The attack begins. Who will survive, and who will escape? Part three of the ongoing series The Veil.
It was bliss.
He let the open air wash over him, bathing in the deafening silence. High above a lone bird glided through the sky. The cool breeze soothed and caressed him. From far in the distance he could hear the sound of ocean waves rolling and crashing.
As he listened the crashing grew louder, closer, faster, until it became a penetratingly violent rhythm. Now he could hear cries and shouts.
Then a face plunged into view.
“Hauser! Get up man! Quickly!”
He blinked. Neumann was standing there, shouting at him. All around men were running in panic, their guns firing. He could hear endless screaming.
He was back in hell.
“We’ve got to get out of here!” Neumann urged.
“Bieber! They got Bieber!” someone else cried out. It was Obergrenadier Schäfer. Hauser saw him staggering past, pointing his rifle around in wild panic.
“Schäfer!” Neumann shouted. The soldier glanced at him, then caught sight of something and disappeared from sight. A second later Hauser heard Schäfer’s screams joining the others.
“That’s it – come on!” Neumann pulled him to his feet and together they ran for cover, taking refuge behind a small building.
“Who is it? Who’s attacking us?” Hauser asked. “The French?”
Neumann shook his head. “No idea, but they came out of nowhere.”
“Who goes there?” a voice hissed at them.
Hauser looked around. The voice seemed to be coming from a nearby Kubelwagen.
“Hauser – and Neumann. Who’s that?”
Private Meyer peered cautiously from underneath the vehicle then scurried over to them. “Who else have you seen?” he asked nervously.
Hauser shook his head. “No one – not alive, anyway, but there have to be others.”
“There is – look over there,” Meyer directed, pointing past the car he had been using for cover. Towards the far side of the camp Hauser could see a single figure standing in the open, perfectly calm.
“Kleffel!” Hauser exclaimed, recognising the stoic figure. “He was there when this all started.
“I saw him by the Captain’s hut,” Hauser explained to the other two. “I heard shooting, I went outside and saw Kleffel coming out of the Captain’s hut with his gun. I thought he had shot Captain Haase. I was about to pull my weapon then something … Kleffel must have shot a fuel canister. Next thing I saw was you.”
Meyer was getting jittery. “Why is he just standing there?”
“We have to go over there and get him,” Hauser insisted. “Find out what happened.”
Neumann readied himself: “Let’s go then.”
Hauser saw Meyer looking nervously back to the Kubelwagen and grabbed his arm: “You’re a soldier, damn you: we don’t hide in the dirt, we stand and fight – yes?!”
Meyer looked at Hauser and nodded fearfully: “Yes sir.”
“Go!” Hauser ordered.
They ran quickly and efficiently, not even pausing to glance at the dead bodies that crossed their path. They stopped less than twenty feet from Kleffel, taking cover behind a Panzer. Hauser waited a moment, checked his rifle, then darted his head around the the tank.
Kleffel was still standing there, perfectly calm. A few feet away from him there was a body lying on the ground. With a chill Hauser realised it had been perfectly bisected, from its head to its groin. He had seen terrible things over the last year: soldiers incinerated, their limbs blown apart into so much loose meat, but he had never seen anything like this.
“What do you see?” asked Neumann.
Hauser glanced back at Neumann then, without a word, ran out to Kleffel. Moments later they were both back behind the Panzer.
“What’s this all about, Kleffel?” Hauser demanded. “What did you do to the Captain?”
Kleffel stared at him emotionlessly. “We can’t fight it,” he explained.
“What shadow? What are you talking about?”
“Shadow…?” Meyer repeated shakily. “I saw it a shadow. I thought it was… there was something right behind me before, but I couldn’t see it – only its shadow…”
“It moves when you’re not looking at it,” Kleffel added flatly.
Just as Hauser was wondering if he would have to beat sense into both Kleffel and Meyer two other soldiers ran breathlessly over to them. It was Corporal Eberhardt and Grenadier Lehmann.
They turned immediately around, pointing their weapons back the way they had come.
“It was right behind us,” Eberhardt was shouting.
Lehmann fired a few shots, but none of them could see anything.
“That’s it – we retreat!” Hauser decided for them all, indicating towards a nearby crop of trees at the edge of the camp. “We’ll regroup, then retake the camp.”
As Hauser spoke something flew between them and seemed to thud into the ground. He looked around in bewilderment, seeing nothing. Eberhardt stared back at him numb and confused. A red tear appeared across his neck and his head rolled gently to the ground. His body sagged against the side of the tank and remained propped there in a grotesque parody of rest.
Meyer screeched and bolted for the trees, swiftly followed by the others. Hauser ran with one eye on Kleffel, making sure he kept pace with the rest of them. Meanwhile, in his panic Meyer was getting too far ahead
“Meyer!” Hauser barked. “Stop! Not too f -“
There was a cracking sound and Meyer suddenly stopped. His head lolled back at a hideous angle and his body tumbled to the ground. Hauser managed to bring himself to a halt just short of the corpse. The air was filled with a faint humming sound.
“Christ what happened?” Lehmann asked, horrified.
Hauser reached out his hand: just past where Meyer’s body lay the air was solid, as if an invisible wall had been erected. Lehmann put his own hand out, walking along the invisible barrier. Then he picked up a branch and hurled it – the branch bounced back in mid-air.
Hauser looked grimly back towards the camp. They were trapped, and whatever had killed their comrades was trapped with them.