“In a dark time, the eye begins to see” –In a Dark Time by Theodore Roethke
Chapter 1: A War of Man and Beast
There was nothing quite like the joy of flying. The roar of the motor, the wind in his hair, and the deafening roar of the engine; it was all so intoxicating. He looked down at the patchwork of farmlands below and grinned. He felt like a god.
“Would you stop rubbernecking, Drake?” he heard his gunman, Starling, shout from behind him to be heard over the wind and the engine.
“Maybe; if I ever get bored of that view!” Alavon Drake retorted. “Nope, don’t think I’ll get bored of it anytime soon!”
“Focus on what you’re doing, for Christ’s sake!” Starling yelled. “Otherwise you’ll get us killed!”
“I was born to fly this bird!” Alavon laughed. “She’s practically an extension of myself! No way in hell I’ll crash ‘er!”
A cloud wisped by, briefly obscuring the left flank of their formation from Alavon’s sight.
“It’s awfully quiet today!” Alavon called back to Starling.
“Maybe the krauts decided France isn’t worth it anymore!” Starling shouted back.
“Maybe you can finally settle down with that French dame you always go visit, then!” Alavon guffawed.
“What’s between me and Lucille is none of your business!” Starling yelled, flustered.
“Oh. yeah? And how much did she get off you last night? Two hundred? Three hundred?”
“You son of a—”
Starling was interrupted by the sound of gunfire and Alavon dipped the nose of the plane down, making her dive.
“Krauts at two o’clock!” Starling called out.
“Let’s go say hello, then!” Alavon replied, turning the plane to fly right for them.
“Jesus Christ, you’re looney!” Starling exclaiming.
More machine gun fire ahead of them and Alavon could nearly feel the bullets passing through the air around them, but never hitting.
“Give me something good, Starling!” Alavon yelled. “Give ‘em hell!”
Starling let loss with his machine gun, wordlessly yelling as a German plane’s engine caught fire and it went into a nosedive.
“Hell yeah!” Alavon cheered. “Give ‘em a reason to be scared of us Yankees!”
He brought the plane into a sharp turn.
“Christ, Drake, could you go a little—”
Starling abruptly ceased to speak as a barrage of gunfire sounded off.
“Starling?” Alavon called out. “George, answer me!”
He turned to see a limp body in the gunner’s seat, not much of a head left on the neck.
“Starling!” Alavon yelled and then focused back on his flying. “You fucking bastards!”
Another spitting of gunfire that Alavon felt whiz by around him and he barrel-rolled in order to evade it before flying away, tailed by an enemy plane that spat bursts of bullets at him. Alavon grit his teeth and dropping his plane into another nosedive. The kraut plane followed closely behind as he sped down towards the broken earth of trenches and barbed wire, firing on him over and over until finally tearing off a wing. Alavon pulled up at the last minute, hearing the satisfying sound of the trailing plane impacting the ground with a crash before his own plane went down in no man’s land.
Out of breath, Alavon pulled himself from the body of the wrecked plane and tumbled to the rotted earth, landing with a groan. He could hear machinegun fire in the distance and the air was tainted by smoke and gas and death. Out here, he was exposed. He needed to reach the trenches to get to proper cover. Ripping off his goggles, hat, and scarf, he looked around. Which way to go? He could just as easily end up in an enemy’s trench as his own ally’s.
He started to crawl in one direction, hoping it was the right one. There was a blast of artillery and the whistle of mortar fire overhead. Alavon covered his head and pressed himself as close as he could to the earth a moment before the round exploded several yards to his right, showering him with dirt and shrapnel.
That was a little close for comfort. he thought and began to crawl once again, shimmying along the ground on his stomach as fast as he could go. His hands were soon scraped and cut all to hell and his clothes were torn where he had strayed against some barbed wire. An eternity passed him by as he waited for the revelation of his presence and the ensuing gunfire that would be sure to follow, whether or not from friend or foe, because identity was nonexistent in no man’s land. To any French or kraut soldier, he was the same thing: a bit of movement in the land of the dead. He crawled past a body riddled with holes that must have been rotting there for at least a good day or so and fought not to retch at the sight and the smell of it.
On he crawled like a lowly worm until he tumbled into a trench, landing in the putrid muck below with a splash. Some of the foul mix had gotten into his mouth and he spat, attempting futilely to rid himself of the awful taste. He turned over on his back and lay there for a few minutes, the trench water seeping into his clothes. There was a splash nearby and he sat bolt upright, looking around alertly and ignoring the water that trickled uncomfortably down the back of his neck.
Another splash sounded, followed by another pause of silence. Alavon sat up, drawing his pistol, and listened to the sounds of dripping water and distant gunfire. He flinched as a snarl sounded above him and whipped around, bringing up his pistol to shoot at what he assumed would be some carcass-picking mongrel of a dog, but was surprised to see was a man with long, stringy hair that crouched awkwardly at the edge of the trench.
“Get back!” Alavon demanded. “I’ll shoot!”
When the man didn’t react, he repeated the message in French and then in German.
“I said, get back!” Alavon yelled.
The man finally moved then, pouncing onto Alavon with unbelievable speed. Alavon shouted in surprise and fired his weapon into the man, who only made an inhuman screech of anger and yanked the pistol easily out of the American’s grasp before grabbing him by the throat and easily lifting him up high enough that not even his toes touched the muddy trench floor. He wheezed and clawed at the man’s hand. The man glared up at up him, his eyes’ pupils unnaturally large and surrounded by a thin, scarlet ring, and opened his mouth, which was full of sharp, needle-like teeth, far too wide.
As terror seized Alavon, he felt a tingling over his whole body and saw the skin on his hands blacken and take on the texture of scales as his nails lengthened into claws. He instinctively slashed at the creature’s arm and it dropped him with a screech of pain. It took a few steps back and crouched, hissing. Alavon bared canines too long and sharp to be human and released a bestial growl from deep in his chest.
The creature before him tensed and then sprung up, his teeth snapping together alarmingly close to Alavon’s neck and he gripped its shoulders to hold it back and then pushed it up against the wall of the trench. It hissed and clawed at him all the while, tearing into his side with sharp, filthy nails. The smell of blood drove the creature into a frenzy as it began kicking and shrieking ecstatically until Alavon threw it to the ground and fell upon it, sinking his teeth into the creature’s neck and tearing out its throat like a wild dog. The creature finally stilled then and Alavon pushed away from it, spitting out its rotten black blood as his body reverted to a completely human aesthetic.
Alavon Drake stared at his hands, which were now pinkish white under the grime, and then back at the still body lying in the muck a few feet away, panting heavily. What was that thing? It had looked like a man and yet it hadn’t. Or perhaps the better question was what was he? And what had he become to kill that creature? It was like he himself had also been a monster in those moments.
He heard a splash and turned to see an older man standing several yards away in a German uniform. Alavon moved to go for his gun, but the kraut drew his own pistol and pointed it at him.
“Ich würde das nicht tun, wenn ich Sie wäre.” the German told him.
“I’m afraid I’m not very comfortable speaking kraut.” Alavon muttered, raising his hands in a gesture surrender.
“You are American.” the soldier replied.
“Vhy are you out here?” he asked. “Or has ze U.S. finally entered ze var?”
“Not that I’m aware of.” Alavon replied. “Would you mind pointing that thing away from me?”
“Not after vhat I just saw.” the German laughed. “Zhat vould be very foolish in my case.”
“And what exactly did you see?” Alavon asked warily.
“I saw vun beast kill anozher.” was the simplistic answer.
“Do you know what the hell that thing was?” Alavon indicated with his boot the still form of the creature lying at his feet.
“A vampire.” the kraut told him. “Just vun of zhe many creatures zhis var has encouraged to creep from out of zhe shadows to feed on zhe dead and dying men.”
“That thing was a vampire?”
“I do not believe zhat I stuttered.”
“What am I, then?” Alavon demanded.
“You do not know?”
“No, of course not. What just happened to me has never happened before in my life.”
“Heh.” The German chuckled. “You are a demon. A beast both revered and hated by man. Vun zhat valks among men zhat are blind to vhat you are.”
“Then why don’t you just kill me?” the pilot asked.
“Because zhat vould be such a vaste, little monster.” the soldier replied. “You could be quite useful to me.”
“And if I don’t want to come with you?”
The German smiled and shrugged before proceeding to shoot Alavon in the left foot. He crumpled to the ground and screamed in agony until the soldier pistol whipped him into unconsciousness and everything went black.