He stared down the sites of his Maxim gun, out across the pitted no man’s land as night fell over the French countryside. John had always wanted to see Europe, but not like this, not churned and blood-soaked, tossed and battered until the geography barely made sense anymore. Whatever this place had been, now it was scarred by trench works, bored into by artillery, and peppered with bodies.
They’d been chased out of the trench in front of him the day before, but the German’s hadn’t managed to hold it. Now he sat in a crater, fingers on the trigger, watching some of his friends slowly bleed to death not fifty yards away. Smithy next to him held a belt of his ammunition, and rested against one of the dirt walls.
“It’s funny the way people talk about themselves here,” Smithy said. “About what they used to be. Like that person is dead already.”
“I used to be an accountant. Every T I’d. Every cross dotted.”
“Now you shoot at Germans,” Smithy said, taking a peak over the rim. “They seem content to stay over there tonight.”
“Fine by me,” John said. “Just wish we could get some of the boys out of that trench. Andy is still over there. I hear him cry out every once in awhile. Less and less frequent, but he’s still there.”
“If you feel like getting shot half a hundred times in a few seconds be my guest,” Smithy said. “I’m sure they’d understand us staying right here.”
John heard another cry from the trench. “I’m not so sure.”
The night went black, and the neutral trench faded to a grey trace, the German line another hundred yards away disappeared entirely. Quiet settled over the battlefield for a few moments, then a shout from the German line.
“You speak German, Smithy?”
Smithy shook his head no. “Slept through it in school. You?”
A rustling began in the neutral trench, and John squinted against the darkness. “Someone coming out?” The sound was mild at first, muffled, then more and more abrasive. It sounded careless by the standards of the war, like soldiers that weren’t trying to stay concealed. “There’s someone over there. You ever hear something like that before?”
Smithy pursed his lips. “Yeah, I have.”
“Then what the hell is it?”
“Forget about it.”
John took his eyes off the sites and stared at Smithy. “The Germans could be taking it. Our boys could be trying to sneak away.”
“They aren’t and…they aren’t. It’s something else.”
“I know I’m new around here Smithy, but I only know about allies and Germans. What something else?”
“I said forget about it.”
John exhaled loudly and looked back down the sites of his gun. He saw faint figures moving through the neutral trench. They’d walk amongst the dead and disappear behind the trench line for a while, bobbing back up periodically but never long enough for John to get a good look. A soldier in the neutral trench stammered out: “no… NO!” Andy’s voice.
John grabbed Smithy by the collar. “You tell me what the hell is going on here. You know something.”
Smithy stared back at him, his eyes cold and drained. “Sure wish I didn’t.” Andy’s screams grew more intense and were coupled with a dragging sound. A few of the heads bobbed along with the noise as it tracked across the trench. “They live underground, down in the trenches below the trenches. Truth is this place has been carved up and refortified so many times who knows what’s down there anymore. Some people say they’re deserters, living off whatever they can find on the battlefield. Other people say they’re demons from Hell below, though I’m not so sure about that one.”
“What do you say?”
“I think maybe they’ve always been here… waiting.”
John saw Smithy pale a bit. “Here in France?”
Smithy smiled. “No. Just…wherever men kill men…they’ve waited to feast on the scraps.”
John let go of his collar, forgot that he’d been clutching it. “Well they’re not feasting on Andy.” He clutched the trigger and swung the gun down towards the trench.
“Don’t. You don’t see the Germans shooting at them.”
“They’re not dragging away their friends.”
“The ghouls don’t care what uniform you have on,” Smithy said. “But like I said, best to just leave well enough alone.”
“Like hell.” John pressed his thumbs against the trigger, and felt the machine gun kick back into his palms as he traced bullets back and forth across the neutral trench. Smithy jumped up to help feed the rounds despite himself, and glared against the muzzle flare as they watched a few of the figures struck by the fire. One was hit in the head and fell back into the trench, while another was hit in the throat; it didn’t die all at once, but with inhuman effort pried itself out of the trench on clawed hands and began scrambling towards John and Smithy. John trembled so severely he couldn’t find the firing pin, his thumbs slipping off the metal pad over and over again. With vomit yellow skin the creature sprinted towards them, oblivious of the blood pouring out of it’s throat with every effort. Finally John found the trigger and held it firmly, blowing the creature apart.
The gun fell silent save the hissing of the heated barrel, and the two of them sat mouth agape at the thing not ten feet away from them. Its mouth protruded too far, too many teeth. The eyes were the color of coal smoke, and all across its body were corded muscles under diseased skin.
The Germans in the trench across the field began shouting again. The shuffling from the trenches halted, and an eerie calm settled back over the field.
John sank into the crater, eyes rolled over toward Smithy. The two of them just looked at each other, totally unwilling to look back at creature they’d killed, transfixed by the comfort they found in the human image. “What do you think they’re saying?”
“I think they think we screwed up.”
“Yeah…starting to think they’re right.”
The shuffling sound started again, but this time far closer. It inched towards them at an ominous pace, like a train pulling into the station, slowly, but leaving no doubt to it’s arrival. John reached up for the handle of the Maxim. He gripped it and pulled himself back behind the sites, eyes wide against the dark. The foul smell from the beast filled his lungs and he fought back a retching cough to keep his eyes behind the sites.
Still. Nothing dared to move, but the sound sustained. It seemed to grow out of the night, out of the ambiance of murder and screams for mothers and clutching at wounds that would never be healed. It seemed to pull itself along a world gone mad, as if insanity were a kind of gravel that it could find purchase in. And then…nothing.
John’s eyes darted back and forth, looking for the bobbing figures, for anything physical, but his nightmare world was churning beneath his feet, a low rumble under his crater. The ground gave way and he was falling until he was stuck up to his waist and scrambling to free himself. Out of the side of the crater they came, silent save the snapping of their jaws around Smithy’s throat when they pulled him down. He gripped at them, tried to yank their mouths away, but there were more arms, more mouths, all pulling.
John ripped himself out of the crater and sprinted towards the allied line. He felt bullets whistle past his head and ducked as if it would matter. The creatures poured out of the crater after him, oblivious to the crossfire, and John sprinted through a spool of barbed wire. The metal shards dug into his skin and pitched him to the ground where he reached down to yank the wire away. His hands came away bloodied by the effort, but he righted himself, pushed forward, always forward by the pounding steps of the creatures that shouldn’t exist.
He heard the American line stir to action and he yelled for help. The startled men greeted him with a rifle barrage that bit into his shoulder and spun him back around. The compulsion to fire spread through German and allied lines alike, lighting the night with small arms at first, and eventually the detonations of mortars. John in the middle of it, bleeding from his shoulder, the shuffling closing in on him, he looked to the American line and resolved that he’d never make it.
Flat on his back he watched the shells fly through the night sky. They roared and howled while the guns popped and cracked, but he always heard the shuffling as an undercurrent. The war brought it out. The war made it inevitable. John pulled himself to his feet, framed against the bursts of fire all around him, and stared at the ghouls slinking along the pitted ground. There intentions seemed almost pure amidst it all.
“Come on then,” he said to them. “Blood for blood. Come on. We’ve killed two of yours, you kill two of ours and we’re square. Every T I’d. Every cross dotted, but you leave these boys alone.” He felt suddenly ridiculous talking to them, as no semblance of understanding came from their features. Their faces only betrayed hunger and pursuit.
An artillery shell landed on top of them, and blew John some indeterminate distance. He rolled onto his side certain to find his legs missing, but all he found was a layer of dirt across his clothing. Looking about himself, he could see that he was back in a trench, one filled with bodies: the neutral trench from the night before. He heard the shuffling at the far end, and explosions illuminated the ghouls approaching. They moved slowly over the dead and dying, stopping to sniff and taste as they went. Some would begin to fight amongst themselves when they found a body they deemed valuable for one reason or another, but most of them moved implacably towards John. He was the freshest meal in the trench, he assumed.
John drew his pistol and gunned one down. The others behind it instantly began tearing it apart, their too long mouths ripping meat off while it still lived. Within seconds little was left. He killed another and the process repeated. He stood to run away but the pain in his shoulder threw him to the ground where he stayed. The gun was empty. His body was dying.
Spotting a familiar face among the dead, John crawled over the bodies. “Andy, hey.” He put a hand on his shoulder and turned him around, only to see his throat torn out and his eyes glazed over. “I tried to keep them away from you,” he said, gripping Andy’s hand. “I didn’t want them to take you.” The ghouls finished eating and began crawling back towards John. He gripped the dead man’s hand ever tighter, happy to have even the simulacra of someone to share his fate as they fell upon him.
Their teeth pulled the flesh from his body.
Their arms pulled him down into the earth.
They dragged his body into the tunnels beneath the tunnels and left the men above them to finish their battle, to finish their war. They could wait. They were patient. They’d gotten good at it. They’d been waiting a very long time. Someday the bullets would stop, and men would leave this place, but it would begin again somewhere else. It always began again somewhere else, and they’d be waiting when it did. Waiting for the drums, waiting for the trumpets, waiting for the cries and the moans.