Unnatural Selection; Book III of the Vampyre Tales
There comes a time in every person’s life when they will question their own mortality. It is at that time that they come to a serious fork in their pathway and must make a decision as to which direction to follow. For some, the choice is simple. Their faith, their convictions, perhaps job, love of family, or other obligation all but makes the choice for them and they carry on to whatever end awaits them farther down the road. For others, however, the choice to remain on the side of the living is not so clearly defined.
Their life up to that point may not have been kind or simple and the idea of carrying on to some unknown end based solely on the sum of those accumulated life experiences can be unbearable. In this situation, they choose to take the other direction. That choice may well have been a long arduous one, or it may have taken place in the blink of an eye. Whatever the means behind the decision, once it has been made it is a rare occurrence that it can be turned around without the intervention of another person or persons. If left to their own devices, the choice will undoubtedly come to fruition and they will in fact take their life into their own hands and without fanfare or audience, extinguish it.
Aremis couldn't be sure, not with any real accuracy, when it was that he first entertained the idea of ending his own life, nor could he be certain of when he actually finalized his plan. It could have been during his first bleak days living in London's seedy East End, having come to the realization he was more in kin with that of a monster than he was a human being. Or it might have been as recent as his sister Temperance's funeral -- not but two months ago. He knew that seeing the last of the family he had grown up with laid to rest meant that he was now truly alone in the world and that thought, although quite familiar to him, was still a sobering one.
It had always been quite a perplexing issue for him, this 'taking of one’s own life'. He had seen countless unfortunates do exactly that; remove themselves from the pain and hardship of life by taking that life into their own hands. For him however, there was the problematic issue of his spiritual upbringing, which seemed to cause him the most trouble whenever the notion entered his mind.
True enough, the life he was living was nothing one could refer to as being righteous and good, not by any stretch of the imagination. Living in the shadows, constantly on the move from home and employer, with no friends or loved ones to come home to, was no better than the life of a common criminal. But then, he knew he was far worse than a mere petty thief.
So with all that in the back of his mind, he would spend many an evening wandering the back streets and laneways looking for that one special person who would not only serve as his next meal but whose sudden absence would not be missed come the morning.
It would be during these times that he would ponder this situation. He would mull it over in his mind time and time again always coming to the same frustrating stalemate. If he committed the ultimate sin and took his own life, even if it was for all the right reasons, to prevent others from dying at his hand, would he in fact be condemning himself to an afterlife far worse than anything he had experienced up to this point? It was an answer that had always eluded him and one he wasn't prepared to gamble on since the stakes were simply too high.
It wasn't until, quite by happenstance, that a means to an end presented itself. Like most answers to perplexing questions, it was right before him the entire time and yet, for whatever reason, he was unable to see it. Then, when he finally did take notice he was unable to see anything else.
As he was coming out of the post office, having completed his daily peruse of what scarce employment postings there were, he took notice of two uniformed soldiers standing at the foot of the stairs. They were handing out information trying to entice men into enlisting in the Army.
Aremis had seen these same fellows on many occasions, along with others just like them, but never really gave them or their appointed task, much notice or thought until that very moment.
As he was about to take his leave and begin making his way over to the market, one of the young men called out to him asking if it was employment he was seeking.
Not waiting for a reply to his query, the young man carried on with the next piece of his hurried pitch, “By enlisting in the British Military, you will be well paid for your services; services you will be trained for. In doing this you not only serve your Country but you will also earn a level of respect within the community. What-do-ya-say then, a little interested?”
Aremis, not particularly interested in either, was simply about to wave him off and carry out his original plan of going to the market square. But for whatever the reasons might have been in that moment, he stopped and took the paper that was held out to him.
It was a simple leaflet with a bold image of men charging into battle with large lettering saying: Serving God, King and Country bordering the top and bottom of the image. It was the words more than the image that captured his mind and he stood there for an uncomfortable minute as an idea began to take shape.
For 'God and King,’ he thought to himself, silently repeating the words that were on the page, but doing so within the privacy his own mind. As he stood there in quiet contemplation, the words on that simple leaflet slowly beginning to come together, silently mingling with his own thoughts and in the ensuing moments a shaky plan was loosely constructed.
“Are you interested in serving your country, Sir?” the man who handed him the single sheet of paper inquired in an uplifted voice.
Aremis found himself caught for the moment, stuck in a sticky spider web of new information; one that had quickly draped over his own thoughts and ideas. This made the application of the new information to an older problem difficult to sort out. The difficulty was not in the sorting out of this information on its own. No, the difficulty was trying to then provide suitable answers in an intelligent manner so as not to draw undue attention.
“I am sorry,” Aremis began, “I am afraid I did not quite hear you.”
The man smiled and repeated his first statement for the polite stranger standing before him. “I asked if you were interested in enlisting to serve overseas, to help our troops win this war.”
Aremis looked at poster for a moment before replying, “I never gave it much thought to be honest. I thought from all I keep hearing of this war, that it is all but over in France.”
The young recruiter, having not had much luck this particular day, took the opportunity to elaborate. It wasn't long before the two men were chatting about numerous things, not just the war.
A good fifteen minutes had passed before the conversation, both professional and personal wound down and Aremis was about to bid the man good day when the soldier offered up another page; one he had kept inside his uniform jacket until that moment.
“Before you make your way to wherever you may be off to, please take this.”
“What is it?” Aremis asked as he took the folded paper made of heavy card.
“It is an enlistment questionnaire,” the man replied, “you'll need one of these if you do wish to join up and it's best to have it filled out before you go in, in order for you to take the proper amount of time with the questions and such.”
Aremis unfolded the paper and looked it over briefly.
“The address of the enlisting office is on the back,” the young man offered up as he watched Aremis tuck the single document into his pocket for safe keeping.
“Well, thank you for your time today,” Aremis said in his usual comfortable manner, then bid the man a good-day.
What had not even existed some thirty minutes ago was now blossoming into a full-fledged idea; an idea which could be of some significant merit to Aremis' predicament.
As he carried himself along the busy afternoon sidewalk, he carefully thought about his plan. It wasn't all that complicated, if the truth were to be known, which made it so easy to perfect. He knew all too well that taking one's own life was well known throughout many faiths to be one of the biggest sins in the face of God, but what if one were to be killed in the line of duty? He had sat through many a Sunday school class as young boy and heard all about the “selfless act”. To deliberately put yourself in harm's way to save another was something that was apparently looked on with much favour by the Heavenly Father. It was also said that if one did lose one's life in trying to save another, then all your sins were abolished and essentially you entered the Kingdom of Heaven with a clean slate.
If it were to be true, he felt that the “selfless act” could be the key to solving all his problems. If he were to enlist in the Army and be deployed overseas to fight for, as the poster indicated God, King and Country, and by chance in the performing of his duty he were to be killed, then would that not be the same thing?
It made good sense to him and even though he knew that he was somewhat premeditating his own demise, he felt that if he did his very best to stay alive and a German bullet did so happen to find him, then his death, in the end, was through no fault of his own.
It was the best plan he could come up with, both in the moment as well as anything he had thought up over the preceding decades. It was also, without a question in his mind, better than the life he was forced to maintain just to survive. His was a horrible existence, always having to be on the move; setting up in a new place; always without friends -- without family. All the while, a string of unsolved murders and missing persons following closely behind, like the bloody wake that trails behind a monstrous ship of destruction; one that sails all but unseen through the ocean of humanity.
Not known for leaving loose ends or things to chance, Aremis took the time to seek out the advice of a local man of the cloth. He explained his query to the old priest from the viewpoint of one being concerned about enlisting and the very real possibility of having to kill another human being, while at the same time expressing equal concern at having his own life taken in the process. His concerns were met with the answers he was hoping for. The old gentle-mannered priest explained that by enlisting to protect his country and the good people within its borders, by pushing back the hand of evil, his deeds would not go unnoticed by God. If, in horrible circumstance, he did lose his life, he could be rest assured that his deeds would certainly secure him a place in God's Heavenly Kingdom.
With the priest's kind words serving as a pillar of strength within him, most, if not all, his worries were laid to rest. With his mind now clear and his heart lighter than it had been, quite possibly in decades, he took what few personal things he still possessed and donated them to a local church.
With nothing left to tie him down, he made his way to the address printed on the back of the card, entered the brick and stone three floor recruitment building and enlisted in the Army.
His enlistment had been a little over three weeks ago now, but the memories of home and the life he knew now seemed to be so much farther away than that.
Basic training was just that, basic. He learned the essential skills that one would need to know in order to kill another individual; how to shoot a rifle, how to fight with a knife and what to expect once they arrived in France.
The trip across the English Channel was rough. The water was choppy with some long running swells and the weather stormy; a combination which had the ship pitching and rolling. This unpredictable, sometimes violent movement of the waves, had most of the new troops on board, none of them the least bit seamen, at rail-side for a better part of the journey.
For Aremis, the motion of the ship in turbulent waters was the least of his worries. For the last two weeks he had been forced into eking out his peculiar diet on the meagre animal life that he could fine around the military training grounds. It was hardly enough to sustain him but now on a ship at sea surrounded by human beings, not one of them being a smart choice for slaughter, things were looking grim.
About halfway through the journey, covered by nightfall, unable to sleep and dangerously close to nearing the end of his control, he found himself wandering about the interior of the ship. There, alone in the bowels of the aging oil-coated vessel he found his salvation. Rats; hordes of them, all living in the dark foul-smelling depths of the ship. There, in conditions most unpleasant, he quietly lured them close and when they drew near, quickly snatched them up, sinking his teeth into them whenever he could. The need outweighed the sheer and utter disgust of the situation and he pushed the thoughts from his mind as he let the warm nourishment replenish his depleted body. It wasn’t long before he lost count of how many he had killed but even as the numbers grew, the ones he fed on, their lifeless bodies cast aside, the surviving members of their rodent kin eagerly devoured the flesh of their brothers.
When he was finished, his body beginning to feel more like itself, he quietly made his way back from the depths of the ship. He returned to the large area just below the main deck where most of the men had gathered seeking shelter from the driving rain and chill night air out on the Channel's open water.
All of these thoughts, mixed in with numerous others, darted and dashed about inside his mind as he sat in the back of a musty canvas-covered lorry in northern France. Those same thoughts, however, were scattered and sent to flight as other men boarded and took up seating along the truck's sides, their backs to the canvas, rifles sitting upright between their knees.
A young man, likely not more than 18 years of age at best, sat down directly across from Aremis and quickly settled in for the ride to the front lines. Aremis, choosing to avoid eye contact, could feel the young man's eyes upon him. It wasn't until the lorry began to roll, slowly making its way down what could only be described as the worst of roads, the young lad spoke up.
“What do you think it will be like when we get to the front?” he asked looking directly at Aremis.
Despite his eye contact and a voice that left little doubt that the young man was most certainly addressing him, Aremis still remained unmoving. His eyes were still focused on the shifting landscapes that lay behind the lorry as it moved away from its point of origin. It was several seconds before he turned his attention to the man who had posed the question.
“I am not entirely sure,” he replied in a voice that lacked both interest and emotion.
The question having been dealt with, Aremis returned his gaze to the muddy road behind them, taking note of the lines of wounded men travelling in the opposite direction to that of his own progression.
“My name is Edwin Green,” the young man across from him stated boldly in an uplifted voice, holding out his hand in gesture of kind greeting.
“Aremis,” Aremis replied flatly as he took the hand that was offered and gave it a firm grip followed by a short shake.
“Indeed,” Edwin stated and he leaned back again, “that's not a very common name, I dare say.”
Aremis smiled and shook his head slightly. “No, I would have to agree with you.”
“So, Ar-e-mis,” the man began, struggling slightly with the pronunciation of the unusual name, “what made you join up?”
Aremis shrugged off the question, not the least bit interested in divulging the truth.
“Seemed like the right thing to do, I suppose. That and being out of work.”
Edwin smiled and nodded, satisfied with the answer provided.
“What about you, why are you here so far from home?” Aremis asked, happier to be the one asking the questions than the one forced to dance at the end of them.
Edwin leaned in, closing the gap between them so he could speak in a more intimate fashion. “Well, you see, I have not had much luck with the birds back home and I figured with the war being all but at an end, I would join up, get a little tour of France on the King's money and pick up a few medals for me trouble, follow? That way, when I get home, I will be a decorated soldier; a fine catch for any number of ladies.”
His reason now explained to the man before him, he sat back and took up a more relaxed posture, then added in one more question, “What do ya think, a fair plan, then?”
To Aremis, it sounded like a ludicrous plan at best, but he once again erred on the side of agreement despite his feelings and general indifference. The idea that one would actually jeopardize one's own life for the sake of “potentially” impressing a woman was simply not worth the risk. He himself knew that if not for his personal and dire situation, he would not have any desire to be doing anything so dangerous.
“Your plan does have some merit, granted, but are you not concerned that you might get yourself injured or worse?” Aremis inquired in a voice that was more matter of fact than one of real concern.
Edwin laughed off the idea and accompanied the over-accentuated merriment with a casual wave of his hand to further illustrate his disregard for the opinion posed. “Nah mate, have you not read the papers? The war is all but over, the Germans are licked. I would imagine we'll be there for a month or two at best. More of a clean-up job than anything that might resemble real fighting, I’d say.”
Aremis nodded and leaned his weight onto his rifle to support himself, his eyes once again cast backwards, taking in the scattered piles of destroyed equipment that lined both sides of the deeply grooved muddy road.
“That would be most fortuitous for us if you are indeed correct,” Aremis added, not bothering to make further eye contact with the lad opposite him.
With that said, the conversation drew to a close and the lorry, along with its human cargo, slowly made its way towards the front lines.
It was almost dark when the lorry finally came to a full stop and the vibration from the tired diesel engine suddenly ceased. A man came to the back of the lorry and released the pins on the short tailgate letting it swing out and down, the wooden gate slamming against the frame of the vehicle several times before coming to rest.
“End of the line fellas!” the man shouted and motioned for them to get out of the lorry. “Your guide is waiting for you at the front of the lorry. You will follow him to your assigned positions on foot. Best of luck to you all!”
The twelve men made their way to the front of the vehicle as instructed and gathered around the man standing there. He looked to be about 25 years old, his uniform muddied and worn. His hair was far longer than what was deemed standard army issue length and his face had at least 5 days of beard growth. He was certainly not the way Aremis envisioned someone who was representing the English Army would appear to look.
“Right then you lads. My name is Corporal Trotter and I will be taking you up to Post One. I will likely have very few answers to your questions, so I ask that if you do have any, to please hold on to them until the Commanding Officer meets with you. You will follow me. You will remain in single file. There is to be no talking once we are under way and until we are inside the tunnels. If you smoke, do not light up while we are en route to the tunnels. In the dark, a flame or the glow of a cigarette will be clearly visible for quite some distance. We've had a few days of wet weather out here so the trails, the tunnels and the trenches are all pretty muddy, which also means it's quite slippery as well. On our short march, there is always the possibility of enemy artillery coming in. If this happens, you are to get down on the ground as quickly as possible and remain there until the shelling has stopped. Once it is clear to carry on I will give you instructions to do so, otherwise stay put and keep your head down. Is this all perfectly clear?”
The men all nodded while others added verbal agreement.
So without any questions being offered up, the men fell in behind the disheveled leader as he followed a well-worn trail into the trees, headed for the front line.
The skies above them were overcast and, combined with the cover of the forest, the night seemed much darker than it actually was. The trek was slow, made more so by the lack of illumination and muddy conditions underfoot. In some places the water on the poorly marked trail was well over the boot tops and the men soon found their feet to be cold and wet. Mud clung to their boots making them heavy and requiring a great deal of effort to carry out the simple task of walking.
Approximately ten minutes into the hike Aremis became keenly aware of something he was quite sure the others in his company would be completely oblivious to. On the gentle summer night winds that caressed his face, came the smell of blood and along with it, death. An odour he knew all too well and, for the briefest of moments, it made him feel both ill and exhilarated. The scent of human blood in such abundance was something he had not smelt in a very long time and despite his heightened senses urging him to run forward and seek out its origins, he quietly subdued the cravings, focusing instead on the task at hand.
With his primal instincts quelled for the moment, it was another good half-hour before they came to the end of their journey. As the trail wound its way out of the trees it took a decided turn downward, the muddy, slippery incline opening up into something of a clearing. The perimeter of this area was piled high with boxes and crates, their identity hidden from view by worn canvas tarps laid out over them. Beyond them, in the diminished light, could be seen the outline of the material cost of war. Splintered logs, rusting metal, damaged heavy guns and what looked to be a severely damaged tank, all left precisely where they ceased to be of use; their existence slowly being swallowed up by the mud. As the small band of men entered the clearing, they began to see soldiers milling about in groups of half a dozen or so, all talking quietly amongst themselves. Some stopped their conversations as the line of new men drew close, while others quietly acknowledged their arrival with a curt nod of the head.
It wasn't much of a welcome, but then really, what could one expect given the circumstances? It was a mid-summer's night but one would hardly know it from the weather. The temperature was quite cool for the time of the year and having one's clothing wet and caked with mud did nothing to lift the spirits.
The twelve men followed their guide past their fellow brothers-in-arms and approached the entrance to the tunnel. Corporal Trotter held back the musty, moth-eaten canvas tarpaulin so they could slip into the amber light of the tunnel.
When they were all inside, Trotter reclaimed the front of the line and they continued on down the tunnel, going deeper underground as they did. One man directly in front of Aremis began to slow his pace, his breathing becoming laboured until he had stopped altogether, one hand laid upon his chest.
Aremis gently tapped on the man's shoulder and urged him to move, “Come-on mate, you must keep going now.”
The man didn't respond directly, but remained where he was, drawing and exhaling ragged breaths.
Hearing someone talking from somewhere behind him, Trotter stopped his forward advancement and in an annoyed voice ordered the stopped man to continue, words that seemed to have little effect. Seeing his command had not been followed, Trotter began to make his way back through the tunnel, a look of disapproval on his face.
Aremis stepped around the troubled soldier and stood directly in front of him, his back facing the approaching Corporal.
“Right then, what is the matter?” he asked in a hushed voice.
Shaking, the man replied, his word barely coherent, “Cannot go on... too-too close, cannot breathe...”
Aremis could tell immediately the man was terrified of his surroundings and took hold of his jacket at the shoulders and spoke softly but quite firmly.
“Now listen to me, my friend. Look at me. Do not look anywhere else. Just focus on my face and what I am saying. There is nothing to fear here, you are quite safe. In fact, you have been here before. You used to play here with your mates from school during summer holidays. This place holds nothing but fond memories for you. Do you understand me?”
The man's body tremors began to ease and he cautiously looked about his surroundings with a slight smile coming over his lips.
“Why yes, I do remember this place, a wonderful place indeed. We did get up to some foolishness here, we did.”
Aremis let his grip of the man go just as the Corporal arrived to see what the issue was.
“Why have you lot stopped?” he demanded.
Aremis spoke up, “Apologies Corporal Trotter, something found its way into my eye and I could not see my way clearly. This man here was just keeping me steady while I tried to dislodge it. It seems to be fine now.”
The war-tempered Corporal looked at the two men with what could only be described as disgust at having something as trivial as dust in your eye bringing you to a complete standstill.
“Well, the next time you get something in your eye, I suggest you ignore it and keep moving. Because if you do not, you will either be shot by the enemy or shot by your Commanding Officer for disobeying an order. Do I make myself understood?”
The two men nodded their understanding and followed through with a “yes Sir,” said nearly in unison.
His point made, Trotter went back to the front of the line and motioned for them to carry on.
“Thank you,” the man who had been in the throes of a panic attack said, well under his breath.
“Most welcome, my friend,” Aremis replied in a hushed tone.
They carried on quietly for a few moments before the man spoke up again, “I really have no idea what came over me back there. For a moment I thought the roof was coming in on us. Quite ridiculous when you think about it. Been here a dozen times or more with the family, you know. Daft of me to think it would fall in on us now.”
Aremis smiled and nodded, pleased his little trick of the mind had worked and so quickly. It was something he found he could do early on while in London. For whatever reason, it seemed that, with very little thought, he could convince just about anyone of just about anything. If he could get the person to look at him and stay focused for a just a few moments he was able to put thoughts into their own mind just as easily as remove them. He found it very helpful in securing work, accommodations or lulling his next victim into trusting him.
“That's quite alright,” Aremis said quietly, “you had told me of this place while on the lorry, I thought it so odd that you were now so upset by it.”
The man smiled in agreement, feeling somewhat embarrassed for his behaviour a few moments earlier.
“Well, thank you just the same. My name is John Wilkins,” he stated and held his hand out backwards in an awkward way of attempting a formal greeting.
Aremis took the hand offered, the warmth of the man's blood just beneath the skin radiating into his. “Aremis, Aremis Eilbeck, pleasure.”
“Your hand is like ice, mate. Everything alright?" Wilkins asked, a sudden sound of urgency in his voice.
“Aremis released the man's hand assuring him he was indeed fine. “Quite fine, just chilly and in need of a tea and good meal.”
He patted the man on the shoulder to reaffirm that what he said was nothing but God's own truth.
The twelve men carried on for another hundred yards or so to where the narrow tunnel opened up to quite a substantial room which had been carved out of the chalk underground. Lanterns hung on the walls illuminated the room with a soft white light, a colour that was due in large part to those same white chalk walls and ceilings.
Corporal Trotter stopped and told the men to wait there, then continued on alone. He was gone for several minutes, a time in which some of the men grew restless, fidgeting and murmuring to each other about their own varying levels of discomfort. Fortunately for them, Trotter returned along with another man before those same misgivings grew to be too audible.
“At Attention!” Trotter shouted as he emerged from the tunnel he had exited through but a few moments earlier.
The men scampered together to form a relatively straight line.
“This is the last group that came in from home, Sir,” Trotter said, indicating the men with a pass of his hand even though it was hardly required. “Gentlemen, this is your Commanding Officer, Colonel Lawrence Elgin. He will be taking charge of you from here. May God's love be with you all.”
He turned and saluted the Colonel and left through the tunnel.
Elgin was a tall, slight man, aged about 60. He sported short white hair and a full handlebar moustache, also white -- the only distinguishing colour within the whiskers being that of a yellow tobacco stain brought about by the pipe he held firmly between his teeth.
He stood there quietly for a few moments, one hand holding his pipe whilst a gentle wisp of smoke floated up around his face before disappearing above his head. It was a long sixty seconds for the men standing before this well-seasoned military man and one could almost feel the room itself give a sigh of relief when he finally spoke.
“As you were, lads,” he said in a soft voice, one that most certainly belied his hardened features.
All the men relaxed their posture and waited attentively to hear what would be coming next.
“I'd like to welcome you, but where you are is not a welcoming place. We are at the front lines of one of the last German holdouts. They're dug in tight and despite reconnaissance by air it's difficult to ascertain how many men are actually over there. Some reports say as few as ten, while others say there is a full regiment. Losses have been high on both sides and we have not heard their artillery for several days now. Whether that means we have damaged their guns, they have run out of shells or are just waiting us out, no one can be sure.”
He paused a moment to tamp down the tobacco in his pipe with a sooty index finger then continued his address of the men. “The weather for tomorrow morning is supposed to be in our favour, overcast with fog. If this is indeed the case our charge of their lines will be covered for the most part and we may actually get in there. Once we're in, if we can hold long enough for reinforcements to our rear to join us, we might well have dealt the death-blow to this stalemate.”
Again the room fell into a momentary silence as Elgin eyed his new "fill in's" as they were commonly referred to by those who had seen more than one run at the enemy.
“Now, I realise that it is well past our eating hour here but I am quite certain you lads have not had much in the way of real food since you left home, so if there are no questions I will show you to the mess area and I will see if the cook can pull something together for you.”
A man at the far end of the row put up his hand to indicate that he had a question and waited to be acknowledged much as he did when he was in third grade.
“Yes?” Elgin announced seeing the man's hand up. “What's your name lad?”
The young man, about twenty years of age, lowered his hand and spoke up in a sheepish voice. “Kincaid Sir, George Kincaid. May I ask, what if the weather is not as forecast, do we hold off until it favours us again?”
It was a valid question from someone so new to war and unaware of the horrific timelines that so often accompany it.
“No son, unfortunately time is not on our side here,” Elgin began in a stern voice, one that now complimented the hardened features of his face. “As I mentioned earlier, it is the belief of those higher up that the Germans are weak throughout the entire front lines and especially in the trench that lies directly opposite our own. Now if we wait, it will give them time to refortify and we cannot afford that. If the weather is with us then God bless us all and if not...” he trailed off but for a moment, perhaps trying to find some way of delicately wording something that had no such way of being worded. “If not, we'll take God's blessings, along with good ol' English gumption, and deliver them both right into their cheeky mouths!”
His final words brought about some muted laughter and a few smiles, which was about all anyone in Elgin's position could really hope to achieve. He knew better than anyone that the likelihood of all these men coming back alive and in one piece tomorrow was dismally low.
With no further questions Elgin had the men follow him a short distance down a connecting tunnel that, like the first one, opened up into a larger room. This room had a number of crudely constructed tables and benches set out in rough rows. At the far end were a number of boxes containing rations and some other kitchen related items. Elgin went over and spoke quietly to a man who had just come in to collect one of the boxes. There was some short muted conversation that ended with the other man motioning for the men to take up at one of the tables and saying that he would be back with something warm.
When he had left, Elgin told them to get some rest, that it was less than a five minute walk through the tunnels that led to the front line trench. He also told them they would be expected to be ready for battle by 07:30 hours and “over the top” would be precisely at 08:00.
Elgin told the men they were dismissed and left them to their own affairs for the remainder of the evening. With their commanding officer now gone, the men began to take up at the tables, setting their small packs on the bench beside them as so not to get wet. The floor was covered in about two inches of water and rats scurried along close to the walls trying to keep as dry as possible while seeking out whatever remnants of food might be found.
Aremis eyed the rodents as they made their way about the rooms and tunnels wondering to himself if he would need to make a snack out of one or more of them before the call to battle in the morning.
“Do the rats bother you?” an older man who sat opposite Aremis inquired, a slight smile on his face.
“No, not really,” Aremis replied. “I mean, I suppose I find them a bit fascinating to be truthful.”
His answer was not quite what was expected and took the man who posed the question a little by surprise. “Really, you find these filthy beggars fascinating? How so, if you don't mind my prying?”
Truth be known, he did mind his prying, but for the sake of keeping the peace within the tight cramped quarters, he thought it best to simply entertain the man rather than start an argument.
“Well, I find it interesting that none of us really wish to be here and yet we are because it is what we must do. These creatures come in of their own will due to their desire to find food and despite being surrounded by beings a great deal larger than that of themselves, they go about their business as though we are completely absent.”
The man smiled, his crooked teeth telling of life in the poorer reaches of England. “Well, I find your answer most interesting as well. Quite the well-to-do then aren’t ya? What's the likes of a fellow like yourself doing down here with the rest of us rats then?”
The conversation, as well as the company, was growing about as stale as the air within the rooms and hallways of this underground labyrinth.
“My mother was a sticky one on proper speech. I blame her, God rest her soul,” Aremis replied quietly in the hopes of ending this keen interest in his personal manner of speech.
It took a few moments of awkward silence before the man who had been all but harassing him spoke up in a tone much removed from his previous antagonistic one, “I see,... sorry to hear of your loss. Shame for one as young as you is to lose their mother. God rest her soul.”
“Thank you,” Aremis replied and said nothing further, happy that the whole conversation was behind him.
The cook, or whoever he was, came back into the room, carrying a large metal pot, its exterior blackened from years of use on an open flame, the heated contents within the aged caldron steaming up from the open top.
“Alright you lads,” the man began in a gruff voice that was well laden with a French accent, “there's not much left here so I will divvy it up as best I can. Get out your kits and I will put a helping in each one.”
The men scrambled for their packs, pulling out the multipurpose mess kits and quickly opening them up, placing the cover which also served as a dish onto the table. The cook, with the pot in one hand and a ladle in the other, slopped what appeared to be vegetable stew into each tin dish until there was something in each one with little, if any left, in the pot.
“There you are, gentlemen. I hope it fills a small hole. Not the best I've done, but in a pinch it's warm and fairly good I would say.” He laughed at his own words as he made his way from the room through the passageway from which he had entered.
The men, some saying a brief prayer beforehand, shoveled the stew into their mouths as though they'd not seen food in weeks, some licking the dish clean of any gravy remnants when they were done.
When they all had finished, there was some quiet conversation regarding what they were supposed to do next. Dawn was still some time off and no one had told them where they were to be bedding down for the night. One of the men stood up and said he would go in search of someone in charge and find out what they were supposed to be doing. There were a few short words of agreement with the plan before the man set off in search of answers. He wasn't gone long before he returned, rolling his eyes as he did so.
“Looks like we bed down here tonight,” he said flatly. “The main area we would normally sleep in took a shell a few weeks back and is flooded. Man in charge says to just rest up in here until they come to get us in a few hours.”
There were a few grumbles and mutterings upon hearing the news but eventually everyone in the room just went about the business of trying to find some semblance of comfort in the less than comfortable conditions. A few men stretched out on the tables, ensuring their muddy boots hung off the ends so as not to deposit mud onto the tabletops while others, like Aremis, simply leaned back on the bench and let their back be supported by the chalk wall. It wasn't long before the room fell into silence followed closely by the rhythmic rise and fall of snoring.
There would be no sleep for Aremis, however. With this evening quite possibly being the last night in this life, he patiently waited until everyone was asleep before quietly rising from his place along the wall and silently disappearing down the tunnel he had arrived by. Making his way along the narrow corridor, water sloshing over his boots, he carefully took stock of his physical situation. He didn't want to run the risk of being seen snatching a rat off the floor for a midnight snack, but at the same time he also did not want to chance having his dark need become so great that it may well overpower his own abilities to keep it under control. It had always been a precarious balance, but he had never before been in such a situation where both an adequate food source was not easily available while at the same time having so many eyes watching his every movement.
When he came upon an intersection where there was a lamp on the wall, he cautiously poked his head around the edge of the corner. When he saw no one approaching from either direction, he removed a small mirror from the inside pocket of his jacket. With the mirror in one hand and using the lamp light to illuminate his face, he carefully looked at both his eyes, searching ever so carefully for any sign that the red had begun to show itself around the outer edges of his irises. A quick but thorough inspection revealed nothing more abnormal than a pair of tired eyes. Satisfied with his findings, he made the decision to forgo another meal of rat blood and hold out until morning when, if he was lucky, he would catch a stray bullet from a German rifle and all this horror would be behind him forever.
As he stood there in the glow of the light, he tucked the mirror away for safekeeping and was about to go when he noticed something. Almost invisible at first, he looked closer and discovered there on the wall, carved into the chalk, was his regiment's name and number, all in perfect detail. He ran his fingers over the carefully cut lines, thinking that it must have taken hours to have completed. As his eyes grew familiar with what they were taking in, he began to notice more carvings all around the inscribed regimental insignia. Some were simply a name and town, while others were what could only be described as a loved one’s name bordered by a heart. All of them, or most of them, had a date; a permanent stamp of the time they were carved into the chalk. Some were from over a year ago while one inscription was made only two days previously.
Aremis felt a shiver run up his back as he stood there reading name upon name etched into the soft white surface. All of sudden the grim reality of why he was there began to set in.
“How many of you have died?” he whispered well beneath his breath as he gazed at the wall of inscriptions that extended well beyond the illumination afforded by the lone light hung on the corner. As he took in his surroundings anew, he quickly noticed that this one wall was not unique. In fact, all the walls were covered in carvings of one sort or another. He thought there might well be hundreds if not thousands of names and pictures on these walls, all of which will never be seen by anyone other than a passing foot soldier like himself.
“What a waste of life,” he said, again in the same hushed voice.
He shook his head slowly, as if the subtle movement could somehow dislodge the sad imagery from his mind, but it did little good. Unable to rid himself of painful thoughts and memories, not only of this place and time, but of ones connected to his own life, he took his leave of the upsetting surroundings and went out to the small clearing -- the same one he had passed through when he first arrived at this Godforsaken place -- in the hope of getting some fresh air.
Outside, the men who had been standing there upon his arrival were no longer to be found. Only two soldiers on watch now remained. Both men looked at him as he emerged from the canvas covered entrance, but only for the briefest of moments before they returned to the solemn duty of patrolling the dark, muddy area. It was at that moment he suddenly realized these men on sentry duty were most likely not there to prevent the enemy from entering under the cover of night, but to prevent soldiers belonging to their own company from attempting to slip away under the same veil of darkness.
Looking up into the inky blackness, he could see an occasional star peeking through the quickly moving cloud cover. A brisk, chilly wind had picked up, its currents rustling the leaves that stubbornly clung to the war-scarred trees; the same barren trees he had recently walked through on his hike to the front lines. He knew from his upbringing that a wind like the one that was blowing meant the weather was going to change. It would either be getting a lot worse or a lot better and depending on whose side you were on come morning, bad weather could be a good thing, or just as easily, the other way around.
Aremis found an empty crate set off to the side of the tunnel entrance and, using it as an improvised seat, sat down. Sitting there with only his own thoughts to keep him company, he took stock of his current situation. He had looked death in the eyes numerous times since having his old life essentially murdered by some creature in the guise of a woman. But here in this horrific place, where death was so very close at hand, something felt different. For the first time in recent memory, it frightened him. In all the years since having been made into a monster, he never feared death; in many ways he welcomed it, but throughout all his prayers and heartfelt pleas, it never came to be. There was neither a cure nor an end to his plight, only the silence of an unfeeling or uncaring God. Pondering as he was, he felt quite certain that many men might well have sat precisely where he was now seated, some of them possibly praying to whatever God they chose to believe in, to have their mortal souls spared come the morning, but unlike those who came before him he shared no such feeling. Aremis reflected back on all the names inscribed upon the walls of the underground labyrinth, rooms and tunnels all hewn out of the earth by men for the protection of the living. However, for most who entered, it was nothing more than an earthen waiting room; an underground grave built for the living until their permanent resting place could be found. He wondered if any of those poor souls who begged to be spared actually were.
He remained where he was until the frail telltale signs of dawn were in the air. It was at that point that he stood up, stretched and went inside to collect his rifle along with the rest of his gear.
Inside the makeshift mess room, where he and the other members of his troop were told they could sleep, was now a beehive of activity. Men coming and going, some of them still finishing off what looked like a piece of bread, while others had either gone without or had already finished off the morning fare.
He was in the midst of taking in all the comings and goings when the lad he first spoke to on the back of lorry, Edwin Green, came over to greet him.
“There you are, I thought I lost you,” he said with a chipper voice. “I snatched an extra bit of bread if you fancy it. Pretty bad stuff, if I were to speak the truth. Just the same, if you would like it, it's yours.”
Aremis shook his head, “No thank you, my stomach is not up to very much this morning I am afraid to say.”
Edwin smiled and tucked the offering into his coat pocket then slapped Aremis on the shoulder. “Come-on then, try not to look so glum now. You cannot let that old buzzard Elgin's words worry you. I am telling you, this is going to be straightforward. I have it on good authority that the German front lines are made up of mostly young boys now, some of them barely 18 years old. All the good ones have been killed or have deserted. We will be back here in time for tea. You see if I'm not right on that.”
Aremis nodded and forced a smile, even though in his heart he didn't share the same sentiment as the jubilant young man in front of him. In fact, if he did come to find himself back here for tea come the afternoon, it would only mean that his plan would have taken a horrible turn for the worse.
Despite his own feelings on the matter, he was about to add something of his own make-believe encouragement to the conversation, when they heard a whistle being blown. For Aremis, the single high pitched note brought back to life a frightening memory of a dark laneway in London's Whitechapel district where he had watched helplessly as the one who had stolen his life from him years before brutally slaughtered a police constable in cold blood, her prize, the constable's whistle. He remembered watching as she thrust the blood-covered whistle high above her head in triumphant jubilation before slowly lowering her hand, placing the small silver instrument between her bloody lips and blowing it herself. The one sharp note echoing off the surrounding brick walls, a single piercing sound that would undoubtedly summon other police constables from anywhere that was within earshot, sent him running for his life.
The man who had been blowing the whistle stepped smartly into the room.
“Right then you lot, let's move smartly now. Get your gear, check your rifles and move into the forward tunnels. Those of you who are new to this regiment, follow someone who knows the way!”
His short, abrupt address concluded, he vanished from sight down the corridor he had come in from.
Aremis grabbed his pack and his rifle, quickly looking in the heavy canvas sack to ensure the spare rounds he had placed into it were indeed still there. Satisfied with what he saw, he threw the gunny sack over his shoulder and made his way to where the majority of the men were starting to gather. Looking at one man who was already there, his stripes on his shoulder indicating he had been around a time or two, Aremis inquired if he was correct in assuming this was the line he should be in.
The man looked back over his shoulder, the lines on his face worn deep, as though the things he had borne witness to had carved them into his skin with a blade as keen as the ones used to engrave the walls that surrounded them.
“If it be Hell you're seeking, then this be the way,” the man replied, not an ounce of emotion within the words. His answer having been given, the man, obviously in no mood for further conversation, he simply turned his attention forward and adjusted the rifles strap so that sat over more comfortably on his shoulder.
‘Hell?’ Aremis thought. That certainly did not sound anything like the way Edwin had envisioned this morning’s upcoming events, and for that he found himself to be strangely relieved.
It wasn't a moment later that the order was given to begin making their way through the narrow tunnel that led to the front lines.
The men moved slowly and with due order through the long narrow tunnel towards an end which only a few of them actually knew about. The trek was largely in the dark, water again well over the tops of their boots, as they continued forward until the scent of fresh air could be felt on their faces and, more importantly, in their lungs.
It was but a few moments after the fresh air was initially felt that they reached the exit point. Just as with the entrance at the other end, a tattered and musty length of canvas hung over the timber-lined opening. It was low and most every man who exited the tunnel had to duck his head considerably in order make it under.
As Aremis exited the dank tunnel and entered the trench, he felt the rain upon his face, the falling droplets making a metallic sound as they hit his helmet. He looked about his surroundings, quickly taking in the less than hospitable environment. The water in the trench was about as deep as in the tunnel, and the planking that had been placed over the mud with the idea of keeping the men's boots out of it, had succumbed to the overwhelming conditions. Most of the wood was now buried beneath mud or lying under brown water. The top of the trench was some eight feet or better in places. Makeshift wooden ladders, their rungs caked with mud, led up to ground level. Colonel Elgin could be seen at the far end of the trench while another officer, someone Aremis had not yet seen, stood before him. The man who had been directly ahead of Aremis in the line was directed to go to the left along with a group of men that were in the line in front of him, while everyone else, including Aremis, was told to carry on to the right. Following the directions, Aremis led a group of men, some new while others battle-seasoned, to the far end of the man-made earthen ditch. When he arrived at its end, he waited for further instruction from the man in charge.
It wasn't until all the men had come to a halt that Colonel Elgin spoke, “I would wish you all a good-morning, lads, but I do not think it would be fitting given the circumstances. We have about ten minutes before we go over the top so if you will, please space out a bit so that we have three men to a ladder.”
The men moved about within the confines of the waterlogged area until they had achieved what had been asked of them. Aremis was first in line at the last ladder, while Edwin was first in line at the ladder directly to Aremis' left.
Aremis looked over at Green and the young lad gave him a wink and a well concealed 'thumbs-up' before the Colonel spoke up again, “The weather today is not as we had hoped, but the rain is certainly in our favour. With any luck the enemy will be wet and tired and not prepared to fend off an attack.”
He paused and looked over the men standing in rows of three, the rain now beating down on them all.
“I'll go over this for the new lads, the rest of you know the speech, but pay heed to it just the same. When the whistle sounds, you are all to move up the ladders smartly. The enemy trench is some 120 yards directly ahead of you. You are to advance on that position as quickly as you can. Surprise is key to staying alive here. Do not run in a straight line, cut back and forth, three to five yards one way then back again. This will make it much harder for the enemy to get a proper aim on you. I do not have to remind you that supplies are not abundant -- you should have three rounds in your rifle and another three in your belt. Do not shoot blindly, make each bullet count. Do not stop your forward attack if you see another man fall. If you hesitate it will likely cost you your life as well. Keep moving! Lastly, I will remind you that you are a member of the British Army and as such, cowardice in the line of duty will be dealt with by immediate execution by either myself or Sergeant Parks at the opposite end.”
His cold emotionless words seemed to hang in the wet morning air. The thought that if one's will gave out and failed in the face of unimaginable terror one would be executed for that human frailty seemed outrageous.
When Elgin was sure his words had been both heard and taken to be true, he ordered the men to affix their bayonets to their rifles.
Aremis, along with the other men, removed the 17-inch long blade from its scabbard and slid it onto the end of the rifle, securing it into place. He tested its placement by pulling back on it several times to ensure it had indeed taken hold. His task having been completed, he remained motionless before the ladder that led to the top, quietly thinking about his life, his family, a girl he never really got to know before her life was snatched from her and finally, his sister Temperance. He pondered momentarily, if there was indeed a heaven above, would he be permitted entrance after all he had done and if he did happen to make it past the gates, would he be able to recognise Temperance's face when he came to look upon it once more? There were so many questions, all of which seemed to have little in the way of a comforting answer.
He was lost in his thoughts when he felt a firm poke on his right shoulder. The annoying little jab pulled him from his mindful reverie and he looked to see who was responsible for the irritating encroachment.
It was Colonel Elgin, a stern look on his face. “This is not a time for daydreaming lad,” he stated firmly.
“No Sir,” Aremis replied smartly, “I was not daydreaming. I was simply going over the things you said, trying to keep them in order and such.”
The old war veteran eyed Aremis closely for any sign that the man before him might not be able perform his duty, but after a few seconds with nothing to substantiate his concern, he relented.
Pulling his pocket watch from inside his overcoat, he opened the lid slightly, then closed it again.
“Three minutes gentlemen,” Elgin stated calmly as though they were all simply waiting for a train to arrive at the station.
Aremis tightened his grip on his rifle then adjusted his footing on the ladder so that when the signal was given he would be able to get a good push up the ladder to the top. He flicked the rain water from his eyelashes and pulled his helmet down tighter so that it better protected the front of his head, the action of which brought about a level of surprise from within himself. Here he was, poised to go into battle, the sole purpose for doing so was to be killed quickly and yet here he was taking actions that could see to it that he would be better protected. He silently marvelled at how strong the will to survive was, even during what he hoped would be his last few moments on this earth.
“One minute now, steady everyone. Stay focused on your objective,” Elgin calmly stated as he continued to stare at the moving hands of the silver pocket time piece.
Aremis thought that it all seemed so odd, to be fighting a life and death struggle with an enemy well equipped to kill you, and yet concerned with doing things so very properly. The idea that attention to procedure would in some way turn the tide in what was about to happen on the battlefield seemed absurd. It was as though by failing to adhere to this detail of time, it could somehow go against your favour. That if you, the commanding officer, violated the protocol of war and ordered the attack one minute before 8:00 in the morning, a seemingly more civilised time to launch a massacre than say 7:30, all could be lost.
“Steady now...” Elgin's voice was again heard over the downpour.
There was a short silence, a moment in time in which everything around them fell quiet. Only the sound of the rain pounding down could be heard. Then, like the screech of a hawk in the dead of night, the sound of the whistle split the air and like runners in a race, the men all began racing up the ladders in unison. Dozens of men crested the top of the trench in an early morning rainstorm prepared to charge across a hundred or more yards of mud, debris and barbed wire.
As Aremis and Edwin crested the top, Aremis saw out of the corner of his eye a red mist suddenly appear as Edwin's helmet flew off and his body fell backwards into the trench. Aremis looked back for half a second at best, but the young man he barely knew was obscured by other men mounting the ladder.
Going back to check on his fellow man was not an option, and with no time to grieve Aremis darted into the open area. Keeping in mind what Elgin had told the men, he darted from right to left as he forged on towards what was, as yet, an unseen enemy.
The mud clung to his boots until every step felt as though he had great stones lashed to his legs. As he continued to forge on in this manner, he found himself becoming keenly aware of his environment. Sounds were so clear, so precise. It was as though he could hear things before they actually happened. That being said, the rains that pelted down from the skies above, just as fiercely and just as continuous as they had all morning, suddenly seemed to have within that same downpour, no sound whatsoever. With the all-encompassing din of the storm seemingly nullified, the sound of the enemy’s gunfire could be counted singularly, round for round. Not only could these sounds be heard with infinite clarity, he could also tell, with reasonable accuracy, where each shot had originated from. With this new information planted firmly in his mind, he felt he might well be able to formulate a pathway around the incoming bullets, for even though he very much wanted to die this rain-filled morning, diving directly into a bullet would most certainly be viewed as taking his own life and in doing so, would forfeit all chances of entering into heaven. It was a fair plan given the circumstances; the one flaw to it being, that in his calculations, he had not factored in the speed of sound over the velocity of the approaching bullet.
He felt a searing hot pain rip through his left shoulder and in that moment he lost all feeling in his left hand. The sound of the bullet that hit him came less than a second after it had already passed through his body, blowing a hole in his coat as it exited. The pain was intense enough to cause him to falter and nearly lose his footing. Forcing the discomfort from his mind, he managed to regain himself before falling and, quickly changing direction, he continued his charge for the enemy’s trench now within his view. His renewed efforts however were to be short lived as two more bullets found him, one in the thigh, the other mid-abdomen. Unlike with the first bullet, having two rounds striking him at the same time was overpowering and he fell forward into a shallow gully, a crater left by days of relentless shelling by the opposing sides.
Down below the lip of the bombed-out hollow, he was out of sight to those who had been shooting at him. Aremis rolled over in the mud, twisting and turning, the pain from multiple gunshot wounds overriding his will to go on.
Cold muddy water soaked into his clothes and pulled away what little warmth he left in his body as he continued to writhe about trying to find some relief from the pain. What came to him was not relief at all, but something much more terrifying.
“Damn you!” he screamed through clenched teeth, his words lost in the sound of rain and repeated gunfire. “Who taught you to shoot?”
The chilled water that had soaked through his clothes was causing him to shake and he began to think that if he didn't soon get out of here he may not get out at all. Even though his plan was to end his life on a battlefield in France, he did not wish it to be a slow and arduous one at the hands of pneumonia.
Lying there the pain that had but a few moments before debilitated him now seemed to act as a catalyst of sorts, bringing to life the beast that lay quietly hidden deep within him. As the battle raged on around him, there was another fight going on; one that nobody else around him was even aware of. The fight for control over his mind and body. That battle, unlike the one that had raged on for years in the muddy fields of France, took only a matter of seconds to be decided upon -- the victory belonging to the monster he tried so desperately to control. As the human being that was once wholly Aremis was casually swept away, effectively removed from the equation, something built to hunt and survive in an ever-changing environment took over. Taking stock of the situation from a new perspective, he now lay there, no longer shivering, no longer feeling pain. He listened. The gunfire no longer seemed to be coming his way, but rather to his left.
“They must think they have killed me,” he said quietly as he listened to the screams and cries of his fellow soldiers as they, like him, were being systematically gunned down. “They cannot see me in this ditch...”
He fumbled around with his good arm until he found his rifle. Pulling it from the mud, he inspected the barrel to ensure it had not been packed with water-laden dirt when he went down. Finding it clear, he remained on his back, his weapon over his chest, as he used his legs to propel him along the slippery mud, until he was at the farthest end of the muddy hollow. There, collecting handfuls of mud, he smeared it over his helmet and then, very carefully, poked his head up over the top.
His estimations regarding the direction of fire were indeed correct and he could easily make out several German soldiers laying down a hail of bullets at what was left of the British troops still advancing.
From his position he had an unobstructed view of the men on the upper earthen wall of the enemy trench and with several of them within easy range, he pulled his rifle up to his shoulder.
With his left arm now more functional than a few moments before, he steadied the weapon on top of the muddy ridge. He pulled back the weapon's side bolt, the action sending a bullet into the firing position. Then, as the storm continued on above a scene that was quite possibly beyond human comprehension, one blood red eye, void of anything remotely resembling that of being human, gazed without feeling, without remorse, down the length of the barrel, aligning the two sites so a man’s head sat directly in the middle of them.
“Let me show you how to shoot...” he said well under his breath, the words along with the tone of voice, sounding nothing like that of his own.
He squeezed back on the trigger and a single shot left the barrel, the recoil of its departure hardly being felt in his shoulder. He pulled back the bolt and the smoking brass casing of the first bullet flew up and out of the weapon. He forced the bolt forward again, placing the second round into the chamber, all before the first round had reached its target. Reach it, it did and with deadly results.
The .303 round caught the first German soldier just below the edge of his helmet penetrating his temple. The impact tore out the opposite side of his skull and sent him backwards into the trench.
The second round from Aremis' Enfield had already been dispatched and, just as the one that preceded it but a few second before, it met its intended target head on. As the second German soldier turned to see where the shot that had taken out his mate had originated, the bullet tore through his forehead and he too was thrown backwards by the impact.
With two now down on the opposite side, Aremis thought his position may well have been noted by the other soldiers so he slipped back behind the dirt barrier. Again on his back, his rifle over him, he slid and worked his way to the opposite end of the ditch then waited patiently for close to a minute before popping up and squeezing off another round towards the soldier who was obviously intent on putting a stop to his sniper-like activity. Sadly for the German soldier, this was not to be his day as the third shot from Aremis’ rifle caught him in the throat and, like his fellow brothers-in-arms, he too was sent lifeless into the bottom of the trench.
It had been a good three shots and it had taken some of the fire away from Aremis' fellow battered troops, which looked to be less than half in number than when they went over the wall. Of course, this meant that the focus of the German stronghold was now on his location.
Bullets peppered the dirt just above his head and Aremis slid further down the slight incline taking what cover he could from the heavy soil. He pulled the remaining bullets from his pack and quickly shoved them into the magazine, pulled the bolt back and forth to set the first round in place, then crawled back to the far end of the bombed out ditch.
This was the place where he would advance on the German trench.
Looking back over the battlefield he watched John Wilkins, the man he had helped erase a fear of enclosed spaces, drop his rifle and bring his hands to his face before falling forward, his body all but swallowed up in the muddy ground. Watching someone he barely knew, but felt he could have liked nevertheless, die a meaningless death sent Aremis into an uncontrollable rage. Clutching his rifle tightly, he suddenly jumped up and charged towards the enemy line which was now less than fifty yards from his current location.
The sudden appearance of a lone Brit soldier charging at them from their far left took the Germans a little by surprise, but that disbelief lasted but a moment or two at best. Several rifles opened up on the man who was charging in on them in a straight line with his rifle sending the last remaining rounds ahead of him. Two of Aremis' three bullets found their mark with deadly accuracy, the other cutting a groove in the man’s helmet, not killing him but most certainly taking him out of the fight -- at least for the present. His rifle now spent and with no need for the bayonet mounted at the front of it, Aremis threw it aside, happy to the free of the weight. Several more German rounds hit him, but they did nothing but fuel the monster as he ploughed forward with speed unlike anything a human being could possess. Closing in on his targets, all he could now see was bright red auras in the loose shapes of men. Not having fed on anything real in weeks was more than enough drive to launch him over the barbed wire, taking down the soldier closest to him as he did.
His nails buried deep in the man’s throat, Aremis ripped out the entire front of his neck sending a geyser of blood into the rain filled sky. Another bullet burned into his back and he turned, pulled the rifle from the soldier who held it on him, spun it around and, holding it fast in one hand, he shot the man with his own weapon.
German soldiers now jumped down from their posts to try and subdue this intruder within their own position, but their efforts had little, if any, effect. One after the other, each man that engaged the lone enemy met a quick and gruesome end at the hands of something wearing a blood soaked British uniform. Having killed everyone at the eastern end of the German stronghold, Aremis began making his way through the soldiers that were coming at him from the western end, throwing the bodies of the men he had killed up and out of the trench as he continued, systematically extinguishing their lives.
“Do your job, damn you!” he shouted at the men who came at him. “Can none of you do what you were trained to do?”
The remaining soldiers, some young, others seasoned in battle, more than accustomed with the sights and sounds of war, had seen more than enough. Unable to stop or even slow this man, or whatever it was, they began to frantically climb the ladders that lead up from their trench. Reaching the top they clambered over the muddy edge and began running towards the British force's advancing troops they were only moments before cutting down with gunfire. Aremis, seeing their panic fuelled retreat, grabbed the nearest man by the ankle, pulling him down the ladder. Holding him up in front of him, he forced the soldiers head over to one side and then a moment later tore open his throat. He was about to take in the torrent of red that was exploding from the wound when he felt something cold in his chest. The odd sensation quickly extinguished the fire within him and he felt a sense of calm begin to overtake him.
Not quite sure what was happening, it took several seconds before he looked down and in doing so, immediately noticed a long metal blade protruding from the centre of his chest. He released his grip on the dead soldier and brought his hand up, placing a bloody finger on the protrusion, letting the lethal point prick his fingertip. As he stood there, wavering slightly, the blade slowly disappeared back into him until there was nothing there but another hole in his tattered uniform. He placed the same finger over the hole and slowly turned around. There before him stood a trembling young man, barely twenty-five years of age, in his hand a rifle with a bayonet affixed to the front; its long steel blade dripping red with blood.
Aremis took a step forward but felt his legs give out beneath him and he dropped to his knees before the young German man. The soldier backed up several steps, still clutching the spear-like weapon with an unsteady grasp.
Aremis' body was failing. He could feel the cold, a cold like nothing he had even experienced, begin to creep over him. It felt as though a thick, bone-chilling fog had suddenly blown in from the Atlantic; the kind that could quickly obscure your vision while disorienting your bearings at the same time. His vision was now blurred and he had already lost all his peripheral sight, the black ring quickly closing in until all he could see was the young man’s face. A moment later, it too was gone.
Aremis slumped forward, falling face first into muddy water and ceased to move.
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