In the midst of the D-Day landings, one being will leave his own mark on the French Coast.
The drone of the engines was loud. Muffled explosions threw Sergeant Wilson against his seat straps. He grunted and adjusted his belt. It was the night of June 5, 1944, and electricity was in the air. Across the plane, paratroopers exchanged hushed words between nervous glances at the sidewalls of the plane. Next to Wilson, a young private muttered a prayer. Suddenly a green light clicked on.
"Thirty seconds to drop!" bellowed the crewman.
The soldiers snapped to their feet in a single file row. A D-ring hooked their parachute pack to the static line running the length of the aircraft. The act of standing up stripped away whatever remaining bravado had followed these men onto the plane. Worried looks crossed the aircraft as crisp steps devolved into shuffling. Outside, the German anti-aircraft guns continued to pluck aircraft out of the sky.
Unlike the others, Wilson did not fear this, nor the enemies waiting for him. At six hundred years old, he had been through his share of war. Without thinking, he rubbed his chest. With a skull too thick for weapons and a body that healed at an unnatural rate, a knife or its ranged equivalent straight through the heart was all he had to fear on this mission. There were others, but they were too obscure to be of consequence.
He grunted as the person behind him shifted around his pack and pushed him back and forth. Satisfied that the Sergeant was safe to jump, he called it out, and the matter was repeated down the entire length of the plane.
"Ten seconds!" the same crewman yelled again as he flung open the back hatch.
The plane was thrown to the side, as blood and glass sprayed across the confined space. Wilson reflexively snapped his eyes shut against the blinding orange light. He blinked the spots from his eyes in time to watch the left engine finish separating itself from the aircraft. Through the ringing of his ears, he heard someone scream at him to jump. Who it was didn't matter. They were over the drop site, and this plane was lost. He sprinted out the door and leaped into the black abyss.
The wind tore at his clothes and skin as he streaked down through the night sky. Through the noise, Wilson felt the rustle of fabric. There was motion in his peripheral and he was suddenly jerked upward by his parachute. The sensation was like someone throwing you into a river, then catching you, but never pulling you above water. The "current" pulled at him, but he was able to take in what was happening.
Being a creature of the night, his eyes had no problem adjusting to the dark and his ears caught what others missed. Wilson watched as planes fell from the sky with streaks of orange and red marking their path. He listened to the horrifying screams as anti-aircraft rounds ripped parachutes and humans alike to pieces. He mentally ticked off each person in his unit as they were sent plunging to their deaths.
Ignoring these, he focused on his own landing. While death wasn't much of a worry, incapacitation was an equally unacceptable alternative. He adjusted his course, as he came down. There was a grove of trees just short of his desired landing point. He could land about anywhere, as long as it wasn't there.
"Why does the French coast have to be so damned fertile?" he muttered bitterly as he fought the wind for control of his body.
That's better," he added a second later.
Suddenly, there was a high-pitched whistle. Anyone else would've missed it, but he heard it. He heard the shell and then felt the tug on his parachute. The fabric burst apart and he was falling once more.
As he fell forward, he felt more than saw the offending shell explode above him. The explosion shook his body. His ears began to ring, and shrapnel peppered his uniform. He ignored it in favor of his more immediate problem.
The grove of trees he had been trying to avoid was closing fast. Wilson twisted his body and turned as much as he could. He stopped himself just short of turning into a bat. The second he did that was the second he could kiss his rifle, grenades, shovel, and other needed items goodbye. Wilson watched with inescapable horror as a wall of black forage enveloped. Sergeant Wilson tumbled foot by foot and yard by hard, until there was nowhere else to fall. There was a stab of pain in his legs, followed by his arms and head. Branches snapped under his weight, and he hit the ground with a thud.
The process of collecting himself was quick but not without pain. His rifle and grenades had mostly survived the fall intact. Though, one had a damaged pin. That one would be a bit trickier to operate. He found one half of his shovel and glanced around with an annoyed scowl. The other half was nowhere to be found.
"No matter," he decided as he untangled himself from the mass of bushes, "I should find the other-"
The crack of a rifle stopped him mid-step. The sound had the distinct ring of a German Mauser. The gears turned in his head and he shrugged. The Sergeant was now alone. With this, he peeled off his uniform to reveal clothes of black. Military decorum was no longer a requirement. He would take the bridge in his own way. With fatigues traded for clothes of black, he disappeared into the trees.
His steps were augmented for speed, as he closed on the town. His target was the city square. The morning would bring help, but only if he could take the stone bridge that lay there. He paused a hundred yards short main road into town. There stood a squad of Nazi soldiers. Their rifles were low but ready. Their officer, a captain judging by the uniform, took a drag from his cigarette as he gazed out into the night
Wilson froze as he surveyed the group. They were alert but had clearly not seen him. Behind the group was an armored half-track with no gun and an antenna sticking out. They were simply there to scoop up anyone that happened to slip through the German dragnet. Wilson sunk into the mist and crept toward them. There was no sound to be heard. A breeze explained the rustling plants while his cautious steps avoided the loose twigs. The soldiers never saw his approach. Nor did they hear as he slipped onto the gravel road behind them. Taking care of the radio operator was a trivial task, and Wilson was soon alone behind the vehicle.
Wilson poked his head around the side of the vehicle. He listened for signs that they had heard him. The sound of idol, nervous chatter told him the squad didn't suspect his presence. He crept forward on feet of air. Suddenly, it happened. In the time it took to blink, a flash of black had come and gone, taking the captain with it. Panic gnawed at the edge of the squad's discipline as they took off after their captain. Gravel crunched and twigs snapped as the squad fanned out into the surrounding fields. Frantic words in German flew back and as their flashlights whipped across the field.
"Did you see where he went?"
"What your step."
"Captain! Can you hear us?"
"He couldn't have gone far."
Away from the danger of their wandering lights, Wilson sucked down the blood of his victim. His eyes burned red as the blood took effect. His silver hair returned to a much younger black as the wrinkles on his face disappeared. Tonight, was to be a good night. Wilson wiped the blood from his lips and continued on. News of the missing captain traveled fast. By the time Wilson had reached the first building, the news of his horrific death had also been relayed.
"Keep your eyes peeled. Men or beasts, something is in the fields," warned one of the soldiers.
"How many planes made it through?" asked his younger partner as his eyes darted nervously
"Don't know, but that is none of our concern," the first man replied as he lit a cigarette, "Let the rest deal with them."
Suddenly a scream cut through the night air. It was the distinct high note of a man taken by surprise by his own death. The cry rang out through the village. Every soldier turned to the bell tower in time to watch a machine gun plummet to the ground below. Sharp eyes also caught sight of the responsible party. His red eyes glowed like marker lights in the clock tower.
"Up there," shouted the third man.
Rifles barked and the bell rung as bullets slammed into it. The gunfire continued well after the movement had stopped. When they did finally go silent and there was a second scream from further to the right. It was that of a small child followed by a woman's frantic cries. Glass shattered and a German private flew from the second-story bedroom. The soldiers spread out. A cursory inspection showed the private's throat had been ripped open in a similar fashion as the Captain further west. The soldiers spread out, determined to find this twisted soul. Little did they know of the horrors that would await them.
As the men searched, Wilson disappeared into the thick brush of the riverbank. He couldn't defend or even really take the bridge himself. Of course, that didn't mean that the Germans had to occupy it either. He retreated under the bridge and listened to the pounding footsteps overhead.
Then the next couple hours drug on as Wilson went to work. Two rifle shots rang out. A Nazi Lieutenant and the man next to him crumpled to the ground with matching bullet holes. A sentry yelled out, and the responding men found pieces of him scattered across the grape field. His left arm was never found that night. Only one of the two guards returned back. His slower partner was also claimed by the black of night. This time, there was no cry or shout. His disappearance was only noticed when the Sergeant in charge demanded to know where he was. No one had a suitable answer. Four others along the edge of the formation also disappeared, along with a sniper perched in one of the trees along the riverbank.
"Form up around the bridge. We will not be chasing shadows tonight," the man barked.
"What of the clock tower? One of the 42s is up there" demanded one of the younger soldiers.
"It is broken, yes? That is what Fritz said," the Sergeant demanded.
The man nodded with a pale face.
"Very well. Get three others and collect the ammunition. We have two perfectly functioning machine guns here," he ordered.
"Yes sir," the corporal acknowledged crisply.
Even from his perch, Wilson could hear the faintest hint of a quiver. The man was cracking, ever so slightly. He was refocused by a pain in his chest. Wilson would have to be more careful. One of the bullets earlier had come dangerously close to his heart. No matter, he would heal soon enough.
On top of the bridge, the German Sergeant in charge watched the clock tower with piercing eyes. Every lamp was on, yet they had failed to see anything more than the glowing red eyes in the beginning. It was as though the figure simply absorbed the light around him. As the men disappeared, others finished lighting the lamps in and around the town. Closer to the bridge. Others, strategically placed lamps so as to remove all shadows. With the entire area bathed in a warm glow, a sense of relief washed over the man.
That relief failed to follow the four soldiers into the tower. Muted grumbling could be heard from the men as they swept their lights across the passage. Around the narrow passage, all manners of gears and weights were cast in the shifting light of their flashlights. Upon reaching the ladder, the Corporal turned around.
"You two, guard the entrance. Heinrich and I will collect the cases," he ordered as he singled out two of the younger ones.
Discipline silenced any protests as the duo waited by the ladder. Satisfied, the Corporal and Heinrich disappeared up the ladder to the bell. The two looked at each other and shrugged. Their lights played across the room as they tried to illuminate the entire structure at once. The fact that their lights were inadequate for this was not lost on the duo.
"This is not a wide room," observed one of the men as he wandered toward the left wall.
Emboldened by this observation, the second man made his way toward the other wall with his submachine gun in hand. They made their way around the large ropes and metal shapes with a new sense of purpose. Suddenly, the man on the left felt the sensation of an unnatural breeze. He spun toward the source only to find one of the heavy ropes coiling around his body. The weight dropped down with the current time, and the bone-crushing rope sent the screaming soldier high into the gears above. The second one saw the motion and was already moving. His gun came alive with a series of deafening barks. His target was the dark shadow streaking across the wall.
The Corporal in charge made the mistake of coming down at that point. An unseen force caught him in the ribs and sent him sideways into a cast iron cog. His helmet cracked and he crumpled to the ground. The vampire's claws tore into Helmrich's chest as though it had been made of wet paper. The man was also thrown off toward the wall. By this point, the terrified survivor had found his mark. A hail of dangerously accurate rounds chased Wilson back into the safety of the gears above.
By the time he found his bearings again, the young soldier had disappeared out of the building. Slowly, Wilson creeped out of the building. He would let the man have this fight. This time it was imperative that he moves slow. The unit in the village knew of his rough location. One missed a step and he would be reduced to a bloody mess on the cobblestone road.
He scurried along the back wall of the tower and disappeared into a grape field behind the village. There he considered his options. The night was vanishing fast, and he still had a dozen men to deal with. He scowled as he considered his options. The Sergeant in charge was an experienced man and Germans were growing wise to Wilson's tricks. They stood together behind a mass of metal barricades and sandbag walls, with men watching in every direction and lanterns illuminated to compensate for the shadows cast by the city lamps. Everyone had clearly heard the gunfire in the bell tower. Yet the Sergeant refused to let anyone move. No one else could be lured away.
This left him with two options. He could leave the village to the first armored division. However, this was one of the only river crossings in the area. If it received substantial reinforcements, the entire assault could stall. There was also the fact that occupied towns were harder to hide in during the day. Or, he could get creative.
Finally putting blind vengeance on the backburner, Wilson decided on a plan and went to work. He hid his grenades and M1 in a clump of tall grass. They wouldn't do him any good in this fight. He needed the ability to reduce his size and that meant offloading any unnecessary weight.
Back on the bridge, the German Sergeant lit another cigarette as his eyes scanned the buildings. He paid extra attention to the roofs and deep shadows. Next, to him, the one survivor of the bell tower, a kid of maybe twenty, clutched his MP-42 for dear life. Even as his eyes darted, the Sergeant could see them glazing over. The color had long since finished draining from his face as he stumbled back to the bridge.
"He didn't die... He didn't die... He didn't die..." the private muttered over and over in Czech.
The words were barely audible but cut through everyone like a knife through hot butter.
"Everyone dies," the Sergeant declared as he held out his last cigarette.
The private accepted the stick of tobacco as he pried his left hand loose of the gun's magazine. His shaking hands fought to light the match. Impatient, the Sergeant snatched up the match and lit it himself.
He swatted away a bat and ordered, "Take a couple of puffs and pull yourself together. Tonight's not over."
"But it is," echoed a voice.
The soldiers collectively paled at the voice. It was a deep, authoritative voice. However, there was an edge of malice that made everyone's skin crawl.
"This bridge only promises death. Leave and you shall live to fight again," ordered the voice.
Like the rest of the men, the Sergeant turned a full circle, looking for the source of the phantom voice. Yet he saw none.
"They wish for us to break rank. Such a thing will not happen," the Sergeant bellowed out.
The declaration was soaked in bravado. However, a keen ear could hear the faintest hint of a quiver in his voice. Suddenly a mass of black appeared on the stone railing. There was a startled cry and the private was thrown into the river. Pain shot through his body as he slammed into the water. His face stung as water flooded both his nose and his ears. As the Czech private fought to keep his head above water, he could hear the terrified screams of the men above him. In the flickering light of the city lamps, he watched as a black shadow ripped through the Nazi formation. Gunshots rang and men yelled, but it was for naught. As he drifted down the river, the half-conscious man could hear the sound of tearing flesh and the hollow thud of bodies being thrown against the cobblestone surface. As black overtook his vision, the Czech private watched a cloaked figured disappear into the night.
The next morning, clouds hung low in the sky as Allied soldiers cautiously moved into the village. A column of tanks led soldiers through the dead village. Not a step was wasted, or stone left unturned as squads broke off to clear the buildings. The Captain in charge briefly considered telling them not to bother. There were enough dead bodies in and around the village to account for most-- if not all-- of the defenders. However, three years of heavy fighting had drilled the value of caution into him. The mass of men and equipment came to a stop at the base of the contested bridge. There, even the most hardened stomachs rolled as they examined the mess before them.
"Captain, I just heard from B Company..."
The radio operator trailed off as he came around the side of the tank. His eyes wandered from the first bullet-riddled body to shredded partner. From there they darted to a man slumped down against the opposite wall. Blood had long since quit pouring from the gaping hole in his throat. His fingers still clung to the unfired rifle in his hands. Two feet further on lay another German in a pool of half-dried blood. This time it was a bayonet lodged in his chest that had killed him. The grotesque scene carried across the entire length of the bridge.
"Yes, Corporal?" the Captain croaked as he forced himself to look away.
The operator solemnly removed his helmet as he answered, "They advised caution in the village. A Czech private just washed up onshore. He was half drowned and came around in hysterics--something about a demon in the clock tower."