“So, come here often?”
The Recruit, concentrating on swallowing his anxieties, almost didn’t realize that the large, burly white man across the aisle was speaking to him. He looked up, wiping the sweat from his brow.
“Excuse me?” he asked, raising his voice to be heard over the engine of their small plane.
The man who’d spoken exchanged glances with the soldier next to him, the only other person in the plane besides the pilot. They chuckled, and the burly white man returned his attention to the Recruit.
“Me and Match, here, we’ve seen some hell since this war started. Same with Wing, up in the cockpit. But you, you’re just a kid. How old are you?”
The Recruit averted his gaze. “Eighteen, sir.”
“Eighteen,” the man grumbled. “And colored, too. Back in the States, we just started letting colored people serve, but they aren’t mixed in with the others. What makes you so special?”
“I’m not from America, mate,” the Recruit clarified. “I’m from Australia.”
“Yeah, I figured by the accent,” the man retorted. “But that’s not what I asked. There’s only four of us on this plane, flying to God-knows-where for some top-secret bullshit. What’s a colored kid doing in here with us?”
“Ah.” The Recruit said dryly. “I’m a sniper. I have top marksman scores. My name is–”
“I don’t give a shit about your name, Recruit,” the American said.
“We don’t do that here,” Match added in a thick British accent. “Makes it too personal. Like he said, I’m Match, and the pilot is Wing.”
“And I’m Brick,” the American added.
“What does that make me?” the Recruit asked.
“’Recruit’ will do just fine for now,” responded Brick. “Now, Recruit, do you know what we’re doing?”
The Recruit shook his head. “I don’t. I assumed one of you did. I don’t even know where we are.”
“Transylvania,” Wing called back from the cockpit, his accent faintly French. “You know, with the castles and monsters?”
“We’re being sent to Eastern Europe?” the Recruit wondered aloud, glancing at the mass of trees beyond the airplane window. “Why?”
“We don’t know,” Wing replied. “I was told to collect you three and land us at these coordinates.”
“I was only instructed to get on the plane, just like you,” added Match. “They mentioned I should bring my demolition supplies.”
“Supposedly, I’m the squad leader,” Brick finished. “But I’ve been given a letter with further directions; a letter which I am not allowed to open until we land.”
He reached into his jacket pocket, producing a white envelope. “It’s all very dramatic.”
Match nodded at the Recruit’s carrying case. “What kind of rifle do you shoot with?”
The Recruit smiled. “Lee-Enfield, Mark Three. Modified with a heavy barrel and a telescopic sight, of course.”
Brick grunted. “That fires .303 rounds, yeah?”
Leaning back, the Recruit nodded.
“What about your sidearm?” pressed Brick.
Match and Wing groaned simultaneously.
“Here we go again,” muttered Match.
Ignoring them, Brick met eyes with the Recruit. “What sidearm do you use?”
The Recruit reached into his case, retrieving a revolver. “Same manufacturer. It’s–”
“You use a revolver?” Brick interrupted, scoffing. “Have you ever been in a firefight before?”
Next to him, Match rolled his eyes.
“I haven’t,” the Recruit admitted. “But I’ve trained–”
“What you need is, something with more firepower,” interjected Brick a second time, reaching into a bag next him. “Something that won’t give up the ghost after six shots.”
He produced a black semi-automatic pistol with a wooden grip. “The 1911. American-made. Impeccable accuracy, thanks to the trigger design, and after you put eight holes in your target with those ACP rounds, they ain’t going nowhere. It’s some modern cowboy shit.”
“I, uh . . .” The Recruit hesitated as Brick offered the weapon to him. “I can’t just take your sidearm.”
“Sure you can,” Brick insisted. “I brought spares, just for recruits like you.”
“You might as well,” Match added, holding up his own 1911. “He’s very persistent.”
Sighing, the Recruit gently took the pistol from the American, following up with some spare magazines. Leaning down, he stuffed them in his duffel bag.
“I found our landing strip,” Wing announced, turning the plane. “It’s not much, though. Prepare to get bumpy.”
He veered down, and the Recruit gripped his seat, gritting his teeth in a useless attempt to combat the g-force of the maneuver. Wing lowered them past the tree line, settling onto a long, lush clearing. They rumbled over grass and rocks and branches, and the Recruit felt his bones rattle. Across the aisle, Brick and Match laughed hysterically, as if they were on a roller coaster. Much to the Recruit’s relief, they finally began to slow, shuddering to a stop amongst the trees and wildlife.
“Now, wasn’t that fun?” Wing joked, glancing back at the others.
Brick stood up, stretching. “Just like Coney Island. Let’s get outside and see why we’re here.”
The squad disembarked, collecting their gear and strapping it to their bodies as they exited the plane. As they gathered around Brick, he retrieved the letter, opening and unfolding it. Glancing at his comrades, he cleared his throat, reading aloud.
“Mission Report: Operation Sarcophagus. If you’re reading this, you’ve been indoctrinated into the ground floor of a global, collaborative effort to stop Adolf Hitler and his despicable regime. It is our hope that this new United Nations, when made public, will create a future of peace unlike anything we’ve previously known. For the moment, however, war is necessary, and we need brave men like you to carry it out in secret today.”
Brick glanced up at the others before continuing.
“Five kilometers East of your landing coordinates stands a secret Nazi installation that, as far as we know, has remained hidden from our combined intelligence agencies until now. From what we understand, this installation is the home and laboratory of a high-ranking Nazi scientist, who we only know as ‘Black Pharaoh.’ He is supposedly on the brink of developing a new weapon; a weapon that will end the war and secure the Axis’s rise to global power.”
“What kind of weapon?” Match interrupted.
Brick shook his head. “It doesn’t say. Just listen.”
Shuffling the paper, he finished.
“Your mission is twofold. First, infiltrate the installation, acquire this weapon, and destroy any ability for the Nazis to recreate it. Second, dispose of this Black Pharaoh, so he may not continue to serve Hitler’s army. Good luck, soldiers.”
Brick folded the paper silently, stuffing it back into its envelope.
The Recruit scratched his head. “We’re behind enemy lines right now.”
“Seems like it,” Wing commented, looking around as he gripped his carbine rifle. “So, where’s the enemy?”
A gentle breeze blew through the trees, generating a faint howl, and the Recruit shivered.
For the next few hours, Brick’s squad carefully trudged through the Transylvanian forest, keeping an eye out for suspicious activity. Strangely, they encountered no resistance, not even hearing a peep from local wildlife. As they progressed, the sun began to set, casting ever-lengthening shadows across the grassy floor. Any chatter that they’d initiated during their journey faded to silence as they trekked forward with bated breath.
The moon suddenly emerged from smoky black clouds, casting a pale glow across the four soldiers. For the umpteenth time, a chill wind rushed past them, and the Recruit heard another faint howl. The leaves rustled, then settled, and the world grew quiet. They took another step forward before being interrupted by the howl again.
This time, there was no wind.
Immediately, the four men huddled together, back-to-back, facing North, South, East, and West. They raised their respective weapons: Brick’s pump-action shotgun, Match’s Tommy gun, Wing’s carbine, and the Recruit’s Lee-Enfield. Around them, the forest shifted, leaves trembling as something large approached them.
“What do you think it is?” Match whispered. “A pack of wolves?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Brick. “Just be ready.”
Suddenly, a large, hulking shadow barreled out of the trees, veering straight for the squad. They separated, diving out of the way, and it raced past them in a blur, huffing with a low, gravelly growl. The four men turned to fire, but it had disappeared back into the foliage. As they climbed to their feet, Wing spun in a circle, eyes wide.
“That was a bear!” he exclaimed in a loud whisper. “It came right for us!”
Brick shook his head, leveling his shotgun in the direction the creature had disappeared. “I don’t think so. Something’s not right here.”
In the shadows appeared a pair of glowing red eyes, and the Recruit heard a deep growl rumble through the evening air.
“Fuck this,” Match said, stepping forward and opening fire with his Tommy gun. The forest lit up with muzzle flashes, and a wave of bullets shredded the leaves and splintered the tree bark. To the Recruit’s surprise, the glowing eyes faded backwards, disappearing in the gloom. Match stopped firing and turned around, smiling at the group. “See? Nothing but–”
From the darkness erupted a ten-foot bipedal beast, its fur coarse and black, its snout long and glistening. Tattered clothes, the remnants of a white cloth shirt and loose white pants, hung from its muscular frame, and a silver collar locked around its neck, adorned with tiny lights that glowed bright red, just like the beast’s eyes. The giant animal dashed across the grass at Match, extending thick arms and producing razor-sharp claws from its fingertips.
“Match!” cried the Recruit, leaping at the British soldier. He tackled him just as the beast swiped its hands, its claws whistling above their heads as they crashed back to the ground.
Even as they landed, the Recruit heard Brick and Wing open fire with their weapons, bullets whizzing into the animal’s fur. The projectiles disappeared with nothing but whispers, and the beast jerked in their direction, roaring.
“It’s not a bear,” Wing gulped.
“No,” agreed Brick. “It’s some kind of Human Wolf.”
The Recruit rolled to his feet, shouldering his Lee-Enfield and quickly taking aim at the monster. It seemed to sense his intent, because it turned to look at him, red eyes connecting with his own. Before it could react, he squeezed the trigger, sending a .303 round rocketing between the Human Wolf’s eyes. The bullet struck the creature’s forehead, flattening against it before ricocheting into the grass. The force of the gunshot seemed to disrupt the Human Wolf, though, because for a moment, its red eyes flickered, as if a bulb in its skull had shorted. Then, the collar around its neck hummed loudly, and the redness steadied, bringing the creature’s attention back to the Recruit.
“Oh . . .” the Recruit whispered. “Oh no.”
Brick ran at the Human Wolf, blasting shotgun rounds into its midsection. As he drew close, he caught the thing under the chin with one of the blasts, and it staggered back a little, red eyes flickering once more. As the Recruit watched, the collar hummed again, helping the creature regain its focus.
Wait a second.
“Brick!” he yelled, racking the bolt on the side of his Lee-Enfield to chamber the next round. “Get out of the way!”
His warning came too late, however; the Human Wolf leaned forward and backhanded Brick across the face, sending him flying through the air. The American landed on his back with a heavy thud, groaning loudly.
“Match! Wing!” The Recruit called. “I have an idea, but I need a moment!”
“You got it,” Match responded, and Wing nodded. Together, the two men opened fire on the Human Wolf, spreading apart until they were at the creature’s ten o’clock and two o’clock positions. It snarled, looking back and forth, seemingly confused about who to attack first.
Got you, thought the Recruit, peering down his scope.
He pulled the trigger once more, and for the second time, a .303 round barreled across the forest, striking the Human Wolf. This time, however, the bullet cracked against the side of the beast’s collar, shattering the device. The metal contraption dropped to the forest floor, red lights fading to darkness, and simultaneously, the Human Wolf’s eyes flickered from red to white. It stumbled back, searching around itself in sharp, panicked motions, before sprinting off into the tree line, panting heavily.
As it ran away, the dark forest fell into a hushed silence again.
“Qu’est-ce que c’était que ça?” exclaimed Wing, his voice cracking.
“My feelings exactly,” Match muttered, glancing at the Recruit. “How did you know?”
“I didn’t,” the Recruit admitted. “I just made an informed guess.”
He walked over to the fallen collar, kicking it into the foliage.
“Jeez-US!” interrupted Brick, still on his back with his eyes closed. “My body feels like it was flattened by a steamroller.”
Match and the Recruit rushed to help him up, the former chuckling, “Oh hush, you baby.”
Brick opened his eyes, holding up his hands, and froze. “Hey, Wing?”
Wing looked up from reloading his carbine. “Yeah?”
“What was it you said about Transylvania in the plane?”
“Oh.” Wing thought for a moment. “I said it had castles and monsters.”
“Well, we know about the monsters now,” Brick replied, pointing past them. “And there’s the other thing.”
Match, Wing, and the Recruit turned to look above the trees, where the forest began to slope into a mountain. In the distance, a stone castle jutted up at the starry sky, orange light glowing from its sharply-cut windows.
“What do you know,” Wing commented. “East, just like our destination.”
Match and the Recruit helped Brick to his feet, and he brushed himself off, retrieving his shotgun. “No time to waste, then.”
In the distance, the Recruit heard a haunting, lonely howl.
It took little time for them to reach a point in the forest where the trees began to thin, leaving the moonlit stone castle looming over them. The Recruit gripped his Lee-Enfield tightly, his eyes nervously darting back and forth in the darkness.
“So, we’re not going to talk about what just happened?” whispered Match.
“Shh!” Wing hissed back.
Brick grumbled for a moment to himself, then muttered, “Doesn’t matter. The mission stays the same.”
“If anything,” the Recruit added, “this makes the mission more imperative. We don’t want that thing running around our streets, if it came from Black Pharaoh.”
Brick shot him a glance. “The Recruit speaks some sense.”
“What do you think’s waiting for us up in the castle?” Match nervously asked.
Brick chuckled. “Probably some showgirls in their lingerie, waiting for four dirty, sweaty men in fatigues to come give them a good time.”
“Oh, good,” Match responded sarcastically. “I was worried it’d be wolfmen and Nazis.”
The Recruit took another step forward, but the grass crunched like glass beneath his boot, and he paused. Slowly panning his head down, he saw that the greenery around him had turned white and glistening. The others stopped, too, and he rotated in a circle, registering that the entire forest was encased in a thin layer of ice. To punctuate this realization, his next breath produced a thick fog, partially obscuring his vision.
“Christ above,” Brick moaned. “What now, the abominable snowman?”
Something crackled in the distance, just beyond the Recruit’s line of sight, and he saw movement in the shadows.
“Wait,” he said. “Did you see that?”
More movement, on the other side now. Then, footsteps behind the Recruit. He looked over his shoulder, but saw nothing.
“We’re surrounded,” whispered Wing, his carbine shaking in his hands.
The Recruit spied the glimmer of a small glass object in the moonlight, past the shadows of the trees. Realization struck him, and he dove to his stomach as a gunshot rang out. Behind him, tree bark splintered as something small and fast struck out, sending a sharp crack echoing throughout the forest. He quickly returned fire with his rifle, and the distant glimmer disappeared.
“Snipers,” he announced, chambering a new round. “Stay sharp.”
Another gunshot, from his left this time, and Wing spiraled to the ground, clutching his right arm. Match took point over Wing, spraying a barrage of bullets from his Tommy gun in the sniper’s direction. The first sniper reappeared in front of the Recruit, their second shot striking Match’s weapon and shattering it to pieces.
The Recruit felt the frozen earth already seeping into his clothes, and he rolled to his feet, sprinting forward to place a thick tree between the first sniper and himself. As he skidded to a stop, a bullet whistled past his face, close enough to tickle his right ear, and he felt a flood of adrenaline heat up his extremities like a campfire. The other three soldiers scattered, using the trees as protection. Wing tossed his carbine to Match, using his free hands to tie off his shoulder wound before drawing his 1911 pistol.
Beneath his feet, the Recruit felt the ground crack, the ice flaking away from the blades of grass as the earth exploded upwards in chunks. From below rose a mottled blue hand, its fingers stiff and steaming. A dirty sleeve appeared next, but through the muck, the Recruit could make out the telltale design of a Nazi military uniform. A second hand appeared, closer to the Recruit’s leg, and he yelped, stumbling backwards. Around him, the Recruit saw more bodies rising from the earth, six already visible, with others surely coming.
A blue face emerged from the ground near the Recruit, twisted in a hollow expression of pain and terror. Now, with its upper half exposed, the Frozen Soldier used its arms as leverage to jerk itself out of the earth, its dead eyes focused on the Recruit. Moving quickly, the Recruit slung his Lee-Enfield over his shoulder, unholstering the 1911 Brick had gifted him. He took aim and planted three bullets in the Frozen Soldier’s face, which merely rocked back and forth as each round chipped away chunks of hardened flesh.
Nearby, the Recruit heard Brick’s shotgun boom, and turned in time to see the head of the Frozen Soldier nearest the American explode into icy bits. Brick pumped the weapon, ejecting an empty shell and readying a new one. Another Frozen Soldier emerged, grabbing his leg, and he spun around, firing down at the ground to decimate the would-be attacker.
Elsewhere, Match and Wing stood back-to-back, firing at the rising undead, but their smaller-caliber weapons were having as much effect as the Recruit’s sidearm. One of the Frozen Soldiers rushed at them, but Wing dropped low, sweeping its legs out from under it. Before it could return to its feet, Match shoved a live grenade into its open mouth, and the pair dove away as the creature detonated in a cacophony of light and sound.
Returning his attention to the immediate threat in front of him, the Recruit leaned forward, shoving the barrel of his 1911 against the Frozen Soldier’s eye socket. It reached up, wrapping cold, stiff hands around his wrists, but before it could cause any damage, he squeezed the trigger, firing a .45 round directly into the creature’s skull. The Frozen Soldier jerked away from him, falling limply onto the ice-covered grass.
Suddenly, something struck the Recruit’s backpack, the force of it almost knocking him over. He spun around to see that the glass glimmer had returned. Growling, he unslung his Lee-Enfield, shouldering the rifle.
“I’m going after the snipers!” he announced, rushing towards the glimmer.
“Go!” Brick yelled, disintegrating another Frozen Soldier with his shotgun. “We’ve got this!”
The Recruit saw the glimmer flash, and he pivoted his body, narrowly avoiding another terminal blow as a bullet whizzed past. Slamming against the nearest tree, he peered around the trunk with the scope of his rifle, seeking out his opponent. About a hundred meters away lay another Frozen Soldier, prone in the icy earth and hugging a large sniper rifle. The sight caused the Recruit to double-take; he hadn’t expected such a sophisticated tactic from these things.
The creature spied him, however, and took aim with remarkable speed, firing at him as he ducked back behind his tree. The bark exploded, and he spun around the side opposite the Frozen Soldier’s line of sight, closing the gap between them. Unstrapping his backpack, he tossed it to the ground, quickly retrieving his emergency flare gun. He loaded a flare, blindly firing around the tree in the direction of the Frozen Soldier.
As the burning projectile rocketed through the forest, bright light obscuring the space between the Recruit and the Frozen Soldier, the Recruit crept through the trees, shifting his position until he stood slightly behind the sniper. The creature shuffled, standing to its feet to find a spot away from the flare, and the Recruit took aim with his Lee-Enfield, firing into the back of its skull. The bullet burrowed into the Frozen Soldier’s head, and it slumped over like a sack of bricks.
One down, thought the Recruit. One to go.
He dashed through the forest, on the outskirts of the battle the others waged. Nearby, a Frozen Soldier emerged from behind a tree, and he reacted almost instinctively, unsheathing the Lee-Enfield’s detached bayonet on his hip and burying the blade into the creature’s eye socket. As it collapsed, he jerked his weapon back out, returning it to its holster. The glimmer of the second sniper caught his eye, and he reoriented himself, angling towards the attacker.
Rather than try to pick him off from the distance, the Recruit saw this second sniper rise to its feet, shuffling in the shadows. He steeled himself, dropping to one knee and firing at the shadow’s head. The Frozen Soldier seemed to dodge the shot, pulling something from within the folds of its Nazi uniform and hurling it at the Recruit. The Recruit stumbled back, holding his Lee-Enfield out as a shield. A hatchet emerged from the gloom, spinning through the air and colliding with his rifle with enough force to break it in half before ricocheting to the ground.
Swearing, the Recruit tossed the bisected gun to the ground, drawing his 1911. Ahead, the Frozen Soldier hurled itself at him, and he opened fire with the sidearm, the shots connecting with the attacker’s upper torso without leaving any notable damage. He grabbed for his bayonet again, but the Frozen Soldier reached him first, picking him up by his shirt and tossing him backwards several meters. The Recruit landed with enough force to knock the breath from his lungs, and he tumbled back into the area where the others were.
No. Where the others had been.
The Recruit rolled onto his back, looking around the silent patch of frost-covered forest. His squadmates were gone, along with the other Frozen Soldiers. Their weapons and gear littered the ground, and the Recruit could make out a disturbed patch of ground where several people – or bodies – had been dragged away. He felt his mouth go dry as his absolute isolation registered in his head.
The final Frozen Soldier stalked into view, approaching the Recruit with menace. The Recruit fumbled around, hunting for something with which to defend himself. His hands quickly found a molded, wooden handle, and he sighed in relief. The Frozen Soldier picked up a thick, ice-covered tree branch, holding it over its head with the pointed end aimed at the Recruit’s chest. Crouching, it leapt into the air, whistling downwards with lethal force.
The Recruit twisted his body, revealing Brick’s discarded shotgun. He hip-fired from a prone position, blasting a thick cloud of metal pellets up into the Frozen Soldier’s body. The force of the blast knocked the creature to the side, punching a fist-sized hole through its upper torso. It landed next to the Recruit, tumbling away, and came to a silent stop, the tree branch slipping from its lifeless hand.
The Recruit dropped his shotgun, releasing a slow, shaky breath, and pulled himself to his feet. Around him, the ground began to rapidly thaw, melting into sludge. He grabbed all the supplies he could carry and hurried out of the area, chasing after the path his friends had made when they were dragged away. As sweat beaded down his face, a thought popped into his head.
If this is in the forest, what’s in the castle?
After another thirty minutes or so, the Recruit reached the edge of the forest, crawling up to a hilltop overlooking the castle’s courtyard. Using the telescopic sight scavenged from his broken Lee-Enfield, he surveyed the scene below. It seemed that normal, human soldiers patrolled the entrance to the stone fortress; Nazi soldiers, but human soldiers nonetheless. They wore heavy military garb and, strangely, gas masks.
The Recruit’s eyes followed one particular guard, who wore a large metal tank attached to some kind of hose. The guard approached a small shed at the edge of the forest, sliding open a peephole to view inside. Screams of protest exploded from within, and the Recruit’s eyes widened.
There’s someone in there. A local villager, maybe, or even a POW.
Before the Recruit could react, the guard inserted the hose into the peephole, activating the tank on his back. The Recruit heard a loud hiss, and after a few seconds, the screaming subsided. After pausing for a moment, the guard opened the door, dragging a man in tattered white clothes out onto the grass.
“Black Pharaoh is ready for Ionescu,” he announced to two other masked men. “The new control collar is prepared.”
Control collar? wondered the Recruit. He examined the man’s clothes more closely, and his eyes widened. The Human Wolf. More human than wolf, now.
As the two other men dragged Ionescu away, the tank-wearing guard held back to close the shed. The Recruit saw his chance, crawling backwards a few meters before whistling a bird’s song. He gave the guard a moment to take interest, then whistled again, drawing his bayonet.
It took mere seconds for the guard to crest the hill, his moonlit shadow betraying his appearance. The Recruit leapt to his feet, shoving the blade into the man’s windpipe. As the Nazi choked on metal and blood, the Recruit tackled him to the ground, covering his mouth to muffle his cries. Before long, the man fell limp, and the Recruit went to work undressing him, donning his gas mask and uniform.
Heart pounding in his chest, the Recruit approached the courtyard in his disguise, nodding at the other guards while they made their rounds. He saw one of them enter an old wooden side door into the castle, and he followed the man, hands shaking anxiously. Much to his surprise, the other guards gave him no second glance, and he reached the door with ease, pausing to take a deep breath.
Then, without hesitating for another second, the Recruit entered Black Pharaoh’s lair.
The cold stone walls closed around the Recruit as he navigated the tight corridors of Black Pharaoh’s castle. To avoid suspicion, he stuck close to a larger group of Nazis, following them through the facility while he mentally mapped it out. After a few minutes, he heard a loud assortment of electrical crackles and terrified screams; concerned, he strode in the direction of the sounds. It didn’t take long for him to turn the corner into an observation deck which overlooked a stage.
“Please, please,” begged a woman in worn farm clothes, struggling against the chains that bound her to a chair on the stage. “Don’t kill me. I have a family to care for.”
Two guard walked past the Recruit, and he resisted the urge to run, remembering his disguise. Below, an abnormally pale man in a Nazi general’s uniform walked into view, his back to the Recruit.
Black Pharaoh, the Recruit thought, his hand absently resting on the 1911 pistol attached to his hip.
“Now, now,” the man said, his voice full of cold indifference, “don’t beg. It’s undignified.”
He rolled what appeared to be a large, silver flashlight on wheels into the center of the room, aiming it at the stage. After he flicked a series of switches on the side, the device began to hum, the sound almost rhythmic. The Recruit frowned from behind his gas mask, leaning closer.
It almost sounded like . . . music.
The music-flashlight reached a pitch that began to tickle the Recruit’s ears, the entire device shuddering a little, as if a wildcat had been loosed within. The woman screamed, squeezing her eyes shut, and turned her head away. Then, the device emitted a split-second flicker of green light, and the woman, her chains, and her chair vanished.
The Recruit leaned against the railing of the observation deck, wide-eyed.
On the center of the stage lay a long, flat shadow, its features distinctive to the woman who’d been present a moment earlier. The woman’s shadow seemed to look around, moving independently, before twisting and deforming, like smoke caught in a tornado. It ripped apart, writhing in agony, the pieces of faint darkness sucked into other nearby shadows until nothing of the woman remained.
His heart pounding in his chest, the recruit turned away, staggering out of the room.
What was that? he thought, stumbling through the stone halls. Some kind of . . . death ray?
He paused to catch his breath, his thoughts racing.
They said Black Pharaoh would weaponize this device for the Nazis. Something like this, on a larger scale, could decimate the Allied forces instantly. There’d be no stopping Hitler.
A familiar voice echoed through the castle, snapping him back to the present.
“Hey! I’m talking to you! What, you got sauerkraut for brains?”
The Recruit hurried towards the voice, brushing past guards as nonchalantly as possible. Trotting down a tight, twisting staircase, he found himself in some kind of small dungeon. On one side of the room sat the Recruit’s squad, encased in a cage of iron bars; on the other stood two guards, who murmured to one another over Brick’s defiant cries. It was these guards whom the Recruit approached, waving. They turned to look at him, saying something in German that the Recruit didn’t quite catch. He opted not to respond, drawing closer, and they looked him up and down.
“Aren’t you supposed to be outside?” one asked in English.
“Oh, uh,” the Recruit cleared his throat. “I was sent inside to keep an eye on Ionescu. They’re putting a new collar on him.”
“Ionescu, huh?” the other guard repeated suspiciously. Turning to the side, he pointed at the cell next to Brick’s, where the man in tattered white clothes sat. “You mean that Ionescu?”
The Recruit acted quickly, drawing his bayonet and plunging it into the guard’s heart. The man gasped, clutching his chest and preventing the Recruit from retrieving his blade as he fell to the floor. Behind the Recruit, the second guard drew his pistol, but the Recruit swung around, roundhouse-kicking the weapon from his hand. He followed up with a back-kick into the guard’s stomach, sending the man sliding backwards.
I can’t make too much noise, he thought, frantically searching around for a weapon. I can take this guard, but I can’t take them all.
His eyes settled on the fallen guard, focusing on the stick grenade on his belt. Crouching, he removed the device, an explosive cylinder attached to a long handle. He gripped the handle now, turning to swing it like a club at the second guard’s head. The metal cracked against the man’s skull, and he crashed into the wall, dazed. The Recruit followed up with a strike to the lower left kneecap, bringing him to the ground, and a third swing onto the bridge of his nose. Blood sprayed from the guard’s face as he went white and collapsed.
“Well, a Nazi with some sense,” joked Wing. “And I thought I’d seen everything today.”
The Recruit rolled his eyes from behind his mask, retrieving the guard’s keys and unlocking the cell doors. In the adjacent cell, Ionescu stood to his feet, arms wrapped around his chest.
“Can you let me out, too?”
Looking him up and down, the Recruit asked, “Didn’t you try to eat us earlier?”
“What?” Match whispered, wide-eyed.
“I’m truly sorry about that,” the man responded, his accent thickly Eastern European. “My name is Luca. I’m a scientist who was recruited by force to assist the Nazis. They threatened my family until I helped them develop a biological weapon, and then they killed my family and turned me into the weapon. I don’t want to be here any more than you do.”
“I saw Black Pharaoh,” the Recruit commented. “He was testing some kind of . . . death ray. What do you know about that?”
Luca shrugged. “They make all kinds of strange weapons here. Whatever you’re describing, it’s not what they took me for.”
“So, you’re the Human Wolf, huh?” Brick said. “Can you, you know, change whenever you want?”
Luca nodded, and the Recruit saw the spark of an idea form behind his eyes. “You’re all here to destroy the weapons, right?”
“We’re here to take the weapons,” Match clarified. “And to destroy Black Pharaoh.”
Eyes widening, Luca clutched the bars of his cage. “You can’t let the Americans, or anyone else, have anything from this castle. You don’t understand the kinds of things Black Pharaoh has made. All it takes is one mistake, or one wrong person in power, and you won’t have a home to come back to.”
The Recruit sighed. “He’s right. What I saw, what we’ve all seen tonight . . . it’s too dangerous. We can win this war without zombies and death rays.”
“What’s a zombie?” muttered Brick.
“Look, I’ll make you a deal,” Luca pressed. “Let me go, and I’ll create a distraction on my way out. It’ll give you time to destroy the weapons and kill Black Pharaoh.”
The Recruit glanced at the others, then back at Luca, unlocking his cell. “Deal.”
With Luca’s help, they made quick work stripping the guards. After a short debate, Match and Wing donned the uniforms, using fake bonds to present Brick as a prisoner. Luca helped them map out where their weapons and supplies were likely taken, and the squad prepared to leave, watching the man anxiously. He smiled back at them, his innocent grin growing devilish.
“Your friends and family will never believe this.”
His eyes glazed over, the pupils and irises fading to solid white, and he hunched over, straining against some kind of invisible force. Flesh and muscle pulsated, enlarging rapidly, as coarse black fur sprouted from his pores. His body stretched towards the ceiling, and his face elongated, forming a tooth-filled snout. Within seconds, the man had become beast, and it towered over them, more wolf than human.
Brick offered the creature a thumbs-up. “Give ‘em hell.”
The Human Wolf lumbered out of the room, nails scraping against the stone walls. Within seconds, the Recruit heard terrified screams, followed by machine-gun fire. He nodded to the others, and they hurried into the hallway, lugging Brick behind them as a faux prisoner. They made their way across floors covered in bullet casings and past mangled Nazi bodies, following Luca’s directions to the armory.
“There,” Match pointed, leading them over to an old wooden door in the wall.
They opened the door, leaning inside a large storage room filled with plywood shelves. Match rummaged around for a moment before finding his bag, and he looked up at the others, grinning.
“A little bit of napalm to give our esteemed host a nasty burn.”
Slinging the bag over his shoulder, they rushed out of the storage room, their footsteps drowned out by the violent noises emanating from elsewhere in the castle. The Recruit gestured for them to follow him, and they twisted through the maze of corridors until they reached the observation deck over the laboratory.
“There,” the Recruit whispered, pointing at the silver, flashlight-like device, still on the stage. “That thing.”
They ran for the stairs, descending to the stage floor. A few lingering scientists appeared, protesting, but Brick and Wing knocked them unconscious with the butts of their weapons. Match began to set up the explosives both on device and around the rest of the laboratory, and the Recruit drew his 1911, swiveling his head around in search of danger.
Danger, of course, found them immediately.
“I see we have guests,” a low voice boomed from the observation deck. “How rude of me not to prepare anything for you.”
The Recruit’s eyes flicked upwards, fixating on the pale-faced man over his head. He immediately took aim, firing three rounds at center mass. The bullets struck the man’s chest, but deflected away, each ricochet producing a shower of blinding white sparks. The Recruit glanced at Brick and Wing, who opened fire with their stolen guns. The sparks grew more intense, shimmering around the man, but he merely stared at them through beady eyes, seemingly unharmed. The trio of shooters lowered their weapons, barrels smoking.
“Black Pharaoh,” growled Brick. “You aren’t just a Nazi scientist, are you?”
Black Pharaoh smirked, placing one hand on the railing of the observation deck. “Allow me to demonstrate the veracity of your statement.”
He vaulted over the railing, landing with a heavy thud in the middle of the three soldiers. Wing took aim with his sub-machine gun, but Black Pharaoh covered the barrel of the weapon as he fired, his impenetrable skin causing a rapid pressure spike as the bullets collided with each other. The gun exploded in Wing’s hands, and Black Pharaoh followed up with a palm strike to the abdomen and another to the chest, the latter sending Wing sprawling across the room.
Brick ran at the Nazi, knife in one hand and 1911 in the other, opening fire into Black Pharaoh’s face as he closed the gap between them. The bullets sparked away, but the act obscured the man’s vision, and Brick rushed in, stabbing at his heart. The tip of his knife broke away, and Brick cried out in surprise as Black Pharaoh grabbed him by the neck with one hand, lifting him into the air.
The Recruit reacted immediately, opening fire on the back of Black Pharaoh’s skull. As expected, the bullets caused no harm, but he was able to distract the Nazi enough to give Brick a chance to free himself from the man’s grip. Black Pharaoh turned to the Recruit, snarling, and before the Recruit could react, he lashed out with a palm strike to the throat. To the Recruit, it felt as if he’d swallowed a sledgehammer, and he stumbled backwards, choking. The Nazi scientist followed up with a spinning back-kick to the Recruit’s chest, sending the soldier flying across the room and onto his back.
Stars flickering before the Recruit’s eyes, he looked around groggily, finally focusing on one of the napalm charges adhered to the side of the death ray. He struggled to his feet as Black Pharaoh approached Brick and Wing, engaging them in hand-to-hand combat. Turning around, the Recruit located Match, who was hunched over a table stacked with paper documents.
“Match,” he choked out, his voice still raspy. “You ever play baseball?”
Match turned, eyebrow raised inquisitively, and the Recruit gestured to the explosive in his hand. He smirked, rearing back one arm in Black Pharaoh’s direction. Brick and Wing saw what was about to happen, and they rolled away from the Nazi in opposite directions. Match hurled the napalm bomb at Black Pharaoh’s back, the device whipping across the room, but at the last second, the man spun on his heels, snatching it from the air. Black Pharaoh chuckled, glancing down at the bomb.
“You’d think the collective intelligence of the Allied forces would come up with a less primitive–”
The Recruit fired a single shot from his 1911, the bullet striking the bomb and detonating it in Black Pharaoh’s hand.
Thunder and flame filled the room, swallowing Black Pharaoh and obscuring him from the Recruit’s view. The fire splashed onto the stone walls and floors, slowly spreading to the laboratory equipment. As the smoke cleared, the Recruit found Black Pharaoh face-down, still ablaze, near a window all the way across the room. The Recruit nodded in satisfaction, but to his shock, the Nazi scientist began to stir, white sparks shooting out of the flames.
“I can’t believe it,” Wing gasped. “It’s like he’s immortal.”
The Recruit sprinted over stone, rushing to reach Black Pharaoh before he could fully recover. The man stumbled to his feet, wreathed in fire, and turned to growl at the Recruit’s rapid approach. Rather than giving him the chance to react, the Recruit leapt into the air, drill-kicking the Nazi in the chest with both feet. The force of the kick propelled Black Pharaoh backwards enough to strike the nearby window, crashing through it and careening down into the trees three stories below.
“God damn, Recruit,” Brick exclaimed. “That was one hell of a kick. You kick like a . . . like a . . . what’s that thing that makes trains move?”
“Piston,” Wing answered, wiping blood from his nose. “He kicks like a Piston.”
“That’s right.” Brick turned to address the Recruit. “Good work . . . Piston.”
“Hey, we need to move,” Match interrupted, waving at them with both arms. “The other napalm charges are going to ignite at any moment!”
He shoved them out of the room, climbing back to the observation deck and returning to the mazelike hallways of the castle. They barely made it to the other end of the first hallway before a deafening explosion rocked the walls, heat and light splashing the back of their necks. A shrill, demonic cry wafted through the air, and Piston saw flashing green light for a moment before the other end of the hallway imploded, collapsing the entrance to the laboratory beneath a mountain of rubble.
“Let’s get out of here!” Wing yelled, and they hurried for the stairs, rushing to get out before the castle collapsed or the remaining Nazis caught them.
“We failed,” lamented Piston as they ran. “We destroyed the weapons, but the United Nations will want to know why we didn’t bring anything back with us. Not to mention Black Pharaoh . . . I doubt he died from that fall.”
Brick glanced at him. “Yeah, I suppose we did fail, for the most part. But, at the end of the day, we made the world a little safer, and maybe we’ve given the Allies enough time to defeat Hitler without their secret weapon.”
“Besides,” laughed Wing as they exited the castle, “imagine how great of a story this will make for your grandkids one day.”
Piston chuckled, diving into the forest with his comrades, one step closer to home.