. “We can’t leave them like that.”
“They’re probably rigged,” he said, and he wasn’t sure if he believed that or not, but there was absolutely no way that he could go in there and peel those men’s faces from their mounts. “Grenades, claymores maybe. We can’t risk it. Mike, Eddie, I said get back here now!”
Something answered him, a soft cry that turned his bones to snow. He looked at Joan to make sure she had heard it, too, and she had, because she was reaching into her pocket for the Webley. Donnie swiveled his rifle around as the noise was repeated, more animal than human, coming from the direction of the clearing.
Don’t go in there, he told himself. Because you’ll never come out again, not as a sane man anyway.
The sound again, a mewling that ebbed into a wet purr. It was impossible to tell how loud it was, or how close. He stepped toward Cuddy as another gentle groan slipped from the dead man’s gaping mouth. He couldn’t be alive, not with the moonlight streaming through his sockets, not with a body made of wood and straw, and yet he was uttering chirruped monkey grunts that rose in pitch, becoming more and more frenzied.
Then Cuddy blinked his eyes.
“No!” said Donnie, staggering backward, waiting for the man to come after him, for them all to shamble across the clearing on sapling legs, reaching for him with dry, twig fingers. He squeezed the trigger, the Garand barking, Cuddy’s torso exploding into splinters.
The mewls became a roar, louder than an M2 spitting out rounds. Donnie fired again, still retreating, and this time a shape moved out from behind Cuddy. Donnie almost had time to feel relief before he saw that this thing too had a body of broken branches, and eyes of fathomless pitch. It unfolded itself, long arms dropping to its side, crippled by countless joints. Its torso was bent and broken, and yet when it took a step forward there was no denying the power there in every exposed muscle. The demon’s empty eyes burned into Donnie, full of anger but full of childish glee, too. It opened its mouth and unleashed another guttural, awful scream.
Then it charged.
It managed three steps before recoiling, a gout of black blood erupting from its head. Joan steadied herself by Donnie’s side, then pulled the trigger again. This time one of the creature’s eyes imploded. It howled, thrashing, and Donnie fired once, twice, again and again until the Garand pinged and the clip ejected. The creature threw itself between two pines, shedding gluts of oil-black blood. The branches cracked, the trees rustling as it forced its way through them.
“Jesus Christ,” Donnie said, or didn’t say, he couldn’t be sure. He felt a hand on his arm, Joan dragging him away from the clearing. The creature squealed in pain and something answered—a distant banshee scream, followed by another, this one closer.
“Come on!” Joan said. “Donnie, let’s go!”
“Not without Eddie and Mike,” he said, but they were both there, panting hard.
“Heard the shots,” said Mike. “What’s going on?”
“Just move,” Joan said, and they must have seen something in her face because they didn’t argue, none of them. A gargled howl, more screams, and footsteps coming from the same direction as Eddie and Mike, too large and too fast to be human. It sounded like a horse in full gallop, the earth trembling.
Donnie ran, groping in his belt for a fresh clip. He almost dropped it and forced himself to stop, slamming the eight-round into the rifle and aiming it back the way they’d come as the others sprinted past. There was something there, in the snow, and he fired twice before fear drove him onward. Henry had stopped ahead, loosing cover fire from his own Garand. Donnie grabbed him by the collar, hauling him up.
“Forget it, just go!”
It sounded like there was a zoo behind them now, like every single animal had been woken—desperate grunts and excited shrieks and those same awful forlorn cries, so full of human grief, so much like a child, that Donnie almost stopped. Don’t, his mind ordered him, because those things, whatever they are, they are what killed Cuddy and cut off his face, they are what made stickmen out of your friends. And they’ll do the same to you if they catch you.
He sped up, not caring that he might slip or hit a low branch in the unearthly gloom, just needing to be away from that clearing. He ran, they all ran, and the noises behind them grew quieter and more distant until they faded into the silence of the forest. He ran, wondering how he ever could have been frightened by the quiet when there were noises like those in the world. He kept running, running, running, so fast and so hard that he didn’t see the men in front of him until the butt of a rifle connected with his nose and the world exploded into a storm of black snow.
Somewhere in the darkness was a dream of a trench, of faces in the mud, but Donnie was pulled from it by another kind of nightmare.
“Sollten wir sie töten.”
He tried to move and it felt like a Model 24 detonating behind his eyes. Pain pulsed down his face, ringing in his nose and teeth, bearable only because the cold had rendered him so numb. He tried to move his arms and found that he couldn’t, rope burning into the skin of his wrists. He opened one eye, the world slowly re-forming itself. There was a young tree right in front of him, little more than a shoot, crystals of snow clinging onto the pines and nestling like dew in the knotted stem. He didn’t think he had ever before seen anything in so much detail as this little plant.
The world beyond swam into focus. Black boots, long coats marked with the white and black cross of the Wehrmacht. He tilted his head, trying to move as slowly as possible, but the pain amplified with such intensity that a groan spilled from between his lips.
“Er ist wach,” said one of the men. Donnie felt hands on him, hauling him onto his knees. He closed his eyes, but even that didn’t stop the rush of agony and the vertigo that followed. He gagged, thinking that he might vomit, but the acid only made it as far as his throat before simmering back down. “Er wird weinen,” said the voice again, followed by an uneasy laughter. “Öffnen Sie Ihre Augen. Open your eyes.”
Donnie did as he was told. Right in front of him was a German soldier. He grinned, grabbing Donnie’s chin in a gloved hand and twisting it upward.
“Smile, ami,” he said. “Are you not happy to see us?”
More quiet laughter. Donnie shook himself loose, glancing to his left to see Henry and Mike, both kneeling, their hands tied behind their backs. Neither of them looked back. Eddie and Joan were nowhere to be seen.
“Drei kleinen amerikanischen Jungen, verloren in den Wäldern,” the man said. Donnie wasn’t fluent in German by a long shot, but he knew enough. Three little American boys, lost in the woods. That was good. It meant the others hadn’t been found. “Did you kill them? Was it you, Yank bastard? Amerikanischen Feigling.”
“Lassen sie das allein, Hans,” said another voice. Leave them alone. Donnie peered past the first man to see maybe half a dozen more, some crouched in the snow, others leaning against trees, all as pale and wide-eyed as Donnie’s men. They all had Mausers, although some held Lugers, too. The soldier who had spoken last stood to one side, his helmet off to reveal cropped blond hair. He studied Donnie with the same contempt as the others, saying, “Kreuz wird sie sehen wollen.”
Kreuz will want to see them.
“Kreuz?” said the grinning Nazi. “Nein. Why don’t we tell him they were already dead, eh, amis? Shall we do that? You all deserve to die, for what you did.”
He pulled out his Luger, waving it in front of Donnie’s face. Donnie swallowed, studying the vast black hole that swept back and forth before him, trying not to think about the bullet there. He couldn’t bear for his life to end here, in this forest. He had no idea what happened when you died, but he knew this much: If he died here then this is where he would stay. He would never escape. He would be forever trapped here, between the trees.
“It wasn’t us,” he said; then, clumsily, “Es war uns nicht. Wir sind ein, uh, search party. Suchtrupp. We’re just looking for lost men.”
“Don’t lie,” the soldier said. “You are assassins.”
He cocked his weapon and it was all Donnie could do not to scream not here, please not here! But he never got the chance.
“Hans, legte das Pistole.”
The voice came from the trees, and its effect was instantaneous. The soldier, Hans, snapped his revolver back into its holster and stood to attention, every other man doing the same, saluting as a silhouette peeled itself from the shadows. The figure strode into the middle of the group, at least a head taller than the rest of them, and removed his helmet to reveal a face that was more scar than skin. His eyes shone blue even in the half-light of the forest, and there was murder in them, as cold and emotionless as the glint of a bullet.
“Oberleutnant Kreuz,” said Hans. “Wir haben sie gefunden.” We have found them.
“Gut,” said another voice, a high-pitched whine. Another soldier stepped from behind the giant, as skinny as the other was wide. He was young, the same age as Eddie maybe, almost lost in the folds of his greatcoat. And yet he wore the emblem of a first lieutenant. He stumbled over the snow until he stood in front of Donnie, his acned teenage face curling into a smile.
“Did you think you could evade us, amis?” he said in stumbling, broken English. “Did you think we would not find you?”
“We’re a search party,” Donnie said again, keeping his eyes on the floor. “A Suchtrupp. We were sent—”
“You were sent to butcher us like Schwein, were you not? To frighten us back into the arms of the Fatherland. But do we look scared?” He turned to the men behind him. “Are we scared?”
They answered together—“Nein”—but there was little conviction there. Donnie frowned, trying to make sense of what he was hearing. Why did the Germans think they were assassins, butchers, when it was they who had murdered Cuddy and his men?
“Tell me,” said Kreuz. “Tell me why were you sent after us?”
“We weren’t,” Donnie replied, meeting the boy’s eyes. “We were trying to locate a missing American squad. We found them. They were dead.”
“Torn to pieces,” said Mike. “By you bastards.”
Kreuz’s eyes flashed and he looked over his shoulder at the giant. The man read an unspoken order there, walking up to Mike and backhanding him across the cheek with a sound like a gunshot. He managed to stay upright, spitting blood.
“I’m telling you the truth,” Donnie said, urgent now. “You’re the first Nazis we’ve seen since we left the front.”
“Such a convincing little liar,” said Kreuz, the grin fading. “Last chance. Tell me where their bodies are. Tell me why you left their faces behind.”
Donnie looked at Mike, then Henry, then back at Kreuz.
“I don’t know what happened to your men,” he said slowly, deliberately. “But listen to me, just listen. The men we were trying to find, the Americans, they had their faces removed. They’d been . . . I don’t know, they’d been mounted onto wood. Posed. We couldn’t find their bodies.”
Kreuz’s smile had completely vanished. The boy wrapped a gloved hand around Donnie’s throat, squeezing. He wasn’t strong, not by a long stretch, but all the same when Donnie tried to inhale his lungs stayed empty.
“Lies,” he said. “How would you know this unless you did it yourselves?”
“I’m not lying,” Donnie choked, the words barely there. “You can look for yourselves, they’re back there, follow our tracks.”
“Into a trap, no doubt,” said Kreuz, his fingers pinching the knot of Donnie’s windpipe. “Into a nest of American vipers.”
“No, I promise you.” More black snow was falling at the edges of Donnie’s vision, forming drifts. “I promise. We didn’t kill your men. Something else did. Something out there in the trees.”
“Oberleutnant,” said the giant. “Er könnte die Wahrheit zu sagen.”
The words were lost in the roar of blood, the scream of Donnie’s empty lungs, but it sounded like he might be telling the truth. Kreuz didn’t let up, his watery blue eyes fixed on Donnie’s as the world burned into darkness around them. Someone else was speaking—what we saw, it was no man—and Donnie saw it, too, charging from the darkness of his memory, the creature with nothing-eyes. It couldn’t have been real. It couldn’t have. And yet it was.
“There’s something else out there,” he wheezed. His head was so full of blood that it felt about to pop, the forest all but gone.
Kreuz let go. Oxygen rushed into Donnie’s lungs with such wonderful, overwhelming force that he crumpled onto the ground, gulping in air. He just lay there, trying to pick up words as the Nazis argued among themselves.
—if they’re not then we’ve got bigger problems. Another assassin. They are just boys, do they really look like they could have overpowered Holzmann and Kohl—
—I am your commander, you will do as I say or die here with the American dogs—
“Freeze!” The shout cut through the German chatter, coming from somewhere in the forest. “Do not reach for your weapons.”
The soldiers did exactly that, going for their Mausers and swinging them into the darkness between the pines. There was a gunshot and one of them crashed to the ground with a wound in his leg.
“Drop your guns, do it now. You’re surrounded.”
That was a lie, because Donnie recognized Eddie’s voice, could hear the tremor in it. But it was evidently convincing enough, because one by one the Nazis dropped their weapons—all except for Kreuz and the giant, who had both drawn their Lugers.
“Drop them!” Eddie yelled, stepping out from behind a tree. His rifle was pointed right at Kreuz. “I’m not going to tell you again.”
“Es ist nur eine von ihnen,” said Kreuz. There is just one of them. “Ihn erschießen!”
The giant obeyed his order, raising his pistol toward Eddie. There was another gunshot, this time from behind Donnie, and the man’s head whipped back, the bullet grazing his cheek. He staggered, dropping the gun.
“I told you,” said Eddie. “You’re surrounded.”
Kreuz’s eyes were so wide, so full of hatred, that they looked ready to boil right out of their sockets. He hawked up a ball of phlegm, spitting it to the ground, and finally let the gun slip from his fingers. Eddie took a step forward, his helmet sliding down over his eyes. He pushed it back, his rifle wavering wildly, sweeping between the Germans.
“On your knees,” he said. “Do it now. Donnie, can you get your hands free?”
“I’ve got it,” said Joan, and Donnie could hear her running across the snow. There was a tug, the scrape of a knife against cord, then his hands were loose.
“Eine Frau,” shouted Kreuz, apoplectic. “Es ist eine Frau!”
The boy went for his gun, but Donnie was quicker. He threw himself at the Luger, snatching it and bringing his arm up in a looping arc. The pistol caught Kreuz’s cheek, knocking him back.
“Eine Frau!” Kreuz squealed, holding his face.
“Yes, I’m a Frau,” said Joan, keeping the Webley aimed at the boy’s head. “What of it?”
“Down, now,” Eddie said, taking another step forward. The Germans looked at each other, then sank to their knees, hands on their helmets. Donnie aimed the Luger at the giant until he too joined them. Only Kreuz remained standing, but it was insanity, not courage, that burned in his young eyes.
“What now, Schwein?” he spat. “Get your Sau here to cut off our faces?”
Donnie ignored him, walking over to Mike and Henry and working loose the ropes around their wrists. They both stood, rubbing the welts on their arms. Mike picked up the Luger dropped by the giant; Henry skipped over and reclaimed his Garand from the snow.
“Hure!” Kreuz continued his tirade, almost screaming at Joan. “I knew it was you, only a Sau would cut off a man’s face. Hure!”
“This guy is a real charmer,” said Joan, the barest tremor in her voice. “I’ve a mind to bring him home to meet my mother.”
Donnie managed a weak laugh, his head still ringing from the blow that had knocked him out.
“Thank you,” he said to her. “And good work, Eddie. We should tie them up until we work out what to do.”
Eddie pushed his helmet up and grinned like a kid who’s caught his first pike.
“Yes, sir,” he said, beaming.
And they were the last words he ever spoke, because the forest came alive and took him.
This time there was no warning—no screams, no cries, no thunder of footsteps.
A bone-white animal burst from the trees like a freight train, clearing twenty feet in a single leap. It landed on Eddie, folding the boy into a crumpled pillow of wet cloth, which it scooped up in monstrous fingers. Another impossible jump and it had vanished, branches cracking as it threw itself into the canopy—there and gone in a heartbeat, so fast that Donnie’s brain couldn’t process what it had seen.
“Eddie?” he said. Other than the flakes of snow that dropped lazily from the pines there was no sign that anything had been through there. “Eddie!”
“Was war das?” one of the Germans screamed. “Was war das?”
The soldier was clambering up, going for his rifle.
“Don’t,” said Donnie, aiming the pistol at him. “Don’t move.”
Branches cracked and another creature bulldozed into the crowd, this one huge and pink, as big as four men. It passed close enough to Donnie for him to see its face, a child’s face, one that should have belonged to a boy of seven or eight, drowned in folds of flesh. The beast was grinning, a playful smile. It snatched up the soldier who had spoken, lifting him so fast and so hard that his neck snapped, his head hanging like a ragdoll’s as his killer bounded away.
Donnie raised the pistol and fired after it, the Luger barking in his hands but the bullets hitting nothing but wood. Joan was shooting, too, and one of the Germans who had found his feet and his gun. Chaos erupted as others followed, the deafening roar of an MG 42 machine gun and the snap of Mausers.
“Watch out!” Henry yelled, thumping into Donnie and knocking him to the ground as another demonic shape blasted over their heads. It was the creature from the clearing, its single eye blinking as it tore into a Nazi. Donnie raised his gun but Henry clamped a hand on his arm, shaking his head.
The beast was busy, laying into its prey like a kid with a toy soldier. It uttered a grunt of delight, throwing the corpse to one side and searching for another victim. Its face was ravaged by the gunshot wounds it had taken earlier, but bathed in moonlight, and there was no denying that it, too, had once been a child. Rounds thudded into it from every direction, making its mahogany flesh ripple, but it didn’t seem to notice them.
“Go!” Henry yelled, pulling a grenade from his belt. “I’m right behind you.”
He lobbed it, the Mk 2 bouncing off a tree and landing by the creature’s feet. It must have seen one before, because with a howl it bounded away, covering its head with its enormous hands. The explosion rocked the forest, shaking the snow from the trees. Donnie ran, crashing into a German who was going in the other direction. The air was full of smoke, the acrid stench of cordite and gunpowder, but through it he could see Joan sprinting fast. Kreuz was right next to her, the giant’s arms wrapped protectively around him as they fled.
Donnie hurled himself after them, branches ripping his helmet away, tugging at his clothes as if to hold him there for the freaks. Strobing gunshots lit his path, making everything move as if it were in slow motion. Behind him somebody was screaming out a prayer in German, the words cut off by a liquid snap. He didn’t look, even when another explosion rang out, a shock wave of heat against his back.
Henry ran by Donnie’s side, stumbling. Mike was there, too, clutching a stolen assault rifle as he overtook them. He glanced at Donnie, his eyes small and dark and full of madness.
“This way,” panted Donnie, seeing a glimmer of movement ahead and hoping it was Joan. He bolted after her, his body seeming to grow heavier with every step, the adrenaline ebbing from his blood and the cold creeping there in its place until he felt like he was a man carved from ice and stone. His run slowed into a jog, then to a stumbling, drunken walk, and he eventually stopped, leaning against the bare trunk of a tree. Henry stopped next to him, doubled over; then Mike trotted into view, aiming the StG 44 over his shoulder.
It was impossible to hear anything past his jackhammering heart and wheezed breaths, but there was no sign of life back there, not even the spark of gunfire. Just the forest, once again still and silent and softly dark. He took a deep breath, tried to hold it so he could listen.
Voices, close by.
He straightened, motioning toward the sounds with the Luger. Henry nodded, Mike, too, and together they stalked toward them.
“What did you do?” A boy’s voice, the nasal whine of Kreuz.
“Nothing!” That one was Joan. “It’s nothing to do with me.”
“Tell me what they are!” Kreuz was shrieking now. There was a slap, a grunt, and Donnie increased his pace to see three figures. One was Joan, on her knees. Kreuz stood over her with one hand around her neck and the other overhead. The giant looked on, a golem of flesh standing guard.
Donnie didn’t hesitate. He strode into the clearing and smashed the Luger into the back of the giant’s head, felling him like one of the forest’s ancient trees. Then he grabbed Kreuz, throwing the boy to the ground and planting a boot on his chest.
“You okay?” he asked Joan. She nodded, rubbing her throat.
“Mike, got any rope?”
“You won’t get away with this,” sneered Kreuz, looking no older than fifteen in his oversized greatcoat. “We’re camped three kilometers from here, reinforcements will be on their way.”
“I don’t think so,” said Donnie, seeing the lie in his blinking eyes, his twitching lips. He looked at Mike. “Gag him, too.”
“With pleasure,” said Mike, kneeling down and tying a length of cloth around Kreuz’s wrist before rolling him over and securing the other one behind his back. Kreuz struggled, spitting out a tirade of abuse in German and English. Mike secured a gag around the kid’s head to muffle him, making sure to knot it twice.
“Do him, as well,” said Donnie.
Mike and Henry set about tying up the giant. Donnie would have helped, only the clearing was spinning like a carousel. He braced himself, heaving out a jet of milky white vomit.
“Better out than in, as my mother used to say,” said Joan, brushing a strand of hair away from his eyes. “Can you stand?”
Donnie took her hand and hauled himself up, the world still shaky but no longer cartwheeling. The giant was secured and Henry was slapping him firmly on the cheek trying to bring him around.
“Bastards got Eddie,” said Mike, so pale, so thin that his face could have been carved from bone. “Didn’t stand a chance.”
“What were they?” said Henry. “Did you see their faces?”
“Children,” said Joan, her eyes glassy. “They were children.”
“It doesn’t matter what they are,” said Donnie, spitting acid and wiping the tears from his eyes. “We’ve just got to get away from them.” He patted his pockets, realized for the first time that he’d left his bag back there in the carnage. That meant no compass, no map, no supplies and no fire. He glanced between the others, his heart sinking. “Anyone know which way is west?”
Donnie spun around, raising the Luger, expecting to see a demon with a child’s face grinning at him from the shadows, knowing that would be the last straw, the thing that tipped him into insanity. And surely it was one of them, a behemoth with six legs which blundered forward uttering whimpered groans.
“Don’t shoot.” The creature spoke in a harsh German accent, careering toward them and eventually separating into three men. The one in the middle limped along, one leg drenched in blood from where Eddie had shot him. The other two carried him, both holding up their free hand in surrender. “We are not armed, do not shoot.”
Donnie kept his gun where it was.
“What do you want?” he said as they came to a halt, the middle Nazi moaning in pain. He recognized the one on the right as the man who’d told Hans to leave them alone, and he was the one who answered: “Those things, those Dämon, they are coming.”
Sure enough, Donnie could hear a distant cry, the chuckling laughter of a child. He turned to Henry.
“Get him awake, we’ve got to move.”
Donnie grabbed Kreuz under his armpit, helping the boy scramble onto his feet. He was quiet now, and fearful. He too must have heard the whoops of delight rising in pitch, getting closer. Henry was shaking the giant now, but the big man was out cold.
“Must’ve hit him harder than you thought,” Henry said with a shrug.
“Then we leave him.”
“At least free his hands,” said Joan.
Mike grunted. “You serious?”
“You can’t leave him here, trussed up like a turkey. Every man has a right to defend himself.”
Donnie nodded at Henry. “Do it,” he said, then turned to the Germans. “Follow us. You so much as lift a finger in the wrong direction and we’ll execute you on the spot. Verstehen?”
They understood, he could see it in the frantic nodding of their heads.
“Which way?” asked Henry, sliding his bayonet back into its scabbard. Donnie didn’t know. The forest grew all around them, stretching for miles in every direction, and who knew what other horrors lay in its moldered roots, its skeletal branches? Is there even a world left out there? Donnie asked. Maybe this place has swallowed it all, maybe we could walk for a hundred years in the same direction and never leave, just end up back where we started. He heard the cries, almost like children at the beach, only tinged with cruelty, with desperation, with rage—a record played backward at the wrong speed; then he pointed in the opposite direction and started to walk.
When they could not take another step, they stopped, drained by fear and exhaustion. The noises behind them had softened, then finally stopped about half an hour ago. Yet they had kept treading a path through the snow-strewn undergrowth, slumped against each other, tripping with every other step, cramped and half-crazed, until they had fallen. Now they huddled in a circle around a rusted gas stove that one of the Germans had pulled from his backpack, the flame guttering in the calm air as if it were trying to wish itself out of existence.
Donnie, too, prayed that it could be so easy—snuffed out in an instant, never again to face whatever it was that had bounded from the trees with an infant grin and blood on its breath. How lucky were the men who’d fallen on the front with a round to the head, never aware that their lives had ended. Better that than this, better death than a purgatory spent in the boundless woods waiting for the devil’s children to loom up behind you.
He shivered, pressing himself into the slender figure of Joan by his side. She still wore the parachute, wrapped tight around her throat to hide the bruises there. Beside her was one of the Germans, his body racked by the same tremors. Next to him was Mike, then the other two Nazis, then Henry, and finally Kreuz still bound tight and gagged. The boy stared into the flames, and their reflection in his eyes wasn’t the only fire there. He was alight with fury, Donnie knew, and biding his time. They should have left him with the giant, left them both to be devoured.
“Do you have any idea where we are?” Donnie said, not speaking to anyone in particular.
“We were running northeast,” said Henry. “Far as I can figure anyway, going by the moss on the trees. Other than that . . .”
He petered out.
“North of Bertogne, maybe,” said one of the Germans, the one who had spoken earlier. Kreuz lifted his head, grunting something beneath his muzzle, but the other man ignored him. “We were stationed close to the town but we got lost in the woods. His fault.”
He nodded at his first lieutenant, and the two locked eyes for a few seconds before Kreuz looked away.
“I don’t know where we are,” the soldier continued, running a hand through his fair hair.
“What’s your name?” asked Joan.
“Stefan,” he replied. “Stefan Holst. Obergrenadier. This is Andreas Becker and Gyorgy Markus.”
“Gyorgy,” said Joan. “Doesn’t sound very German.”
“He’s Ungarisch, Hungarian,” said Andreas, cradling the head of the boy with the injured leg. Gyorgy’s face was covered with a sheen of sweat and his body shook uncontrollably. Joan had bandaged the wound a while back, but the shinbone had been totally destroyed and the wound was an ugly one. Even out here, in the cold, it would get very bad very quick if they didn’t find a medic. They didn’t even have any morphine for the poor kid. “He just joined us.”
“Did any more of you make it out alive?” Joan asked. Stefan shook his head.
“Last I looked, only those creatures were moving. The rest of them . . .” He shook his head, swallowing. “. . . looked like . . . like borscht.”
There was silence for a moment, just the lulling hiss of the stove.
“What’s his story?” Donnie said eventually, glancing to his right.
“Kreuz?” Stefan laughed bitterly. “He is a Dummkopf, a fool. Uncle is a party member, got him posted out here as an Oberleutnant even though he hasn’t seen his eighteenth birthday yet. He led us into the snow looking for little lost American boys like you. Kaninchen, how you say . . . rabbits, an easy kill.”
There was no denying the hatred in the man’s voice. Kreuz kept his eyes on the ground, fuming quietly.
“We’ve got a few of those ourselves,” said Henry. “Commissioned officers straight out of training who barely know which way around to hold a rifle. In it for the glory, but as soon as the shooting starts they fall to pieces. Haven’t got a clue.”
“Ja,” said Stefan. “We were lost inside a day. Then something started picking us off. Holzmann and Kohl just vanished into thin air. When we found them . . .”
“No bodies,” said Donnie.
“Just faces,” the soldier answered, lost in the memory. “Kreuz, he said the Americans were responsible, maybe the British. But he must have known the truth. We all did. Nothing human could do that.”
“What then?” said Joan. “What were those things?”
“Ejszaka gyermekei,” said the injured boy, his voice as quiet as the husking leaves.
“What did he say?” Donnie asked, leaning in.
“I don’t know,” Stefan said. “It’s Hungarian. Gyorgy, Deutsch sprechen.”
The boy stared into the flames of the stove and said: “Nacht Kinder.”
“Night children,” Stefan interpreted with a shrug. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, Gyorgy?” said Joan. “What are the night children, the Nacht Kinder?”
“Was sind sie?” said Stefan.
“Sie sind gebrochen,” he answered.
“They are broken,” said Donnie. He was about to ask who when the boy began to speak, his words shaken up by shivers and sobs. Next to him, Andreas translated.
“He says that he lived in the Badacsony, on the edge of the forest. They were verboten . . . ah, forbidden, I think, from going into the trees. His grandmother, and her grandmother, and her grandmother, they told stories of the forest, of the creatures who lived there. Creatures?”
Andreas looked up, startled by his own translation.
“When he was a child,” he went on as Gyorgy continued to talk, “there was one story that used to scare him more than any of the others, the story of the night children. They were stolen when they were babies and taken into the woods. They would grow up there, becoming fat on moonlight, given flesh as hard as bark, limbs as tough as branches. They became stronger than any man, faster, but they were broken, because they never grew old, they were always children.”
“This is crazy,” said Mike. “Goddamned fairy tales.”
Gyorgy didn’t hear him, his story growing more and more urgent.
“They were broken, and they knew it,” said Andreas. “They would creep to the edge of the forest and see the people they had left behind, see them grow old and have children of their own, see them live their lives by the fire, lives of laughter and warmth and comfort, and see them die happy and loved and with no regret. So the night children, they became angry. They would return to the homes from where they were taken, and they would slaughter their families—men, women, children, babies—slaughter them all and they would laugh and laugh and laugh just like they were playing a game, playing Himmel und Hölle.”
“Hopscotch,” said Stefan. “I think that’s what you call it.”
“The night children,” said Andreas, translating Gyorgy’s garbled German. “Always smiling, but always sad. They can never go home because they have the night inside them.”
“What does he mean?” asked Donnie, rubbing the gooseflesh from his arms.
“Their eyes,” interpreted Andreas. “As black as pitch, and their veins ran with . . . I don’t know how to say this, flüssige Dunkelheit, liquid darkness?”
“Ja,” said Gyorgy. “Dunkelheit in ihnen.”
He was growing weaker by the second, blood seeping through the bandage on his leg. But he carried on talking.
“His grandmother told him that the night children hated themselves, hated their broken bodies. That’s what they wanted more than anything, to be human again. They thought that if they collected pieces . . .” Andreas turned a shade paler, looking down at Gyorgy as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “That if they collected pieces of their victims then they could somehow make themselves better, patch themselves up. If they looked human, then they would grow old like mortal men. That’s why they are here, that’s what they want with us. They want to fix themselves.”
“That’s enough,” said Mike. “I don’t want to hear any more.”
“They won’t stop hunting us, not until they have what they need. But they cannot fix themselves. They are broken, and they will never rest.”
Gyorgy spoke again, but this time it was Stefan who explained: “He says we are all dead. We belong to them.”
“That’s enough,” shouted Mike, pushing himself to his feet. “Tell him to shut his goddamned Kraut mouth or I swear I’ll tear it off.”
Gyorgy’s eyes glazed over, and for a moment Donnie thought the boy was dead. But then he blinked and his lips began to move again, Andreas leaning in and catching those whispers, saying: “His grandmother, she said that the night children were taken by a man who lived in the forest. A man who . . . again, I don’t know how to say this . . . a man who drank from death, or demons. Dämon, das ist richtig?”
“A man who drank from demons. The night children, they also go by another name, the man’s name: die Kinder des Kázán. The children of Kázán.”
“Kázán?” said Donnie. Andreas shrugged.
“It is a Hungarian word,” he said, gesturing at the stove. “It means, uh, fire, maybe.” He paused. “Or Furnace.”
“We should go,” said Donnie, speaking only because the forest was once again oppressively silent, as if it had been listening to Gyorgy’s story and was now thinking of ways to make it real.
“No,” said Joan. “We should stay. We’re exhausted. We’ve got one man seriously injured. We don’t know where we’re going. We’ve got very limited food. We should rest, just until dawn. It will be easier when it’s light.”
“But those things,” said Henry. “The . . . the night children. They’re out there.”
“They’re not night children,” said Joan. “That was just a story, told by a fevered mind. Look at him. How can he know what he’s saying? Besides, we stand as much chance of running into them as we do getting away from them, wandering around in circles in the dark.”
It was dark. The moon had sunk beneath the trees, the faintest trace of silver feathering the trunks. The sky was low and heavy, ready to compound their troubles with more snow. As much as Donnie wanted to be on the move, leaving the nightmare behind, he knew that they would step into a grave much more swiftly if they set off again now. The sun would be up in a couple of hours, and although its cold light never penetrated far into this forest, at least they’d have a better idea of what was around them, and which way was west.
“Okay,” he said. “We stay here until dawn. I’ll take watch if any of you want to sleep.”
“Sleep?” snorted Henry. “I don’t think I’ll ever sleep again. I’ll take it with you.”
Stefan nodded, drawing his knees up and wrapping his arms around them, using them as a pillow. Gyorgy coughed, a line of crimson spit hanging from his lips, and Andreas pulled him tighter, stroking his head gently and murmuring something soft and sweet. Kreuz still glared at the fizzing stove, the mechanics of his mind almost visible in the intensity of his gaze. Mike stopped pacing, squeezing back in next to Stefan and cradling the assault rifle on his legs.
“Thank you,” said Joan. She smiled at Donnie, and it could have been dawn already. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her tight, both shivering together, blowing out puffs of cotton wool breath. He watched them entwining in the heat from the stove, rising up toward the storm-laden sky, fading into the vast weight overhead.
“Just until dawn,” he mumbled, his eyes as heavy as the clouds. “Just until dawn.”
* * *
He rose from the trench at the sound of his name, his feet stuck for an instant in the mud—gripped by hidden fingers as a hundred faces stared from the wet earth and screamed for him—but then slipped loose, letting him drift out of the dream.
He snapped open his eyes, his heart lurching as he realized he’d fallen asleep. A weak light filtered into the forest from the horizon to his right, silky ghost fingers that probed the trees, searching. Joan was next to him, her head on his shoulder, snoring gently. The others dozed, too, even Kreuz, who was curled up cat-like around the cold stove.
A whisper, coming from close by. He glanced at Mike, and Henry, both sleeping. But it couldn’t have been one of them calling him anyway, because he knew that voice. He recognized it instantly.
It was Eddie.
“Donnie, help me.”
His mouth dried out so quickly that he uttered a frightened croak. It was Eddie, there was no doubt about it, that same high-pitched, nasal voice. But Eddie was dead. Eddie had been crushed, folded into a concertina of flesh, carried off into the night. There was no way he could have survived, not like that, not broken into pieces.
Yes, he’s broken, Donnie’s brain said. He’s one of the night children now.
“Shut up,” he hissed at himself. There was an explanation for this, something simple. He was still dreaming. He had to be, because Eddie was dead and dead men didn’t talk.
“I’m scared, Donnie,” said the dead man, dead Eddie. At least that’s what it sounded like, the whisper ebbed in and out like a gentle, whistling breeze.
Donnie stood up, easing Joan to the floor. Her breathing quickened and she almost woke before sinking back into sleep. The scene before him could have been a publicity shot for the peace effort, four Nazis, two American GIs and a British Royal Air Force pilot, all curled up together on the thawing ground like babes in the wood. Maybe the whole thing has been a dream, he thought. Because how can this be real? How can any of it be real?
But he could feel the morning chill on his cheeks, the softest of breezes in his hair, the crunch of the snow underfoot.
And Eddie’s voice was there, as true as it ever was in life.
It was coming from his left, from the darkest part of the burgeoning dawn, where the gaps between the trees were like holes in the fabric of the world. Surely to step through there would be like stepping into a void, an abyss where he would never again find light or solid ground. And yet he set off toward it anyway, waiting until he was far enough away from the others before calling out:
“Eddie, where are you?”
“Donnie,” he replied, the only sound in the forest. Where were the birds? Even on the front, even the morning after a firefight or mortar attack, the birds had sung out, their memories short and their optimism relentless. But here there wasn’t so much as a sparrow or a wood pigeon. Here, only the dead could talk, and they did, softly: “Please, Donnie.”
He pushed through the clinging arms of the pines, Eddie’s voice seeming to flit from place to place, a snowflake buffeted by the wind.
“Eddie, where are you?”
No voice this time, just an awful, rattling wheeze that rose in pitch, lasting too long. It became a bubbling choke, then a soft, wet purr. Donnie stopped, thinking, This is a trap, it has to be, they’re luring me in. The sickening noise came again, like a dying man drawing his last breath.
“Eddie?” He should turn around, head back. He should at least wake the others. But something drove him on, alone, through the thickening needles, into the snow. “I’m coming, Eddie, don’t move, kiddo, don’t move.”
He stepped out into a line between the trees, so long and so straight that it could have been a hospital corridor. The pines knitted overhead, cutting out the rising sun, and yet the snow picked up what little light there was and bounced it back tenfold, making the whole world glow.
Eddie was there, and he was the wrong way around. His body, broken in a hundred places, was facing toward Donnie. But his shaved head was wrenched backward so that it looked as though his face had been erased. His hands were lifted, as if he were about to dive into a pool, and it took Donnie a moment to notice the rope that held them, slung over a branch like a hangman’s noose, keeping him upright.
A man held the other end of the rope, dressed in a long coat, black boots and a gas mask. His body was riddled with twitches and spasms, his hairless head snapping back and shaking as if he was having some kind of a fit. He steadied, fixed his piggy eyes on Donnie, clawed in a choked, wheezing cry of delight.
Not a man. Donnie realized his mistake, seeing the twisted emotion in the creature’s face, rancid glee that dripped from its eyes over pasty, bloated flesh. Not a man at all.
“Donnie,” said Eddie, his face still hidden from sight. “I’m scared.”
That last word, too soft to make out properly.
“It’s okay, kiddo,” said Donnie, his voice booming in the quiet. But it wasn’t okay. How could it be? Eddie’s neck was wrung, his spine spun like thread around a spindle. He couldn’t be alive. “I’m here.”
The creature wheezed, then pulled, hoisting Eddie into the air. The boy began to turn, slowly, the rope making machine-gun pops as it ground against the wood. Donnie stood, torn between making a run for the kid and saving himself, feeling as though he would rip himself in two, thinking, I don’t want to see his face, I just don’t want to see his face.
Eddie turned, his body facing backward now, his face swiveling into view, sagging, the color of wet parchment, his veins pumping black as though ink ran through them—flüssige Dunkelheit, thought Donnie, liquid darkness.
“No,” he said, wake up wake up wake up wake up. And yet he knew this was no dream, even as Eddie’s lips sliced into a smile.
“Donnie,” he said, a whisper that seemed to feed straight into his ear. “I’m saved.”
Then the boy’s eyes opened, two fathomless pools of darkness that Donnie could feel crawling over him long after he had fled, screaming, into the trees.
He was lost, surrounded by needled fingers that poked and scraped, the giant pines uttering creaks of mocking laughter as he crashed between them. He was lost, the panic swelling in his throat as he imagined himself running into a wheezing figure in a gas mask, feeling puffy-fleshed hands around his throat. He was lost; at least he thought so until he tumbled from the dense, unforgiving foliage and saw the others there, a hundred yards away, awake now and startled by his sudden reappearance.
“Donnie,” said Joan as he collapsed. She was by his side in an instant, her hands on his head, Mike and Henry close behind. “Where have you been? What happened?”
He told them, as much as he could remember anyway. The memory was already fading, as though his conscious mind was trying to extinguish its flame before it burned right through him.
“Eddie’s alive?” said Mike. Donnie shook his head.
“It was a trick, he was dead.”
“And talking to you?” Mike snorted. “Come on, Donnie, if he’s alive we gotta go get him.”
“He’s not alive!” Donnie said, almost screaming. “He’s gone, he’s one of them.”
“One of who?” Joan asked, but nobody answered. They didn’t need to; they were all thinking the same thing.
One of the night children.
Donnie stood, feeling the welts on his face from running through the pines, feeling the weakness in his legs, the gaping emptiness in his belly. The forest seemed vast, the nearest camp a million miles away. They would never make it.
“They’re following us,” said Stefan, walking over from the makeshift camp where Andreas and Gyorgy sat next to the stove and Kreuz lay bound and gagged. Stefan stared into the depths of the forest. “Why don’t they just attack if they know we’re here?”
“It’s a game,” said Henry. “They’re playing with us. It’s what you do, isn’t it? You heartless Nazi bastards.”
“Henry,” said Joan. “It attacked them, too. Whatever they are, they’re not on our side or theirs. None of us is safe.”
“I don’t know. Looked like a Nazi uniform to me, that was a German gas mask anyway. SS maybe.” Donnie narrowed his eyes at the German soldier. “I think they’re keeping something from us.”
“Like what?” Joan said.
“You tell us,” he said to Stefan. “Maybe you were planted here, maybe you’re giving away our position, making sure we don’t escape.” Even as he spoke he could hear the hysteria, the paranoia, in his voice. He swallowed it down, started again. “We need to go. We’re harder to get if we’re on the move. You reach anyone on the radio?”
“No, sir,” said Henry. “Still nothing. Like the whole world’s gone quiet.”
“West, then?” asked Joan.
West, toward the wheezing freak, toward Dead Eddie. Donnie shook his head.
“North, we keep heading north, sooner or later we’ll hit home.”
“That is your plan?” said Stefan. “Wander into the woods like Hansel und Gretel?”
“And what would you suggest, Kraut?” said Mike, standing toe-to-toe with the man. “Keep us here so your friends can come string us up?”
“They are not our friends,” Stefan spat back. “They killed our friends. Dummer Junge.”
Andreas ran over, trying to squeeze in between Stefan and Mike, muttering calming words.
“Ruhe, Stefan,” he said. “We are tired. And frightened. We should not fight.”
“Should not fight?” said Mike. “What did they tell you you were here for, huh? To sit around campfires telling ghost stories? We’re enemies, you and me, on the front I’d slit your throat just as quickly as you’d slit mine.”
“Mike,” said Donnie and Joan together.
“We’re here to fight,” he went on. “Shoulda killed you back there. Shoulda shot you all good and dead.”
He pulled a pistol from the pocket of his jacket, pointing it right at Stefan.
“Mike,” Donnie said again, firmer this time. “Calm down.”
“Screw you,” said Mike. “Screw all of yous. They’re Nazis, Donnie, remember? We kill ’em, remember? How d’you know it wasn’t this sonofabitch didn’t shoot Davey the other day? Or fire the mortar that got Will? Get on your knees.”
Stefan didn’t move, just locked his eyes to Mike’s. Andreas stood by his side, both of them defiant. Donnie could hear Kreuz squealing through his muzzle, foreseeing his own execution.
“I said get on your knees,” Mike said, cocking his pistol. “Don’t make me shoot you in the face.”
“Private Levy,” Donnie said. “Put that weapon down.”
“Screw you,” he said again.
“I’m ordering you, Private.” Donnie pulled his Luger from its holster, holding it up to the back of Mike’s head. “Put the gun down.”
“You gonna shoot me, Donnie? Gonna shoot me to save this piece of crap?”
“Jesus, guys, enough,” Joan said, Henry and Andreas, too, all of them talking at once while Kreuz screamed in the background.
“Gonna shoot me?” Mike said. “Better do it then, Corporal. Better do it quick.”
“Mike, please,” said Donnie. “It doesn’t have to be—”
“Sie sind hier! Sie sind hier!”
He was suddenly aware that Kreuz’s shrieks had become words. He looked past Stefan to see the boy worming his way backward, his gag hanging around his neck, his eyes two searing white suns of terror as he scuffed across the dirty snow.
“Kreuz?” Donnie said, pushing through the others.
“Sie sind hier!” Kreuz howled. They are here.
There was nothing there, nothing but the trees and the stove and the sky, and yet he kicked out at the ground relentlessly, driving himself away from an unseen foe.
“What’s wrong with him?” said Henry. “There’s nothing there.”
He was right. They all noticed it together—Mike lowering his Luger, Stefan cursing in German, Joan snatching in a soft, shocked breath, Andreas crying out—nothing there, no beasts, no men in gas masks, and no Gyorgy.
* * *
“What happened?” Donnie caught up with Kreuz, grabbing the boy’s shoulder and holding him in place. He squirmed on his back, surprisingly strong, his eyes still huge and bright and unblinking. “Where did he go?”
“Gyorgy?” Andreas shouted, running into the trees and calling out in German.
“Go fetch him,” Donnie said to Henry. “We have to stay together. Kreuz, look at me! What happened?”
“They took him,” he said.
“Who?” asked Joan. “One of those things?”
Kreuz nodded, weeping now, kicking pathetically at the ground.
“Took him into the trees.”
“He probably just walked off,” said Mike. “I don’t trust a thing this rat says.”
“Walked off?” said Joan. “Mike, he was barely alive, his leg was shattered. He couldn’t have crawled, let alone vanished without a sound.”
“How did none of us see it?” said Donnie. “How did it take him so quickly?”
“They’re picking us off,” said Stefan. “One by one.”
“Christ.” Donnie clutched the Luger, setting off after Henry and Andreas, shouting over his shoulder, “Stay here, make sure Kreuz doesn’t bolt.”
Then he was once again in the crisp darkness of the trees, hearing Andreas up ahead.
“Henry, get back here,” he yelled. “We need to stay together.”
The crack of a branch overhead, then a roar that had absolutely nothing human in it.
“Shhhh . . .” The whisper came from his side. “Don’t make a sound.”
Donnie lurched around to see Henry there, one finger to his lips, the other pointing at what looked like an empty patch of forest floor up ahead. Then Donnie looked up and saw the creature in the branches, squatting like some monstrous, hairless ape. It was the same beast that had attacked them the night before, the one that had gone to work on the Nazis. It still wore a bib of their blood, its hands and forearms stained crimson. Here, in the light, Donnie saw that its body was packed tight with muscle, veins pulsing black beneath the scarred and stitched skin.
But when it turned its head there was a child’s face, staring idly up at the sun. It blinked huge inkwell eyes, then wiped a bloodied hand across its mouth, yawning. And it was that yawn which turned Donnie’s legs to saplings, which made him want to cry out, because it seemed so human.
“Gyorgy!” Andreas, somewhere, still calling for his friend. The creature straightened, sniffing the air, its body hardening into a solid mass of rock. It opened its mouth and uttered a quick laugh, like a toddler chasing a ball; then it leapt from the tree, landing hard enough for Donnie to feel the tremor run up his legs. It bounded off on all fours, barking that same manic chuckle.
“Come on,” said Henry. “Before it finishes with him.”
Donnie didn’t argue, following him back to the others.
“Andreas?” asked Stefan, fumbling rounds into his Mauser. “Gyorgy?”
Donnie shook his head. “We have to go.”
“And what?” asked Stefan. “Let them pick us off one at a time while we run like cowards?”
“What choice do we have?” said Donnie, keeping his voice low.
“We do have a choice,” said Joan. “Stefan’s right. They’re following us, toying with us. They will take us all while our backs are turned. But it doesn’t—”
A scream cut through her words, stuttering gunshots, then silence. Stefan swore in German, letting the rifle hang limply by his side.
“It doesn’t have to be like that,” Joan went on. “We can fight back. We can make a stand.”
“Yeah, because that worked so well for the Germans yesterday, didn’t it?” Donnie spat. “Come on, Joan. You saw what happened, bullets didn’t stop them, not grenades, nothing.”
“But what about Comp B?” said Henry.
“Explosives?” said Donnie.
“Yeah, Cuddy had about ten pounds of the stuff. They were going to use it to blow the German camp. It’s probably still back there, in the clearing.”
“It is,” Mike added. “I saw their packs. Who’s gonna stop there long enough to steal supplies?”
“You serious?” Donnie said. “So we get some Comp B. Then what? One of us holds those things down while the others strap it on? Come on, this won’t work, we’ve got to keep moving, try and lose them. If we make it back to an Allied camp we’ll have reinforcements.”
He realized what he’d said as soon as he’d stopped speaking. If. And when he asked himself, really asked himself, whether he thought they would make it out of this forest alive, the answer was no. They were right, all of them, if they took off like frightened birds then they’d get killed just the same, shot down one by one in their desperate, panicked flight.
And yet the alternative was to go back there, deeper into the forest, return to the clearing, that nest of wooden men with their leather faces and witch fingers.
“Donnie,” said Joan, putting a hand on his arm. “We have to do something, or we’re all going to die out here.”
He nodded, the fear frosting inside him, creeping through his flesh until his mind was as numb as his fingertips.
“Okay,” he said. “So what’s the plan?”
Two Lugers, twenty-eight rounds. A Sturmgewehr 44 with half a mag. One Mauser, four rounds. Joan’s Webley and whatever she had in her pocket. One Garand that had been emptied the night before. A single grenade.
Mike kept the assault rifle, Stefan had the Mauser, Henry and Donnie took a Luger each and for a while they sat staring at the grenade as if somehow it could win this war for them. Because this was a war—not between nations, but between them and something rotten that had dwelled in this forest since its trees were saplings, between them and an ancient, unspoken evil that had crawled out of the earth to lay its eggs in the world of man. In the end Donnie snatched it up and dropped it into the pocket of his coat.
“Ready?” he said. Nobody answered.
They marched west and south. Henry took point, leading them back along the trail they had made the night before. Donnie, second in line, looked at the footprints in the snow, the snapped branches, the scuff marks where they had fallen, and thought once that he could see himself running by, a phantom in the half-light.
Behind him staggered Kreuz, his arms bound tight and his gag back in place. He had begged to be freed, promising that he wouldn’t run, that he would fight alongside them if they spared him a gun. Donnie might have let him go—after all, they needed all the firepower they could get—if Stefan hadn’t shaken his head and said, “Don’t. You can’t trust him.” And Kreuz’s eyes had almost burned clean out of their sockets. Stefan now walked in Kreuz’s shadow, keeping his gun trained on the back of his Oberleutnant’s head rather than the surrounding trees. Joan followed him, with Mike at the back again sweeping the rifle in wide, uncertain circles.
Dawn seemed to have given up, as if the sun had seen what lay waiting for it here and sunk back below the horizon. Snow clouds had gathered, crowding overhead like spectators, as dense and as dark as the needled trees. Only the snow held on to its light, the forest as ethereal and otherworldly as midnight, still watching their imposition with an outrage that was as deafening as it was silent. And it was watching. It would watch until they all fell, and then they would be the ones lost in the shadows, ghosts forced to look forever out at the branches and the roots and the snow, crazed and hungry and damned.
It was insane, wasn’t it? To return, to think that they could face up to whatever waited there for them. Why weren’t they running? Better to be picked off in midflight, when your attention is fixed on escape, when the adrenaline makes you blind; better to never know, to spend eternity thinking you have fled; better that than this, offering yourself to your enemy knowing that they will make a mockery of you, turn your body to madness and your soul to night. Donnie flinched, every instinct driving him away, and he clamped down on it, biting his tongue, forcing his feet to take step after step after step, marching all the way back into the inner circle of hell.
Henry had stopped up ahead, was crouching down and digging his bayonet into the snow.
“What’s up?” Donnie said softly.
“Not sure,” he replied. “This is our trail, coming from there.” He gestured into the trees with the blade. “But there are other prints here, human ones, converging from east and west. They were following us, I’m sure of it, because I’d have noticed them last night.”
“Troops?” said Joan, catching up. Donnie shook his head, thinking of freaks in gas masks, limbs twitching in deranged excitement, piggy eyes blinking. He saw no sign of them in the trees but he knew they were there, somewhere. Was Eddie there, too? Dead Eddie, and the rest of the night children, all with their huge moon grins?
“Come on,” he said. “We shouldn’t stop.”
* * *
They reached the German camp nearly two hours later, and the first thing anybody said was “Where are the dead?”
It was Joan, stepping cautiously into the place where the Nazis had held them just a few hours ago. It could have been a hundred years, thought Donnie, another lifetime. There were shell casings everywhere, as slippery as ball bearings, dark craters and blistered trees where grenades had detonated, crimson streaks melted into the snow. But no bodies, dead or alive. The scene made Donnie think of a theater stage abandoned after a show, the boards still warm, still resonating.
“They must have taken them,” said Stefan, his voice laden with grief. “Meine Freunde, forgive me.”
Mike gave Kreuz a shove, sending him sprawling onto the ground. The boy squirmed, beetle-like, trying to get up again.
“The clearing wasn’t far from here,” Mike said. “You remember which direction?”
“Won’t be hard to find,” Henry replied. “We were barreling through there fast enough. Give me a minute.”
“Do we even know what we’re going to do when we get there?” asked Donnie.
“Start praying,” muttered Henry. “Real hard.”
“Great.” Donnie shook his head, stepping over a puddle of frozen blood. There was a rifle next to it, but when he picked it up he saw that the barrel had been twisted around like a liquorice stick. He threw it back, wondering at the strength needed to do that, thinking how easily his bones would splinter under the same brute force.
“There’s our bags,” said Mike, walking to three backpacks clustered around a tree. They had been emptied onto the ground, but Mike lifted a can of bully beef with a victorious grin. He keyed it open, using his fingers to scoop out a chunk of the corned beef. “Best grub on the planet,” he said through his second mouthful.
“Gonna share that?” Henry asked. Mike rummaged, lobbing a pack of Arnott’s to the other man. He ripped them open, stuffing three biscuits into his mouth and crunching them so hard they must have been able to hear the noise back in Jersey. Mike held up a pack of Steam Rollers.
“Mints?” said Joan. “Sure, I won’t say no.”
She caught them, tipped a couple into her hand, then passed the packet to Stefan. Kreuz watched them eagerly, a dog waiting for scraps.
“Take a good look around,” Donnie said as Henry handed him the Arnott’s. “Collect anything that looks useful. But we’re not stopping for long, just until we find the trail.”
The others muttered their agreement, spreading out. Donnie walked to Kreuz and crouched down beside him.
The kid nodded and Donnie pulled down the gag.
“These taste like bricks,” he said, snapping a biscuit in half and feeding it to Kreuz. “And they’ll probably break your teeth.”
“Danke,” Kreuz said, then swallowed noisily and took the other half, looking like he was seventeen going on eleven.
“So how did you end up here?” Donnie asked. “Uncle’s rich, in the party, you could have stayed at home, waited out the war.”
Kreuz stopped chewing, studying Donnie. There was still anger there, brewing just beneath the surface, the powerless rage of a child.
“Waited out the war?” he said finally, spraying biscuit crumbs. His English was halting, so heavily accented that it was barely comprehendible. “Missed chance to contribute to Reich? You Americans, you could never under—” He seemed to catch himself, his gaze wavering. “You not knowing my father,” he said, calmer. “He was hero from last war, legend, injured in battle after killing a hundred British soldiers. Died ten years later, just after I was born. I never knew him, but I never stopped hearing the stories of this great man, der Löwe—the lion—von Passchendale.”
“So your family, your uncle, sent you out here to fill his boots,” said Donnie. The boy nodded, and Donnie felt the mildest tug of sympathy for him. “Well, I know we’re enemies, I know we live a world apart, but I can tell you this, Kreuz, ain’t no man alive can fill his father’s boots.”
For a second something passed between them, there and gone before Donnie could make any sense of it.
“I don’t want to die here,” Kreuz said. “Not like this. Give me a gun, let me fight, like my father.”
“How do I know you won’t shoot us the moment our backs are turned?” Donnie said. “Your own men don’t even trust you.”
“Schwein,” he spat. “All of them, jealous of the lion’s reputation, my family’s wealth, because I am an Oberleutnant and they are nothing. They would happily see me die. But I am not stupid, Corporal. I would not kill only people who stand between me and . . . and those Unmenschen out there. Please, let me fight as a man, not cower here, tied like animal.”
Donnie chewed his lip, trying to fathom the emotions that writhed and churned in Kreuz’s watery blue eyes.
“Sir,” said Henry. “I’ve found it, we’re ready to roll.”
Donnie stood, rubbing the blood back into his legs.
“Please!” hissed Kreuz.
“Just give me a minute,” he replied, then jogged over to Henry. Joan was there, sucking on a mint. Mike and Stefan were, too. “You find anything we can use?” he asked them.
“There is nothing,” said Stefan. “We were lost, too, ja, almost no food, almost no ammunition, just like you.”
“But this is the way we came,” said Henry, pointing at a broken branch. Donnie saw a smattering of red beneath it, realized that this was where he’d been smashed in the nose. That’s my blood, he thought, and for some reason it filled him with horror. He wanted to scoop up the crimson snow, stuff it into his pockets so that they couldn’t find it. He didn’t want to leave a single trace of himself here for the freaks to nuzzle and sniff and lick. “Cuddy’s just up there.”
Waiting for us, Donnie almost said, managing to lock the words behind his teeth, saying instead, “What do we do when we get there?”
“Find your friend’s explosives,” whispered Joan conspiratorially. “Rig them up, then lure them in. Do you think they’re close?”
“They’re close,” said Mike, scouring the canopy. “They’re always close.”
And, as though waiting for a cue, a scream rose up behind them, shrill like a whistling kettle, so full of fear and misery that Donnie couldn’t bear to turn around, just screwed his eyes shut, praying for it to go away, to leave them be.
“Kreuz!” shouted Joan.
The scream, still rising. How could anybody have so much air in his lungs? Donnie swung round, opened his eyes to see Kreuz on his back, howling through his muzzle, being dragged across the snow by a creature in a gas mask. The beast glared at them with its coal-black eyes, warning them to stay away, and even though its mouth was hidden by the rusted contraption over its face Donnie knew what expression the monster wore: a smile, greedy and slick. It lurched away from them, black-gloved hands tight around Kreuz’s throat, dragging the boy as if he were a sack of meat.
“Kill it!” said Joan, firing her Webley. The shot went wide and the creature shrieked at them, its whole body spasming, its head snapping back and shaking wildly. It recovered itself, blundering between two trees and refusing to let go of its prize. Kreuz fought, his face an ecstasy of terror, but he was bound tight, helpless, disappearing fast into the darkness.
“Out of the way!” said Stefan, down on one knee, the Mauser aimed. He took a deep breath, then loosed a shot which thudded into the gas-masked freak’s shoulder. It cried out in anger and pain but still did not release its grip. Stefan fired again, and one side of the creature’s throat exploded outward. It blinked at them as if in disbelief, tugged weakly on Kreuz, then dropped to the ground.
Donnie ran over, the Luger at the ready. The creature lay where it had fallen, looking up. It tried to breathe, producing a rattling wheeze. Blood sprayed from the wound in its neck, as thick and as black as oil, bubbling into the hollows of the forest floor and causing the snow to hiss into water. And yet its eyes, although sunken and as dark as raisins, watched them with a curiosity that was utterly human. It raised a hand to its mask, scratching at it, trying to pull it loose.
“What do we do?” Donnie asked.
“Take it off,” said Joan, reaching down and grabbing the mask, gently sliding it away. The noise it made was like a sink plunger coming loose, a wave of rot wafting up from the toothless, gaping mouth beneath. It stretched out a wide, white tongue, trying to breathe in once again, all the time watching them. Its skin was like wet pastry, lined with black, marble-like veins. Its nose was half gone, like a corpse’s. “Let it die like a man, not a monster.”
“But what is it?” said Mike. “It isn’t . . . It can’t be a man.”
Joan pulled the collar of the freak’s coat around its neck, laid a hand on its chest as it rose and fell, rose and fell, rose and fell, then lay still. It twitched once; then its eyes slid up, focusing on something that none of them could see.
“It’s dead?” asked Stefan.
Joan nodded. “I think it died a long time ago,” she said, standing and running her hands down her trousers. She looked at Donnie. “We should go, before anything else gets here.”
Donnie didn’t answer, just stared at the monster at his feet, at the black blood that oozed from its throat, at its insect eyes now full of peace. And he understood that even if he left this place, even if by some miracle he found a way home, he would never truly get away. Part of him would always be here, right here, looking down at this hybrid of madness and man; every single second, every single minute, every single day, for the rest of his life.
“Donnie,” said Joan again. He looked at her, then turned and walked to Kreuz. The kid was curled into himself and whimpering, and when Donnie reached out to him he flinched.
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay.”
He pulled free his bayonet, sawed open the rope that held Kreuz’s wrists. He untied the gag, threw it away, then offered the Luger to him.
“You sure about this?” said Mike.
“I’m sure,” Donnie said, not taking his eyes from Kreuz’s. “It isn’t him and us anymore, it’s us and them. The more of us there are with guns, the better chance we stand of getting out alive.”
Kreuz snatched the weapon, scrambling onto his feet and striding over to the dead freak. He screamed something at it in German, and looked as if he was about to pull the trigger before Henry grabbed his arm.
“It’s dead,” he said. “Save your ammo, there are plenty more of them still alive.”
The boy stood there for a moment, then let the gun fall to his side, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. Donnie ran over to their packs, found a couple of clips in the snow and fitted one into the empty Garand. Then he turned, saw the others waiting for him. Why are you looking to me, he wondered, when I’m a coward, when I don’t know what to do? And yet he felt strangely reassured, seeing them there—Mike and Henry, Joan and Stefan, even Kreuz, people he seemed to have always known; felt strangely reassured, knowing that whatever these things were, wherever they came from, they could be killed. He offered a smile, the expression so alien that it felt uncomfortable on his lips. But it must have worked, because they smiled back—all except the young Oberleutnant—weary and frightened but smiling nonetheless.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s do this.”
And this time, he took the lead.
The dead men were waiting for them, welcoming them back with loose-lipped grins and empty eyes. As Donnie entered the clearing something fat and black scuttled out of Cuddy’s mouth, shivering over his chin and disappearing into the nest of wooden ribs beneath. All three men looked on, seeming to say, You came back, thank you for coming back, because we can’t move and it’s so lonely here; you came back, and this time you won’t leave us, not ever, not ever.
“This is what happened to our men also,” said Stefan, his voice hushed, almost reverential. “Only, ours hung . . .” He put his hand to his mouth, but Kreuz finished for him.
“Upside down. Upside down and inside out.”
“My God,” said Henry.
“Not here,” Stefan whispered. “He is not here, not in this place. Not anymore.”
Mike scampered nervously across the clearing to where the squad’s bags lay in a heap.
“Be careful,” said Donnie. But Mike opened one without caution, delving into it before throwing it to the side. He tried another, pulling out a small brown block.
“This is more like it,” he said, removing another five to form a stack on the snow. He reached back in and found a line of fuse and a detonator, scooping up everything and carrying it over.
“Is that stuff safe?” asked Joan, raising an eyebrow.
“Yeah,” said Mike. “So long as you don’t spark up a cigarette. Where you want it?”
Donnie looked at the clearing, at the silent sentinels who stood guard, who saw everything and nothing. But they wouldn’t work as decoys. These were, after all, the demons’ creations. No, they needed something else, something that their enemy would be drawn to.
“Could use him,” said Mike, reading Donnie’s thoughts and nodding at Kreuz.
“Prime the comp,” Donnie said, ignoring him. “Get the fuse ready, and make it long. I’ll be right back.”
“Donnie?” said Joan. “Where are you going? We shouldn’t split up.”
“It’s okay, I’m not going far.”
All the same when he started to walk she came with him, still holding the Webley. He led the way along the track they’d just made, heading for the German camp. It had taken them only ten minutes to get from there to the clearing, close enough for what he had in mind. The forest grinned down as they crunched across the snow, still holding its breath, still waiting. Donnie scanned the trees, knowing that other things were watching them, too.
“Do you believe Gyorgy’s story?” he found himself asking, just to break the oppressive silence.
“The night children? Of course not, Donnie. It was a fairy tale, a legend. No more real than… I don’t know, than Sleeping Beauty or Rapunzel.”
“So what are they, then?” he said. “If not demons.”
She didn’t answer immediately, her eyes on the uneven ground but seeing something else. They were almost at the camp when she finally spoke.
“I think they are broken things. But broken by us.” She looked up at him, her expression full of sadness. “Broken by us, Donnie.”
“Us?” he stopped walking and so did she.
“This war,” she said. “It’s not like the other ones. We’re not just fighting each other, not like we used to. We’re exterminating each other. The . . .” She faltered, chewing on her lip. “The weapons, I mean look at what they do to us, the guns and the bombs, whole towns, cities, destroyed in moments. All those lives, Donnie, we take them like we’re sweeping away dust. You, them and me. I’ve looked down and seen the world burn and called it my mission. But that’s not the worst of it, because we’re finding new ways to hurt each other. I hear that your scientists are working on something terrible, something that will change everything. We are, too. And the Nazis, my God some of the things we’ve found in their camps, their hospitals.”
She wiped the tears from her eyes and Donnie reached out to her, wanting more than anything to hold her. But she stepped away from him, folding her arms across her chest.
“And this.” She looked around her at the trees, at the snow. “What else can it be? What else can it be but science. Someone has taken those children and broken them, broken them so badly that they can never be fixed. All for this . . . this stupid, awful war.”
“That isn’t possible,” he said. “Science can’t do that to somebody, can’t change them like that.”
But he could see the monsters in gas masks, full of greed. He remembered the way they had strung Eddie up like a specimen, the way they had pulled Kreuz into the trees. Gyorgy, too, snatched from under their noses. They were the youngest, he realized. Eddie, Kreuz, Gyorgy, not one of them older then eighteen. They were our children.
“What if it doesn’t end here?” Joan asked, seeing the horror on his face. “What if it spreads out of this forest?” She put a hand over her mouth. “What if it happens to my children? To George, to Grace.”
“It won’t,” Donnie said, and this time he did draw her close. He pressed his face into the crook of her neck, into the rough fabric of the parachute, the feel of the silk taking him home, and it could have been Betty there, her arms locked tight around his back, her small frame shaking uncontrollably the way it had when he’d said goodbye to her back in Indiana, when she’d whispered to him that she was pregnant and his heart had almost snapped clean in two because he could never get her back, not now, and it was as much to Betty as to Joan that he said, “We’re going to stop it, I promise. I promise you.”
They stood, entwined like tree limbs, like vines, and when they finally let go of one another Donnie thought that even the forest seemed to view them differently, its light softer.
“I promise you,” he said again.
“With more violence,” she said softly. “We blow up those poor, broken souls and we call it victory.”
Donnie had no answer for this. He turned away from Joan, searching the space between the trees until he saw the corpse. Its head was now completely surrounded by blood, a perfectly round, perfectly black halo. He crouched down beside it, startled by the heat that rose from its desiccated corpse, as if he were sitting next to the stove again.
“What the hell are you?” Donnie asked sightless eyes as small and shriveled as raisins. Its mottled skin reminded him of curdled milk, and the smell of the thing was overpowering, the stench of grave pits and ruptured guts. He covered his mouth with one hand, used the other to peel open its coat. Underneath was a suit worn thin by time, surely never washed. A leather pouch was strapped over it, a single syringe inside. Donnie pulled it free, holding it up to the light. It was empty, save for a smear of black fluid on the inside of the glass.
“Morphine?” Joan asked.
“I don’t think so,” he replied, thinking of Eddie strung up and back-to-front, his veins pulsing dark. He tossed the syringe away, took a deep breath, then grabbed the freak and hoisted him up. The body was surprisingly light, felt hollow-boned and bird-like, and Donnie slung it over his shoulder.
“I take it that’s our decoy?” Joan asked.
The forest answered her, a chattering cry from the treetops followed by that same innocent, childish laughter that had haunted them for what felt like a hundred lifetimes.
Joan looked at him, both of them about to say the same thing and neither of them needing to: They’re coming.
* * *
They placed the stiffening corpse in the middle of the clearing, propping it up with stakes of wood. It stood limply in between the murdered soldiers, its chin against its chest, looking like a guilty man before a towering jury. Cuddy and the others stared down at it, and Donnie wondered how the scene could seem so real, so alive, when there was only death there. He felt as though he was conspiring with the night children to make a mockery of his species, turning flesh into some macabre, nightmarish sculpture. And amid the numbing horror there was some small spark of satisfaction, the sick delight of revenge: How does it feel to see one of your own set out like a doll, like a plaything?
“That should do it,” said Henry, wedging another prop into place to stop the corpse leaning to the side. It looked like a spider, two real legs and six wooden ones, ready to scuttle off into the undergrowth, to join its friends who still called out from the trees.
“It won’t work,” said Mike. “Those things’ll spot the trap from a mile off.”
“It needs something else,” said Joan. “I don’t know . . .”
She pulled off her satchel, then shook the parachute from her shoulders and draped it around the corpse’s neck. It slipped loose and she tucked the nylon into its collar until it stuck fast, gagging as she worked. Kreuz looked on from the shadows around the clearing, his beady blue eyes full of anger.
“A parachute?” said Mike. “Still won’t work.”
“It worked on you didn’t it?” Joan replied. All the same she eased off her leather pilot’s helmet, placing it on the freak’s bald, pasty head and moving the goggles over its eyes.
“Looks just like you,” said Donnie with a smile. She scowled at him, but there was a tired humor beneath it. She tucked her hair behind her ear, shivering hard. The corpse stood there, its supports hidden by the parachute, which fluttered gently in the imperceptible breeze. Donnie turned to Mike, saying, “Comp B ready?”
“Ready as it’ll ever be,” he replied. “You want it all on him?”
“Two blocks on the freak, we’ll hide the rest around the outside in case they make a run for it. Yeah?”
Mike nodded, carrying the explosives over to the monster’s corpse and tucking them under the skirt of the parachute. He unwound the fuse, trailing it out of the clearing and through the trees. Donnie scooped up the other bricks and walked to Cuddy, tucking one inside his wooden rib cage. He covered it up with some straw from the man’s pocket, pulling the jacket as tight as it would go, smoothing it down.
“This is for you, Sergeant,” he said, looking at the frozen, formless face above, seeing the treetops through the man’s mouth, through his nostrils, through his eyes. “Chance to get your own back on the bastards.”
He placed the remaining two bricks inside the other hollow men, one beneath Albert Connaught’s tin helmet, the other in the brittle bone of the deer skull. They didn’t need fuses—the heat and shock wave from the initial explosion would be enough to trigger them. He stood back, feeling like he should salute them but too self- conscious to do so. Instead he nodded curtly and returned to the others.
“We should get into cover,” he said, following the fuse to where Mike was standing fifty yards away. He had the detonator out, the plunger extended.
“Far as it goes,” Mike said.
“It’s far enough,” Donnie replied, looking back to the clearing. The trees between here and there were old and thick, dressed in needles that would cushion the force of the blast.
“Now we wait?” asked Stefan, fiddling with the MG 42 he’d picked up back at the German camp.
“We’ll freeze if we wait,” said Donnie, looking up to where the trees tried and failed to scratch their silhouettes against the glowering sky. It had fallen quiet in the last minute or two, but something was coming. He could feel it in the air, like electricity, making the hairs on his neck crane upward. “Spread out, find cover. Be ready; if those things survive the blast then they are going to be angry.”
“What about you, sir?” asked Henry. Donnie snorted a humorless laugh.
“I’m going to make sure they know exactly where we are.”
He snapped off a salute and they all fired one back—Henry and Mike, Joan and even Stefan. Only Kreuz remained still, leaning against a tree with the Luger clutched in a white-knuckled hand.
“Be careful,” said Mike. “Just draw them into the clearing then get the hell out of there.”
Donnie nodded. He was afraid, so afraid that when he tried to turn and walk his body wouldn’t let him, as if he had chocks under his wheels. But he had been scared before, so many times. His first jump from a C-47, the ground a thousand feet below and rising fast; floating down over Normandy, the air shaken into a rage by the flak guns, a thousand chutes drifting like jellyfish in the ocean; seeing his first dead man, hanging from a tree by his parachute, riddled with bayonet holes; seeing his first man killed, a platoon sergeant called Buck Hounds who’d taken a round to the throat and still managed to spit out bloodied orders before dying right there on the road; crawling over the bodies of men he’d shared coffee with, played cards with, bullets like wasps beating them back and tanks, those monstrous engines, pulling the world to pieces all around them. And the truth was that he’d always been scared, hadn’t he? Even back at home, Betty sitting beside him on the edge of his bed waiting for him to tell her, to just open his mouth and speak, and him never daring, always too frightened.
Not now, though. Not now. He wrenched himself forward, the snow crunching beneath his feet, the forest silent and dark and heavy. He forced himself into the clearing, right up to the freak who now wore Joan’s parachute and her helmet, and the fear rose from his stomach like fire, burning up his throat and out of his mouth in a cry that was surely too raw, too loud to be human.
When it had ended he clawed in a breath and called out again, refusing to let the silence fight back.
“We’re here, you sons of bitches! You want us? Well, come and get us, come and get us, you yella bastards, or are you scared?” He was sobbing, but his mind was perfectly numb. “Come on, we’re right here, goddammit, we’re right here!”
Crack, the sound of a branch breaking, a big one. Donnie staggered away, stumbling into a tree on the edge of the clearing as a rustling thunder rose up, something big heading this way. There was a shriek, filled with delight, echoed once and then twice. He swore, bolting, suddenly aware that he couldn’t see anyone else. Was this the direction he’d come from? Or was he barreling right into the enemy?
A hand, waving to him from behind a tree—Henry—and Donnie had never in his life been happier to see another human being. He skidded down beside him, scrambling into cover then peeking out past Henry’s elbow. The forest was pulsing in time with his heartbeat, flashes of light like AA blasts as his brain threatened to stall.
But there was real movement there, too, in the trees, a lumbering shape that dropped down on the edge of the clearing. Even from here Donnie could make out its pink, blubbery skin, fold upon fold as if it were melting inside a furnace. Its head was half-sunk into the ring of its neck, its eyes two black holes that scoured the forest. It was the creature they had seen last night, one of them, anyway.
Mike was crouched behind the next tree over, his whole body tense, his hand gripping the trigger for the Comp B. Donnie waved to get his attention, held up his hand, mouthed Wait! For a moment Mike looked as if he was going to detonate it anyway; then he swallowed noisily and nodded.
Thump, another impossible figure landing in the clearing, its long limbs carved from mahogany. It scampered to the first, one eye blinking, a growl bubbling from its throat. They could have been dogs, if they didn’t have the faces of boys, utterly ravaged and yet still so recognizable, so young. They both crawled forward, sniffing the air as they approached the freak in the center of the clearing.
A howl blistered through the forest and Donnie swung around. Joan was to his right, pressed against a tree, her eyes screwed shut. Behind her, close enough for her to touch if she wanted to, another beast, another night child, strode past. This one seemed to have been carved from bone, an exquisite confluence of long, yellow-white limbs connected to a body so thin, so bent out of shape, that Donnie could make no sense of it. It was like a stick insect, and yet its bald, elongated head possessed the features of a kid.
Don’t move, thought Donnie, willing the message to Joan. She didn’t, not even the rise and fall of her chest. The creature stopped beside her, curling spider-jointed fingers around the trunk of the tree. Two ragged holes in its face snorted out air; then it roared again and loped onward.
In the clearing, both monsters were investigating the freak, sniffing the corpse. The fleshy one stood up, towering over the body, using unmistakably human hands to pry loose the helmet. When it saw the face beneath, it whimpered, a noise so childlike, so full of grief and confusion, that it almost broke Donnie’s heart. He had to turn away, feeling the creeping, tickling madness nestling inside his skull. When he looked back he saw the creature nuzzling the dead man, whining, pawing him gently as if to wake him from a deep sleep.
The third creature stooped into the clearing, barking out a noise that might once have been a laugh. It dropped onto all fours, scuttling forward, the other two moving nervously out of its way. It, too, seemed distraught at the sight of the dead freak, its depthless black eyes like huge, round holes in the skin of the world.
All he had to do was drop his hand, give the signal, and the clearing would be obliterated, these demons blown back to hell. But they weren’t demons, were they? They were children. Broken by us, he heard Joan’s words. They’re children, just children, they can be saved.
The china-white creature gave the freak a gentle shake, uttering chirruped cries. Then it seemed to run out of patience, swiping one of its clawed hands hard enough to rip the corpse from its wooden supports and send it tumbling across the ground. It opened its huge, gaping mouth and screamed, its whole body thrashing from side to side, gouging chunks of bark and clots of frozen earth. And in that terrifying display of berserk strength Donnie understood that these things could never be saved, they would forever be children of the night.
He looked back at Mike, dropped his hand. Mike pressed the trigger. All of them ducked behind the trees, bracing themselves.
Only nothing happened.
Mike pulled the plunger out, pushed it again, then again. The creatures railed in the clearing, their fury growing by the second.
“Fuse must have come loose when that thing knocked it,” Donnie whispered to Henry, thinking, We’re dead, this is the end of it.
“So what do we do?” Henry hissed. “Donnie, what do we do?”
There was no other way of detonating the Comp B, not unless they all just started shooting and one of them got lucky before their enemy closed in. They could hide here, hope their cover was better than it looked, or run for it. But every single one of those scenarios would finish in the same way, with them all pinned beneath the bare feet of a monster, then fed piece by piece to the forest.
“Donnie.” He thought it was Henry, but when he looked he saw Joan there behind him. She reached into his pocket, pulled something free and gripped it in her slender fingers. “Be ready.”
He didn’t have time to ask for what. She threw herself out from the tree, tearing toward the clearing. The beasts there sensed her instantly, all three unleashing a symphony of rage, their mouths so wide that it looked as if Joan was running toward three lightless caves. There was a soft metallic click as she pulled the pin from the grenade, lobbing it toward them. It struck the fleshy one, bouncing off, landing right beside the body of the freak.
Joan turned, started running, and even though he knew she couldn’t make it, that she was too far away, Donnie held out a hand to her.
The world turned white. Donnie crashed against the tree, feeling it tremble with the force of the shock wave. A hail of dirt and wood fell, the air on fire, the forest squealing as ancient trunks swelled and splintered. It seemed as if the ground was opening up, plunging them into darkness, swallowing them whole, and Donnie screamed, his voice lost in the crushing thunder.
Then, as quickly as it started, it stopped. The storm passed, the hail becoming a rain, a soft patter, then stopping altogether. Donnie flexed his jaw, wondering if he’d gone deaf because the silence was so immense.
“Joan,” he choked. He pushed himself up, seeing the clearing ahead. It was utterly black, a crater in the ground, the trees closest to the explosion ripped up and stripped bare. The air was thick with smoke, a cloud as dark as the sky. Nothing moved inside it.
Joan was a ragged bundle of cloth on the ground, so small that Donnie wasn’t sure until he slipped down beside her. The back of her uniform had burned clean off; the skin beneath was red and blistered. Her hair was shriveled into dark clumps. But she was alive.
“Can you hear me?” Donnie asked, easing her over onto her side. “Joan?”
She looked up, her eyes swimming in and out of focus before finding him.
“Did we get them?” More cough than voice.
“Take it easy, we got them,” he said.
Stefan ran past them, heading into the clearing with the MG 42. Mike followed.
“She all right?” asked Henry, ducking down beside them.
“Just a scratch,” Joan answered for herself. “Nothing a cup of tea won’t fix.”
Donnie and Henry exchanged a look, one that said everything.
“Where’s Kreuz?” Donnie asked. “He better not have run.”
“I’m right here,” said the boy, walking past with his Luger, that same flash of lunatic menace as he followed the others into the clearing.
“We’d better go make sure they’re dead,” said Henry. “Stay here, look after her, we’ll be back in a second.”
He jogged into the smoke, black tendrils curling around him, like something pulling him into the depths. There was a burst of fire from Stefan’s machine gun, making Donnie jump.
“You think . . .” Joan tried, spitting out blood. “You think there are more of them out there?”
Donnie placed his hand on her head, smoothing what was left of her hair.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe. But they know not to mess with us now. I think we’ll be okay.”
They both ignored the lie, Joan resting her cheek on a nest of tangled roots. The snow was gone, blasted into a mist that clung to the warm, wet earth. She snatched in a weak breath, holding it for too long.
“I need you to do something for me,” she said after a moment.
“Joan,” said Donnie. “Whatever it is, you can do it yourself. We’ll get you out of here.”
She ignored him, reaching down to her leg, blackened fingers twitching.
“I’ll do it,” he said, knowing what she wanted. There was another burst of gunfire from the clearing but he didn’t look up, fishing the envelope from Joan’s boot and handing it to her. She took the photo, the one of her and her fiancé and her children, and smiled.
“Joan,” Donnie said, and could think of nothing else. He could see the strength ebbing from her body, each movement growing weaker. But the light still shone in her eyes, fierce and full of love. She handed Donnie the letter, marked simply To my darling William. He shook his head, knowing that to take it was to admit defeat.
“Please, Donnie,” she said. “I need you to give this to him. I need you to let him have it personally.” She broke off, coughing. “Will you do that for me?”
He nodded, taking the small, white envelope. It was so light, and he thought, How can it weigh so little when it contains so much?
“Don’t tell them,” she went on. “About this, about the night children. I don’t . . . I don’t want them to know I died like this.”
“I won’t,” he said, the pain in his chest, in his throat, like a living thing trying to crawl free. “Where do they live?”
“London,” and these were her last words, he realized, barely words at all. “Take it to Whitehall, they’ll know him there. William . . .”
“William what?” he asked, holding her hand, stroking it with his thumb.
“Sawyer,” she replied. “William Sawyer.”
She brought the photograph to her dry, cracked lips and kissed it.
“My parachute,” she said, her eyes clouding. “He’ll bring me home.”
Then she was gone.
* * *
He closed her eyes and looked at her, this woman whom he first met less than twelve hours ago but who seemed to have been in his life forever.
“Thank you,” he said. If it hadn’t been for her then surely they all would have died. It didn’t seem right to leave her here, at the mercy of the forest that killed her, so Donnie lifted her onto his shoulder. Even if he couldn’t carry her all the way back to the nearest Allied camp—wherever that was—he could at least get her away from here, from the clearing, so she wouldn’t have to spend eternity in the company of monsters.
Up ahead the smoke was starting to clear and Donnie made his way into it. Stefan and Mike were standing over a puddle of black blood, and as he approached, Donnie saw shapes inside it, a cluster of bones that reminded him of a shipwreck. There was another body nearby, little more than a stain, and a third that had survived better than the others. This belonged to the china-white beast, its legs blown off but its head riddled with bullet holes. Henry stood over it, looking up when he heard Donnie’s footsteps.
“Was still alive,” he muttered. “Can you believe that?”
He saw what Donnie was carrying and nodded sadly.
“We showed ’em,” said Mike, turning around and grinning. “They never saw it coming. She dead?” He sighed without waiting for an answer. “That was brave, what she did. Real brave, broad or no broad.”
“We should move out,” said Donnie. “That blast will have been heard miles away.”
“Ready when you are,” said Mike. “I don’t want to spend another second here. What you wanna do about these two?”
“I will come with you,” said Stefan. “I’d rather take my chances with your officers than my Führer.”
“Pretty sure they won’t be too—”
The shot flipped the top of Mike’s head open like a jack-in-the-box, something red and wet springing out. His eyes rolled up, as if he was trying to see what had happened; then he crumpled to the burnt ground, his body spasming.
“Nein!” yelled Stefan, but by the time he’d swung the MG 42 up there were two neat holes in his chest, blinking like eyes. He pulled the trigger as he crumpled forward, carving a trench in the soil.
It was Kreuz. The German kid swung the Luger from Stefan to Henry, his mouth twisted into a thin, hateful smile. Henry didn’t even go for his rifle, just threw himself at the boy, making it halfway across the clearing before the shot came. It tore into his shoulder, barely slowing him down.
“Bastard!” Henry screamed, and Donnie didn’t wait to see what damage the second shot did. He turned, running as fast as he could with Joan slung over his shoulder. There was a whipcrack, something buzzing past his ear, so hot it felt like ice, thudding into the trunk of a pine. He wove between the trees, hearing Kreuz loose another three shots.
Donnie crashed into cover, letting Joan slide to the ground. Idiot! he screamed at himself. He should have seen it coming, he should have listened to the others. Idiot idiot idiot! They couldn’t be dead, not Mike, not Henry, not after everything they’d been through.
“Come out and play, ami,” Kreuz called. There was a roar as he fired the MG 42, branches and leaves disintegrating. Pieces of bark flew from the tree that Donnie was hiding behind, embedding themselves in his skin. He reached for his rifle before remembering he’d left it behind, going instead for Joan’s Webley, trying not to notice how cool her skin was. Kreuz’s feet scuffed the ground as he stalked, his voice high and musical and full of malice. “Come out and play, meine Freunde. I’m waiting.”
Donnie edged out for an instant, the machine gun spraying out rounds, forcing him back.
“You can’t hide from me,” said Kreuz.
“I let you free,” Donnie said, even though he knew there could be no reasoning with him, no bargaining, no chance of mercy. “I gave you a gun.”
“No, you didn’t,” he replied. “I overpowered you, stole your weapon, killed your entire squad and the Nazi traitors who sided with you.” He giggled. “At least that is what I will tell my superiors. That is what the world will think happened. And you . . . I think you will beg for your life, offer up secrets, betray your nation. I think you will beg like Schwein in story I tell.”
Kreuz fired again, and a ricochet slammed into Donnie’s shin. He grunted, the pain like a white-hot needle beneath the bone.
“And your Hure,” the boy said. “Oh, the tales I will tell about her. When I have finished she will be disowned by everybody who ever ca—”
Kreuz fell silent. Donnie cocked his head, trying to hear past the hurricane of his pulse. There was a thump, something falling to the ground, then the sound of the boy being violently sick.
Donnie was about to risk peeking out from the tree again when he felt it too—like a punch to the gut. He doubled up, feeling as though somebody had their hands inside him, dirty fingers that pushed between his organs, moving up his throat into the flesh of his brain. His whole body tensed, rigor mortis hard, as though trying to force a poison from his system.
He curled into himself, knowing that whatever was coming now was infinitely worse than the night children. He dropped the gun, taking Joan’s cold hand, just wanting to feel someone there beside him. He could almost feel it getting closer, every footstep stamping on his chest, so much stronger than his own flimsy, panicked heartbeat. Somewhere a tree fell, as though there were tanks moving this way. But there were no engines, no squealing caterpillar tracks. Aside from Kreuz’s pitiful sobs the forest was once again as quiet as the dead, as if even it was afraid of what approached.
“Nein,” Kreuz said. “Nein nein nein.”
The voice that answered the boy was vast and ageless, loud enough to crush Donnie’s thoughts to crumbs.
Who are you to murder my children?
It rang between Donnie’s ears, making blood gush from his nose; the words at once a scream and a shout and a sigh. He couldn’t even be sure that they had been spoken, the voice seeming to come from the deepest part of his own mind. He wrapped his arms around his head, would have put the Webley to his own temple and pulled the trigger rather than face whatever crunched its way through the trees, whatever spoke in that world-ending whisper—only nothing in him seemed to work anymore. He just gripped Joan’s hand as hard as he was able.
It was Kázán, he understood, remembering Gyorgy’s story. It was Furnace, the man who drank from demons.
Who are you to murder my children? it asked again, and this time the words brought images with them, flashes of broken bone and rent flesh, gas masks over toothless maws, syringes full of liquid darkness and those same broken babies with inkwells for eyes. They cut into him like scalpels, those pictures, never long enough to make sense of but each one taking a little piece of him away with it.
Then they stopped, and Donnie realized the entity—it was the only word he had for this—had stopped, too, on the edge of the clearing. He couldn’t see it, but he knew it was there, just as he knew it was casting out its dark touch, scouring the forest for life. He hunkered into himself, ordering his mind to stay blank, stay quiet, but unable to mute the words that screamed don’t see me don’t see me don’t see me in time with his jackhammering pulse.
I see you, it replied. Did you do this?
“Nein,” said Kreuz. “Nein, bitte, please.”
Come to me.
Donnie could hear Kreuz’s boots scuffing the ground as he got up, footsteps crossing the clearing toward whatever lay on the other side of it. He could feel something tug inside him, a hook in his skull, and he was standing, too, before he even realized it. He grabbed the tree with his free hand, hugging it with every ounce of strength he possessed, fighting the irresistible urge to follow the voice.
You killed my children, yes?
“Ja,” he heard Kreuz say. Yes. Did he hear the voice in German?
You killed these other men?
“Ja.” A broken record.
You did this alone?
Donnie waited for it, for Kreuz to give up his position. That pressure still felt its way around his thoughts, softer now, unsure, and his heart leapt as he thought, It doesn’t know I’m here, not for sure. He gripped the tree even tighter, not even daring to pray in silence in case it heard him.
“Ja,” said Kreuz.
How old are you, boy?
“Siebzehn,” said Kreuz. Seventeen.
And can you keep your house in order?
“Ja,” There was something else in Kreuz’s voice now, alongside the fear. Awe, maybe, or rapture.
What is your name?
“Kreuz,” he answered. And how apt it was, Donnie thought, that his name meant Cross.
Will you accept my gift? the voice asked, and Kreuz laughed, a shrill giggle full of madness.
“Ja,” he said.
The entity smiled. Donnie knew because once again his head was full of rot, of ruin, of rancid glee. He pushed his face against the bark, holding back a scream that threatened to burst free of his throat.
Come with me, the voice said, and there was a splintering of trees as something huge shifted its bulk, moving away. Come with me, Kreuz, and share my gift.
That request—no, that command—was so powerful that Donnie stepped from behind the tree. He could not stop himself, could not even close his eyes; he stumbled out and gazed across the clearing into the darkness of the trees beyond and saw it there, a gaping abyss in the sanity and reality of the universe. It turned away, its flickering darkness tearing a hole in everything it touched, like burning celluloid, as if it was erasing the world around it.
It doesn’t see me, Donnie thought, but it doesn’t matter because I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it and it’s taken away the most important part of me, it will leave me empty.
Come with me, it said again. Kreuz was following the darkness, and Donnie took a step, too. Then he felt something pull him back, a cold, stiff hand around his own. He looked down to where Joan lay, dead, and that was enough. He collapsed to his knees beside her, feeling the pain leave his head, sliding free from his thoughts like a snake tail as the entity and its new child vanished between the trees.
* * *
They lay together, like Hansel and Gretel. They lay together, the living and the dead, in the cold, silent morning. We’ll lie here together forever, thought Donnie, because how could he ever find the will to move again? But it was okay, at least he wouldn’t be alone. She was here with him, and maybe she’d be waiting, too, maybe when winter finally took him—and it would not be long—they could move on arm in arm to whatever lay beyond the forest. They lay together as the snow began to fall, doing its best to cover up the evidence of what had happened. They lay together as the light began to fade and the night started to crowd in.
He didn’t know how he felt it, but he did, something sharp digging into his leg. It took him an age to acknowledge it, and another to work up the energy to slide a hand into his pocket. When he pulled it free again he saw it held a letter, Joan’s letter, To my darling William.
“I promised,” he said to Joan, and her beautiful, white, porcelain face said, Yes, you did.
So he pushed himself to his feet, leaning against the tree to stop himself falling. He couldn’t take her with him, not this time, but he didn’t think she’d mind so long as he made it back with her letter.
He set off, uneasy at first but finding strength with every step. He counted them, smiling after the first hundred, laughing after the first thousand, and by the time he lost track he was running through the forest, howling like a wolf as the trees began to thin, as the darkening sky opened up, until suddenly he was running through a meadow. He tripped, fell, his legs and his stomach cramping. He didn’t care, the grass like silk against his face, the snow falling in gentle flakes.
I’ll take your letter home, he told Joan. Then I’ll find Betty, my Sweet Betty Marmalade, and this time I’ll be brave. This time I’ll tell her.
He struggled up, looking once at the forest, which sat like a dark scar across the horizon. And he thought, for a moment, that he saw faces there, in the swirling drifts between the trees—Mike and Henry and Eddie and Joan and so many more, all watching him. He waved to them, smiling sadly; then he turned in the other direction and once more began to run.
* * *
To: Colonel Robert F. Sink, 506th
From: Captain Daniel Reynosa
Subject: Corporal Donald M. Brixton
Corporal Brixton was found three miles north of Bertogne on 20 December, alone, wounded and severely dehydrated. He was brought back to operations, treated for his wounds, and thoroughly debriefed. His report, which is included in this letter, detailed that he discovered Sergeant Bill Cudden and his squad deep inside the forest, their exact position unknown. The men had been killed and mutilated. Corporal Brixton insists that those responsible for the attack were “monsters,” or “night children,” commanded by a man by the name of Kázán, or Furnace. He also names a German officer called Kreuz, or Cross, who may now be involved. His account is inconsistent and delusional. Our medic believes that Corporal Brixton is suffering from severe shock, and needs to be immediately removed from frontline action for medical treatment. Brixton, who exhibits periods of manic behavior and paranoia, has requested transport back to England to fulfill a personal matter, then shipment to Indiana, where he is to undergo full psychiatric screening. I hereby recommend that he be given an honorable discharge in light of his courage in the line of duty, and a Purple Heart for his injuries.
We currently have no resources to search for Sergeant Cudden’s and Corporal Brixton’s squads, and regretfully must assume that all men have been killed in action. The events behind their disappearance remain unknown.
“The Night Children” copyright (C) 2011 by Alexander Gordon Smith
Art copyright (C) 2011 by Steve Argyle