The American Devil

“I’ve nev­er seen a crea­ture like this!” 

Pro­fes­sor Siegfried Engel exam­ined the draw­ing and strug­gled to make sense of the night­mare ren­dered in sharp pen­cil strokes and streaks of jet-black charcoal. 

The roil­ing fire­place at his side cast a crim­son hue over the strange scene: a winged fig­ure in a trench, lord­ing over the twist­ed remains of the Kaiser’s finest. 

There are at least a dozen dead…maybe more.

“How tall do you think it is?” Mar­ius Drum­mer asked. 

Siegfried turned toward his assis­tant, seat­ed to his right, and glared at the young man. A glim­mer­ing rib­bon of liquor flowed from Marius’s lips, down his pock­marked chin, and over the fleshy, grape­fruit-sized goi­ter bulging from his neck.

“For God’s sake! Stop drink­ing the Major’s whiskey,” Siegfried said.

The young man hic­cuped and set the crys­tal snifter down with a wry smile. He pushed his wire-rimmed glass­es back up his nose and a reflec­tion of the roar­ing fire in the stone hearth danced upon their smooth glass. 

“Apolo­gies, Pro­fes­sor Engel,” Mar­ius said, sneak­ing a hand­ful of pick­led car­rot slices into his mouth. “But I’m curi­ous if you’ve deduced the monster’s height?” he asked between crunchy bites. 

Siegfried rolled his eyes. Mar­ius had the habit of stuff­ing his face with any edi­ble scrap he could get a hold of. Who could blame him? Four years into a seem­ing­ly nev­er-end­ing war, food was hard­er to come by, even back in Dresden. 

“Indeed, I have,” Siegfried said, turn­ing his atten­tion back to the draw­ing. “Let’s assume the trench is of stan­dard depth and the vic­tims of aver­age height, then the mon­ster is no taller than a eight-year-old child…” Siegfried frowned. “…albeit one with a two-meter wide wingspan.”

“How could such a lit­tle thing do all that dam­age?” Mar­ius asked. 

Siegfried placed the draw­ing on the rough, pinewood din­ing table and tapped the image. “Didn’t you notice the creature’s hands?” 

Mar­ius leaned for­ward. “They resem­ble eagle talons, professor.”

“And from all the blood the artist drew drip­ping from the tips, one can assume that they’re just as sharp.”

As ter­ri­fy­ing as the claws were, Siegfried thought, they were noth­ing com­pared to the creature’s head—an amor­phous black blob with two white discs for eyes that radi­at­ed mal­ice and hatred. The note scrawled at the bot­tom of the page read: Organ­ism 646, April 26, 1918. Cantigny, France.

What the hell are you? Did our Amer­i­can friends drag you here from their wild forests or did you crawl out from some ancient French cesspool?

Siegfried lift­ed his gaze from the page and glanced at the sol­diers work­ing inside the com­man­deered coun­try house turned bat­tal­ion headquarters. 

Most of the offi­cers, fit­ter ver­sions of Siegfried, were in their mid to late for­ties, sport­ed neat­ly trimmed grey beards, and wore glass­es. Out of uni­form, they wouldn’t have looked out of place teach­ing at a pres­ti­gious university. 

Sev­er­al of the war schol­ars argued in front of an enlarged wall map of Cantigny, the town they occu­pied, while sub­or­di­nates shut­tled notes to typ­ists a few feet away in what was the for­mer occupant’s liv­ing room. These younger men, hunched over bee­tle-black Eri­ka type­writ­ers, clacked out reports, orders, and req­ui­si­tion forms, stop­ping only to feed a fresh sheet of paper into the platen. 

Siegfried ignored the dis­trac­tions and ran a fin­ger over the draw­ing feel­ing the deep grooves the lead had carved. There was a fre­net­ic qual­i­ty to the lines, as if the artist had slashed at the parch­ment with an ink-stained blade instead of a pen­cil tip. 

Siegfried’s stom­ach growled, but he ignored the gnaw­ing hunger grow­ing in his bel­ly. He want­ed to focus all of his men­tal ener­gies on solv­ing the mys­tery of Organ­ism 646 for his Will. Of course, Major William Gräf wasn’t his Will any­more, not since Siegfried’s med­ical dis­charge from the mil­i­tary academy. 

Had it real­ly been two decades since they last saw each oth­er? Siegfried’s heart raced at the thought of being in the same room with Will again. So much had changed. William was now one of Gen­er­al Oskar von Hutier’s trust­ed advis­ers and tonight’s benefactor. 

There was lit­tle work for occultists these days and Siegfried was thrilled to receive William’s telegram, request­ing his pres­ence and exper­tise at the front. A gen­er­ous advance of a hun­dred Marks accom­pa­nied the train tick­ets along with a sim­ple request: bring your most potent charms.

Beyond that, how­ev­er, there were no words of affec­tion. No signs of what they had once been to each oth­er. That was to be expect­ed with mes­sages cen­sored by legions of mon­i­tors. And Will was smarter than that. But still, it grat­ed on Siegfried.

A group of sol­diers entered the house, bring­ing with them a cold draft. The draw­ing flut­tered against the wood, threat­en­ing to fly into the fire. Siegfried placed a pewter fork on top of the page and then clutched his right arm, mas­sag­ing the stump through the suit’s thread­bare fabric. 

Cool evening air always made what remained of his arm tin­gle with pain. Strangers assumed he lost the limb ear­ly on in the war, but he was too embar­rassed to admit that it hap­pened twen­ty years ago, as a cadet at Berlin’s Kriegsakademien, far from any battlefield. 

Will was there on that hor­ri­ble night and if wasn’t for him, Siegfried would have lost more than an arm. He closed his eyes and winced. The mem­o­ry was still as painful as the bul­let that altered his life. 

#

Pro­fes­sor Engel?” Mar­ius asked, snap­ping Siegfried back into the present moment. “You drift­ed away.”

Siegfried groaned. 

He was annoyed that Mar­ius had inter­rupt­ed the mem­o­ry, but also grate­ful that he didn’t have to think about the days in which Will didn’t vis­it him in the hos­pi­tal or the sud­den dis­charge papers the acad­e­my served him soon after.

“Apolo­gies,” Siegfried said, shak­ing the thought away. He reached into his inside suit pock­et and pulled out a mag­ni­fy­ing glass. “I want to show you some­thing inter­est­ing here.” He tapped the page with the instrument’s round­ed edge. “We’re deal­ing with a chimera. Notice how the creature’s wings are drawn to resem­ble those of an insects, but the body is shaped—more or less—like a man’s.” He held the lens over the draw­ing. The creature’s chest area bulged into view. “See how the artist shad­ed the musculature?”

“It looks like medieval armor,” Mar­ius said, scoot­ing clos­er. His chair screeched against the stone floor. “Couldn’t this just be a man dressed as a knight?” 

It was a possibility. 

Ger­many, France, and Eng­land had exper­i­ment­ed with body armor through­out the war, but no one would be mad enough to wear such obso­lete and bur­den­some pro­tec­tion to a mod­ern bat­tle­field, espe­cial­ly with­out a helmet.

“I don’t think so,” Siegfried said. “Besides, the arms and legs are too long and thin for this thing to be human.”

“What­ev­er it is, it’s ter­ri­fy­ing,” Mar­ius said, trac­ing a fin­ger over the creature’s face. “What col­or do you think the eyes are?”

Siegfried shrugged. “I’d wager that they’re—”

A whiskey glass sud­den­ly sliced the air between the two men and crashed into the fire­place. The wood hissed and bright embers zipped out from the hearth like demon­ic hornets. 

“Red!” some­one growled. “The eyes were blood red.” 

Siegfried and Mar­ius turned toward the voice. A sol­dier wear­ing a tat­tered uni­form stood trem­bling a few feet away. His body rat­tled with cold, fear, or anger, maybe all at once. Siegfried couldn’t tell. 

“That’s the Dev­il you’re fawn­ing over! The American—”

“Pri­vate Roth!” A typ­ist shout­ed. “I thought you said that it was a troll?” 

Laugh­ter erupt­ed from every cor­ner of the house, leav­ing the crazed sol­dier stand­ing with his mouth open. One of the offi­cers stand­ing in front of the map turned and flicked a pin at the pri­vate. “I heard that Roth ran away from a huge fairy!”

“I didn’t run!” Roth growled. “You bas­tards don’t believe me, but I know what I saw. It was a giant—”

Before he could fin­ish, the front door swung open. Siegfried looked past Roth and focused on the men enter­ing the house. His heart jumped at the sight of Will tow­er­ing above the mus­ta­chioed offi­cers led by Gen­er­al Hutier. 

Every­one in the house stopped what they were doing and stood at atten­tion. Huti­er returned the ges­ture and cleared his throat. 

“I’ll need every­one, except my staff, Pro­fes­sor Engel and his assis­tant, and this…” Huti­er hissed, glar­ing at pri­vate Roth. “…mis­er­able excuse for an infantry­man to step out!”

With­in moments, the coun­try house was emp­tied and all Siegfried could hear was the crack­ling of burn­ing logs. 

“I see you’ve met pri­vate Thorsten Roth,” Gen­er­al Huti­er said, break­ing the silence. “Roth’s the artist behind the sketch you’ve been study­ing and the sole sur­vivor of the Cantigny mas­sacre.” Huti­er glared at the drunk pri­vate. “That’s the only rea­son we’ve let him get so pissed these past few nights.”

Huti­er con­tin­ued speak­ing, but Siegfried was too focused on William, stand­ing to the General’s right. He was as hand­some as he remem­bered, but age and the war had tak­en a toll on his friend’s appear­ance. William’s thick, brown hair had thinned and reced­ed into a sharp widow’s peak with streaks of white rac­ing along the tem­ples. Deep crow’s feet radi­at­ed from the corner’s of his kind, green eyes and his uni­form strained to con­tain a water­mel­on-sized paunch. 

William grinned and winked. 

Siegfried’s body warmed as if he had tak­en a dou­ble shot of schnapps. The love­ly feel­ing fiz­zled as the glint from the wed­ding band on William’s left hand caught Siegfried’s eye. 

Siegfried couldn’t believe what he was look­ing at. Slow­ly, he became aware of the General’s speech.

“…and mak­ing pri­vate Roth here sound like a lunatic blunt­ed the psy­cho­log­i­cal effect the mas­sacre had on the army. It was my idea to spread the rumor that the Amer­i­cans were using con­victs as shock troops as a way to explain the bru­tal nature of our boys’ deaths.” The gen­er­al snapped his fin­gers. “Pro­fes­sor Engel?”

Siegfried dragged his gaze away from William and stared at Huti­er. Unable to salute, he bowed slight­ly. “Thank you for hav­ing me, Gen­er­al. I hope to be of service.”

“You have Major Gräf to thank. He sug­gest­ed that you were the man for this mis­sion.” Hutier’s eyes set­tled on Siegfried’s right stump. He stroked his thick mus­tache and turned toward William. “You stand by this rec­om­men­da­tion, Major?” 

“Most cer­tain­ly.” William stepped for­ward and dropped a leather port­fo­lio onto the table. He opened the folio, reveal­ing clip­pings from Euro­pean occult peri­od­i­cals fea­tur­ing Siegfried’s accomplishments. 

Siegfried’s jaw dropped. After all these years, Will’s fol­lowed my career! 

“Pro­fes­sor Engle is one of the world’s fore­most para­nor­mal experts,” William said. He ges­tured for every­one to sit down at the table. “He’s been called on to con­sult all over the world, even America.”

Huti­er pursed his lips and nod­ded, as if approv­ing of Siegfried’s one­time vis­it to New York City. 

“That’s good to hear. Very well. I’ve always trust­ed your advice, Major.” Huti­er turned toward Roth. “Go on, pri­vate. Tell the pro­fes­sor what happened.”

Roth grasped the sides of his head. “Do I have to?”

“Do you want to make it home or…” Hutier’s hand reached into his coat pock­et and grasped his ser­vice revolver. “…should I put you out of your mis­ery right now?”

Tears welled in Roth’s eyes and his thin lips trembled. 

Huti­er pulled out the revolver and cocked back the hammer. 

“Gen­er­al, please!” Roth shout­ed, wip­ing away tears with the back of his hand. The pri­vate took a deep breath and poured him­self a dou­ble shot of whiskey, his eyes dart­ing from the glass to the General’s hand until the liquor near­ly over­flowed. “Sergeant Rudolph saw it first.”

Huti­er hol­stered his weapon. “Keep going, private.”

 “Rudy point­ed at a fig­ure sil­hou­et­ted against the full moon. At first, I thought it was an eagle, but it didn’t move. It just hov­ered there, high in the sky.”

“I remem­ber Rudy ask­ing me if I thought it was an obser­va­tion bal­loon. I want­ed to tell him that bal­loons didn’t have wings, but then that thing’s eyes glowed red.” Roth shiv­ered. “It must have been a hun­dred feet in the air, but we could all see those red orbs as if they were right in front of us.”

“Then what hap­pened?” Siegfried asked.

“It let out a god-awful screech. We all cov­ered our ears as it dropped from the sky like a god­damn shell.” Roth picked up a steak knife and imi­tat­ed the creature’s tra­jec­to­ry. “We thought it was going to land right in front of us, but then it lev­eled out at the last moment, slic­ing through our boys on the first pass.” Every­one flinched as Roth slashed through a trio of can­dles at the cen­ter of the table. “The poor bas­tards didn’t even know that they were dead until their heads tum­bled off their necks like loose boul­ders. There was so much blood.”

“My God,” Siegfried said.

“They were the lucky ones.” Roth knocked back the shot of whiskey. “That thing made anoth­er pass, land­ed, and ram­paged through the trench, gut­ting my friends with its claws.”

“Didn’t any­one fight back?” Siegfried asked. 

Roth nod­ded his head slow­ly. “A few of the boys took shots with their rifles, but the bul­lets missed their mark. I emp­tied a pis­tol clip at point blank range and missed.”

Siegfried closed his eyes and shook his head. “How’s that possible?”

“I don’t know, but that’s when I went over the para­pet. Fig­ured a bul­let was a bet­ter way to go than being ripped apart.” 

“Tell them what hap­pened next,” William said. 

“A bright, white flare went up from one of our com­mu­ni­ca­tion trench­es and the crea­ture flew up, chas­ing after it. I crawled back into our trench and passed out.” Roth looked toward the Gen­er­al. “Is that enough?”

Huti­er nod­ded and turned his atten­tion toward Siegfried. “We believe the attack last week was a tri­al run and that they’ll unleash the beast again. That’s why we need to find the crea­ture and kill it before it does any­more dam­age. I doubt that we’d be able to hide the creature’s exis­tence from our troops after anoth­er raid like that one.”

“Every­one would pan­ic and the front could col­lapse,” Siegfried said. 

“Exact­ly! An Amer­i­can vic­to­ry here would be dis­as­trous.” William said, cross­ing his arms. “We need to break the doughboys’s backs here, in Cantigny.”

Huti­er tapped one of the clip­pings on the table. “It says here that you tracked down a Yeti for the pre­mier of China.”

“Yes, I used a tech­nique called trav­el­ing clair­voy­ance.” Siegfried stopped, not­ing the General’s con­fused stare. “Some peo­ple call it teles­the­sia, but I prefer—”

Huti­er waved his hands. “I don’t much care for how you did it or what the technique’s called. All I want to know is, could you do it again?”

Siegfried beamed. “Gen­er­al, I’d be delight­ed to!”

#

Siegfried loved trav­el­ing clairvoyance. 

The tech­nique placed him in a dream-like world where he could track down any­thing with lit­tle more than a ver­bal descrip­tion. And thanks to Roth’s sto­ry and draw­ing, Siegfried had more than enough mate­r­i­al to locate Organ­ism 646. What­ev­er you are, you’re mine, Siegfried thought, plac­ing his palm over the sketch. 

“So, you just sit there and dream about the crea­ture?” Huti­er asked, stroking his mustache. 

“Gen­er­al, please!” Mar­ius snapped. His goi­ter jig­gled with anger. “Pro­fes­sor Engel needs to concentrate!”

Huti­er reached for his gun again and glared at Marius.

“For­give my assis­tant, Gen­er­al.” Siegfried said. “But he is right. I do need a few min­utes of unin­ter­rupt­ed silence to make this work.”

“Sir,” William said, ges­tur­ing toward the map on the wall. “Why don’t we go over Cantigny’s defens­es while Siegfried works?” 

“Very well, but I don’t like that assistant’s atti­tude,” Huti­er said, fol­low­ing William.

Siegfried exhaled, hap­py to be free from the General’s curi­ous gaze. Mar­ius wasn’t the most tact­ful per­son, but he always had Siegfried’s best inter­est at heart. Still, he’d have to talk to his assis­tant again about the virtues of han­dling clients, espe­cial­ly armed ones, with a vel­vet glove.

“Do you have every­thing you need, pro­fes­sor?” Mar­ius asked.

Siegfried nod­ded and closed his eyes. Slow­ly, the dark­ness shaped itself into a land­scape he nev­er thought he’d see as a civilian—No Man’s Land. The patch of land between the Ger­man and Amer­i­can sides was light­ly crat­ed and filled with knee-high wheat wav­ing back and forth in the evening air. 

Siegfried flinched as a dark shad­ow passed over him. He looked up and saw noth­ing, but heard the steady thrum­ming of large wings head­ing toward the Amer­i­can side. 

The crea­ture was swift, but in the dream world, Siegfried was faster. He took a step for­ward and watched the sur­round­ings blur as if he was a bul­let hurtling towards its target. 

Sat­is­fied with his progress, Siegfried stopped and faced the edge of a dense for­est. He glanced back­ward to see that he had crossed the front and trav­elled well beyond the enemy’s trench­es. A screech turned his atten­tion back toward the woods. 

“I’m com­ing for you,” Siegfried said. 

He stepped for­ward, trav­el­ing hun­dreds of meters through the thick copse. Siegfried stopped and faced an aban­doned mil­i­tary camp. He smiled at the sight. At the cen­ter stood an over­sized map pin slight­ly taller than him­self. It was a visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the creature’s exact loca­tion. All he need­ed to do was touch it to absorb the coor­di­nates and relay them back to Will once awake.

“Mis­sion accom­plished” Siegfried said, rais­ing his hand. His warped reflec­tion grinned back at him from the enor­mous black ball cap­ping the pin’s steel shaft. He flinched at the sound of branch­es snap­ping nearby.

Siegfried glanced in every direc­tion. Noth­ing. The dream for­est was devoid of all life except for his pres­ence, but when he turned back toward the pin he found him­self star­ing at a refec­tion of the crea­ture from Roth’s drawing. 

Siegfried stum­bled back­ward as Organ­ism 646 snarled from inside the dark­ness. Its sharp claws slashed at what appeared to be met­al bars. He knew that the image was just that—an image—but he still hes­i­tat­ed to touch the pin. 

“Do it for Will,” Siegfried said, forc­ing his hand upward. 

He jerked awake and lunged out of the chair, stum­bling toward the map of Cantigny. Siegfried shoved William and the Gen­er­al out of the way and point­ed at a patch of green near the bot­tom edge of the hang­ing parchment. 

“The Amer­i­cans have the crea­ture caged in the Cantigny for­est!” Siegfried plucked a pin from the wall and jammed it into the map. “There!”

“Well done, pro­fes­sor!” Huti­er said, clap­ping. “Now that we have these coor­di­nates, all we have to do is get you across No Man’s Land.”

Siegfried shook his head. “I can track these things, but I’m no mon­ster hunter!”

“You’re being mod­est,” Huti­er said. “William tells me that you have oth­er tal­ents. Spell work and such. And you’ve brought along a trunk full of tools, correct?”

“Yes, but look at me.” Siegfried raised his right arm and waved his stump. “I’m not a sol­dier anymore.”

Huti­er laughed, bray­ing like a donkey. 

“I’m not expect­ing you to kill the beast. I’m send­ing you and your assis­tant on a raid behind Amer­i­can lines with William and a two-man squad of our best Sturmtrup­pen.”

Siegfried’s jaw dropped. 

“They are what you would call, believ­ers. They’ve been briefed on the sub­ject and they’ll take care of the mon­ster.” Huti­er glanced at this wrist­watch. “In the mean­time, you have two hours to come up with a plan to get to the for­est with­out get­ting my men or your­self killed. Major Gräf here will prep you as best as he can. Won’t you, Major?”

“Yes, of course.” William said. He turned toward Siegfried and mouthed, I’m sor­ry.

#

How the hell did I get myself into this mess? Siegfried thought, strug­gling to keep up with William as they zig-zagged through a maze of com­mu­ni­ca­tion trenches. 

All he want­ed to do was speak to Will before the mis­sion start­ed. He didn’t under­stand why his best friend wouldn’t slow down. God only knew what would hap­pen to them once they were over the top. 

Siegfried bumped into a sol­dier walk­ing in the oppo­site direc­tion. “Watch where you’re going!” the man hissed.

“So sor­ry,” Siegfried said, mas­sag­ing his shoulder. 

The cloudy night didn’t help mat­ters. With no illu­mi­na­tion, Siegfried was less sure-foot­ed than usu­al and stopped often, wait­ing for Mar­ius to catch up. To be fair, his assis­tant lagged behind, weighed down by the wood­en foot­lock­er he car­ried that was filled with the unique charms they would need to get across ene­my lines.

The air smelled of burn­ing wood, sweat, and shit. It was qui­et too. Besides his own heart­beat and Marius’s labored breath­ing, all Siegfried could hear was the occa­sion­al pat­ter of machine gun fire or the thud­ding of shells in the far distance.

Siegfried flat­tened him­self on the ground as one of the pro­jec­tiles explod­ed a few yards away. Clods of dirt and rocks bounced off the one-size-too-large hel­met William insist­ed he wear. 

After a moment, the ring­ing in Siegfried’s ears fad­ed and he heard muf­fled foot­steps approach­ing. “Up you get,” William whispered.

Siegfried looked up to see Will offer­ing a hand. He took it and stood up.

“That was close,” Siegfried said, slap­ping dirt from his trousers.

“That was just a tick­le com­pared to bar­rages we’ve come under,” William said, turn­ing. “Come on, we’re close to the reserve trench and then it’s just a quick hop to—”

“Will? Could you please slow down!”

“…and before you know it, we’re at the front to meet with the team—” 

“Major Gräf!”

William stood rigid at the men­tion of his rank and sur­name. He turned and arched his eye­brows. The look remind­ed Siegfried of a dog’s who knows it’s about to receive a whipping.

It was now or never.

“Will, why didn’t you come find me after the acci­dent?” Siegfried asked, clutch­ing his right stump. “I wait­ed for so long.”

“You want to do this now?” William asked. His eyes dart­ed from side to side. “Here?”

“I think I deserve an answer after all these years.”

William pursed his lips and nodded.

“The fac­ul­ty knew about us, Sig­gy. About our meet­ings.” The word came out as a whis­per. “They made it clear that if I were to have any future in the mil­i­tary that I’d have to let you go.”

Siegfried stum­bled back­ward as if slapped. 

“That’s it? A sim­ple threat?” Siegfried croaked. “Is that all it took for you to aban­don me and our future? We had plans, Will! We were sup­posed to retire in Berlin!”

“For God’s sake! They were going to expose us, Siegfried! They had wit­ness­es, and the let­ters to our fam­i­lies were already writ­ten. We could have been jailed! It would have destroyed all of our lives.” Tears welled in William’s eyes. “What could I do?”

“You could have said, no.”

“I should have, but it wasn’t so sim­ple back then.” William grasped Siegfried’s shoul­ders. “You know how hor­ri­bly con­ser­v­a­tive the mil­i­tary is. It’s noth­ing like the com­mu­ni­ty we had out­side of the acad­e­my in Berlin!”

“I miss it so much,” Siegfried whis­pered. He placed a palm on William’s chest. “I missed you so much.” 

William grasped Siegfried’s hand and mas­saged his slen­der fin­gers. “I came look­ing for you in Held­burg after you were dis­charged, but no one, not even your fam­i­ly, knew where you had gone.” 

“I told you that there was noth­ing for me there.” Siegfried looked at the ground. “How long did you look?”

“For as long as I could, but then the army swal­lowed all the time in my life. It wasn’t until I came across that arti­cle about the Yeti that I even knew you were still alive. It didn’t take me long to track you down to Dresden.”

“And you couldn’t stop by and say hello?”

“Not with the war. My respon­si­bil­i­ties were here to my men.”

“And to her,” Siegfried said, glar­ing at Will’s wed­ding band.

“Her name’s Maria and you have no rea­son to be mad at her.”

Siegfried want­ed to hate the face­less woman who shared Will’s life now, but the anger roil­ing inside of him petered out. There real­ly wasn’t any rea­son to hold any mal­ice toward Maria, and Will had faced an impos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion twen­ty years ago. Did Siegfried protest his own, sud­den med­ical expul­sion? Would he have real­ly said no if their posi­tions were reversed? 

“I’m sor­ry, Siegfried,” William said. “I real­ly am, but what’s done is done.”

“I nev­er expect­ed to make it to the front lines at my age,” Siegfried said, meet­ing Will’s gaze. 

“I’m so sor­ry. I didn’t expect the Gen­er­al to vol­un­teer you like this. I’ll do every­thing I can to keep you safe.” Will sighed. “How’s that helmet?”

Siegfried laughed. “You know it’s too big for me, right?”

“I think it looks great paired with a suit,” William said. 

“You cheeky bas­tard,” Siegfried said. 

He didn’t want to for­give Will, but his heart had already decid­ed that he could let go of the bit­ter­ness and sad­ness that had haunt­ed him over the years. What choice did he have?

“The quick­er we find this thing, the quick­er we can get you back to safe­ty,” William said, look­ing around. “Where’s your assistant?”

Mar­ius turned the cor­ner and set the foot lock­er on the ground.

“How’s our car­go?” Siegfried asked.

Mar­ius squat­ted and pat­ted the top of the box. “They’re in good hands.”

#

Siegfried stood in front of two stone-faced stormtroop­ers. He couldn’t tell if they were angry or con­fused. Who could blame them? He just explained how he could make them invisible. 

Invis­i­ble! 

If he was in their shoes, would he have trust­ed a hand­i­capped occultist hold­ing a shriv­eled hand cov­ered in can­dle wax? Prob­a­bly not.

One of the sol­diers, the short­est of the two, wear­ing half a dozen stick grenades around his belt, stepped for­ward and point­ed the tip of a long trench knife at Siegfried. The mur­der­ous edge glint­ed in the dark. “You’re telling us that that trin­ket is going to get us across No Man’s Land with­out get­ting shot at?”

Siegfried looked to William, stand­ing to his side, for help or inter­ven­tion of some kind. Per­haps if the expla­na­tion came from their com­mand­ing offi­cer, they would sim­ply obey. No such luck. Instead, Will encour­aged Siegfried to con­tin­ue with the nod of his head.

Siegfried took a deep breath. 

“As I explained, a Hand of Glo­ry has the pow­er to ren­der the user unde­tectable,” Siegfried said, glanc­ing at the charm gripped in his fist. It was piti­ful looking—child-sized, the col­or of spoiled milk, and smelled like it too. No won­der the men were incred­u­lous. Still, he knew its pow­er. Siegfried raised his voice. “Once lit, the Amer­i­cans won’t be able to see you, allow­ing us to pass through their lines undetected.”

“That’s bull­shit!” 

“Pri­vate Eich­horn!” William snapped. He jabbed a fin­ger in the stormtrooper’s direc­tion. “Watch your tongue!” 

“But, Major!” Eich­horn said, sheath­ing the trench knife. “You’re ask­ing us to risk our lives on a raid behind Amer­i­can lines with this…” he glared at Siegfried. “…this magi­cian?”

Siegfried rolled his eyes. His mind strug­gled to find a bet­ter way to explain the charm’s pow­er, but the oth­er stormtroop­er, a svelte, blond man lean­ing against the trench exhaled deeply, dis­tract­ing him. 

“Eich­horn, my friend,” the man said. His pale skin seemed to glow against the dark, grey tunic he and his short­er com­pan­ion were wear­ing. “I would have thought a spir­i­tu­al­ist like your­self would have a more open mind.”

“What’s that sup­posed to mean, Koch?” Eich­horn said. 

William tilt­ed his head toward Siegfried and whis­pered, “That’s sergeant Wol­fram Koch. He does tarot read­ings for some of the senior staff.”

“You and I have seen things we can’t explain,” Koch said. “Your mum was a spir­it medi­um back in Frank­furt, just like mine.”

“So? So what?” Eich­horn said.

“We grew up sur­round­ed by seances, spir­its, and ecto­plasm—” Koch’s slate blue eyes widened. “Ecto­plasm, for God’s sake!”

Eich­horn sighed. “Ghosts are one thing. What this man’s talk­ing about goes against the laws of physics.”

If these men were raised by medi­ums, Siegfried thought, then there was only one way to con­vince them.

“A demon­stra­tion is in order!” Siegfried blurt­ed, plac­ing the Hand of Glo­ry into his assistant’s grip.

Mar­ius lit a match and held the danc­ing flame close to the wick pro­trud­ing from the appendage’s mid­dle fin­ger until the braid­ed cot­ton ignit­ed. Then, Mar­ius van­ished as if he was erased from existence.

The stormtroop­ers gasped. 

Siegfried grinned. 

“Any ques­tions?”

#

 Siegfried watched Eich­horn and Koch arm them­selves with shot­guns, pis­tols, knives, grenades, ammo, and hob­nail-stud­ded trun­cheons. He was impressed by how much they could fit in their hol­sters, pock­ets, or on their belts. But for all the weapon­ry, Siegfried thought, they’d be lim­it­ed to using a pis­tol while hold­ing a Hand of Glory.

“That went well, didn’t it?” William asked.

“Hon­est­ly, I thought those two were going to kill me,” Siegfried said, still look­ing at the stormtroopers. 

“They’re rough, but they are the best we have.”

“Do you think they can han­dle the crea­ture?” Siegfried asked, turn­ing toward William

“Eichhorn’s a beast him­self,” William said. “You should see him use that trench knife of his. I’ve seen him gut three French­men in a sin­gle stroke.”

Siegfried shiv­ered. 

“Here,” William said, pulling a pis­tol from his hip hol­ster. “Take this.”

“I haven’t fired a weapon since the acad­e­my,” Siegfried said, push­ing the weapon away with his left.

“Please, do it for me.” William said, press­ing the weapon against Siegfried’s chest. “Besides, you were always the best shot in our class.”

“Good thing I’m still left-hand­ed,” Siegfried said, slid­ing the pis­tol into his coat pocket. 

“We’re ready,” Koch said, draw­ing Will’s attention. 

“Do you still have that flare gun, sergeant?” Will asked.

Koch nod­ded, hand­ing the weapon over.

William opened the cham­ber and nod­ded approv­ing­ly. He jammed it into Siegfried’s waist belt. “Just in case.”

“What good are fire­works going to do?” Siegfried asked.

“It’s a sig­nal to send rein­force­ments if we need them. Use it if any­thing hap­pens to me or the men.”

Siegfried thought of the crea­ture from Roth’s draw­ing and hoped that it didn’t come to that. 

#

Siegfried fol­lowed Mar­ius up the lad­der. He envied how his assis­tant climbed the groan­ing rungs with­out break­ing a sweat. It was like watch­ing a moun­tain goat scam­per up a near-ver­ti­cal cliff.

I should have stayed in bet­ter shape, Siegfried thought, watch­ing Marius’s rump dis­ap­pear over the para­pet. The tal­low-col­ored light, vis­i­ble only to those with­in its pro­tec­tive spell, pulled away from Siegfried’s body like an uncooked egg slid­ing off a pan. 

He hoped Mar­ius had sense enough to stay close to the edge of the trench so that Siegfried’s head would stay hid­den as he made his way over the top.

“Hur­ry pro­fes­sor,” Mar­ius hissed, hold­ing the lit Hand of Glo­ry over the trench. Siegfried exhaled in relief as the halo enveloped him once again. He heard muf­fled laugh­ter as he grasped the final rung. 

“How long’s it going to take for grand­pa to climb a lad­der?” Eich­horn asked.

“Give the man a break,” Koch said. “He’s only got the one arm.”

It didn’t both­er Siegfried that the men were talk­ing about him. He’d grown used to insults and odd looks over the years. No, what trou­bled him the most was that he appeared so weak in front of Will. Siegfried grit­ted his teeth and dou­bled his efforts. He flopped over the edge of the trench and lay breath­ing heav­i­ly upon his back. 

William rushed to his aid, car­ry­ing a lit charm in one hand and a pis­tol in the other. 

“Don’t run so fast,” Siegfried hissed. He drew his knees up and pushed off with his good arm into a stand­ing posi­tion. “You’ll extin­guish the flame if you’re not careful.”

William nod­ded and marched back toward Eich­horn and Koch. The sol­diers stared out toward the Amer­i­can side and mar­veled at their new-found invisibility. 

Eich­horn waved at a machine gun nest on their side. “Not even our boys can see me.”

Siegfried turned in a cir­cle. The land­scape they stood upon looked exact­ly like what he had seen while using trav­el­ing clair­voy­ance with one major the difference—the smell. 

A putrid stench rose from the short stalks of wheat. The wind picked up, flat­ten­ing the thin reeds against the ground, reveal­ing the rot­ting remains of man­gled soldiers.

William sig­naled for every­one to move. 

“Here we go,” Siegfried mumbled 

The stormtroop­ers gig­gled like school chil­dren as they walked across the field. 

“Act like sol­diers, please,” William whis­pered. “Remem­ber what Pro­fes­sor Engel said. These charms only damp­en sounds.”

The troop­ers sobered up and marched for­ward. Siegfried fol­lowed close behind with Mar­ius by his side. The slate grey clouds above part­ed reveal­ing a beau­ti­ful half-moon. Feel­ing nos­tal­gic, Siegfried marched next to William with Mar­ius in tow.

“This feels like one of our walks back at the acad­e­my,” Siegfried whis­pered. “Don’t you think?”

“Yes, it’s just like the Kriegsakademien.” William sighed. “If it wasn’t for all the craters, bod­ies, and the stench of death, I’d think I was right there.”

There was a sharp edge to his friend’s response. Siegfried wor­ried that he had over­stepped by shar­ing such a per­son­al mem­o­ry with­in earshot of the men. 

William glanced at Siegfried. “I’m sor­ry. I just don’t like rem­i­nisc­ing about my life before—” he waved the pis­tol over the ruined land­scape. “—all of this.”

“I’m sor­ry. We should focus on get­ting to the for­est,” Siegfried said, let­ting William march forward.

As they neared the ene­my trench­es, Siegfried could hear Amer­i­can sol­diers talk­ing. Eich­horn and Koch crouched low­er as they approached, remind­ing Siegfried of stalk­ing wolves. He did his best to imi­tate their smooth, preda­to­ry move­ments. William ges­tured for every­one to jump into an unoc­cu­pied sec­tion of the trench. They obeyed and quick­ly climbed back out, eager to avoid envelop­ing a stray Amer­i­can with­in their mag­i­cal cloak.

Siegfried’s arms and legs were sore after repeat­ing the process through the mul­ti­ple lines of trench works. He exhaled in relief after cross­ing over the last ditch and faced the long line of pines and ash trees stand­ing like sentries. 

#

Siegfried trudged through the Cantigny for­est with Mar­ius, three car lengths behind William and the stormtroop­ers. He glanced at his wrist­watch and frowned. Siegfried had expect­ed to reach their des­ti­na­tion soon­er, but they were slowed by fre­quent ene­my patrols. 

Instead of march­ing past the Amer­i­cans, the Major ordered every­one to stop and let the rov­ing squads pass. 

“Do not engage!” William had hissed.

Siegfried sucked his teeth at the mem­o­ry. Will was being over-cau­tious and had cost their hunt­ing par­ty an hour or more in delays. They had more than enough time to reach the camp, but Siegfried won­dered if they’d stay cloaked long enough to kill the crea­ture and make it back to their lines. 

Siegfried glanced at the charm clutched in Marius’s hand and sighed in relief. 

“Not to wor­ry, pro­fes­sor. The Hand’s burned down just to the mid­dle knuck­les,” Mar­ius said, glean­ing Siegfried’s thoughts. “We have three, maybe four, hours of invis­i­bil­i­ty left.” 

A loud crack echoed through the for­est. Siegfried’s head snapped for­ward. William raised his fist in the air and kneeled. Eich­horn and Koch did the same and aimed their weapons.

“What’s going on?” Mar­ius asked.

“Get down,” Siegfried hissed, turn­ing his head in every direc­tion. He hoped to find the source of the now-fad­ing sound, but all he spied were the faint out­lines of sand­bag-cov­ered mounds rim­ming the edge of the camp. 

Machine gun nests? 

Cold sweat drib­bled down Siegfried’s back. He won­dered how quick death by machine gun fire would be. Then he remem­bered that no one could see him.

“Come on! Move up!” William said, wav­ing for Siegfried and Mar­ius to catch up. 

Mar­ius shrugged his shoul­ders. “Must be safe.”

“If Will’s not wor­ried, then I’m not,” Siegfried said, walk­ing for­ward. As he approached Will’s posi­tion, it became clear why he was so confident—everyone in the camp was dead.

#

We should have brought more men,” Siegfried said, gaz­ing at the heaps of pale corpses lit­ter­ing the Amer­i­can camp. Dark smoke curled from charred can­vas tents and the smol­der­ing remains of a pea-green Cadil­lac staff car rest­ing on its side like a slaugh­tered bear. 

Siegfried flinched as Koch placed a hand on his shoul­der. “It’s no Mer­cedes, but it’s still a damn shame.” 

“I’d pre­fer to lament the dead,” Siegfried said, pulling away from the stormtrooper. 

Dis­mem­bered with a butcher’s pre­ci­sion, the mas­sa­cred dough­boys resem­bled bro­ken man­nequins on a grotesque, dis­count show­room floor. Blood oozed from the steam­ing mounds, car­pet­ing the ground like liq­uid vel­vet, adding to the effect.

“There’s more,” Mar­ius said, gaz­ing at the canopy where dozens of dis­em­bow­eled sol­diers were left hang­ing from the trees, their intestines draped over limbs like exot­ic jun­gle vines. 

Eich­horn shuf­fled next to Siegfried, mouth open as if he were scream­ing. Koch had the same look. 

“What the hell have we walked into, Major?” Eich­horn croaked.

“A plum duty assign­ment,” William said, shoul­der­ing past the men. “Come on, we still have to find the crea­ture that did this and kill it.”

“With what?” Koch asked, shak­ing his pis­tol. “Look at what hap­pened here! These cap guns aren’t going to do anything.” 

“We’ve got plen­ty of grenades and the two of you have shot­guns as back up. Besides…” William said, ges­tur­ing with his Hand of Glo­ry. “That thing won’t see us com­ing. We have the ele­ment of—”

William yelped as a hand burst from a near­by heap of bod­ies and grasped his ankle.

#

Get the hell off me!” The young Amer­i­can screamed as the stormtroop­ers pulled him free. 

To Siegfried, their new cap­tive looked more like a fer­al wild man than a sol­dier. He fought like one too. After exchang­ing punch­es, Koch rammed a fist into the doughboy’s bel­ly, caus­ing him to fall to his knees. 

“Final­ly,” William said. 

Koch squat­ted next to the man and snatched the iden­ti­ty disc hang­ing from his neck. “Here you go, Major,” he said, toss­ing the coin-sized tag.

William snatched it from the air and read off the name. “Pri­vate Nico­las Burn­side.” He turned to Siegfried. “I want you to talk to him and find out as much as you can.”

“My Eng­lish is rub­bish,” Siegfried said.

“Do your best,” William said, turn­ing his atten­tion back toward Nico­las. “I want to know everything.”

The skin­ny, blood-cov­ered dough­boy resumed his resis­tance and flopped on the ground in a vain effort to break free. Eich­horn reme­died the sit­u­a­tion by twist­ing the man’s arm behind his back and lift­ing him up to a stand­ing position. 

“Would you please calm down?” Eich­horn growled into the man’s ear.

 Siegfried doubt­ed that the stormtrooper’s gruff request—in Ger­man no less—would be met with com­pli­ance and when their new cap­tive stomped on Eichhorn’s foot, he couldn’t help but smile. 

“Pri­vate Nico­las Burn­side, please stop!” Siegfried shout­ed in English.

The Amer­i­can stopped resist­ing and Eich­horn loos­ened his grip.

“We’re not here to hurt you,” Siegfried said, plac­ing a hand on the private’s shoulder. 

“Real­ly?” Nicolas’s eyes focused on the glow­ing Hands of Glo­ry nes­tled in the grass in a semi­cir­cle behind Siegfried. “Then why’d you Heinies chop off those hands and light them on fire?”

“I sup­pose that does deserve an expla­na­tion,” Siegfried said. “Take a knee, private”

#

So you’re sure that no one can see us right now?” Nicolas’s eyes dart­ed from side to side. “Not even that thing?”

Siegfried flinched. For a moment, he had for­got­ten about the dead­ly crea­ture lurk­ing in the forest. 

“We’re per­fect­ly safe,” Siegfried said, pat­ting Nicolas’s knees. He took out Roth’s draw­ing from his inside coat pock­et, won­der­ing if the Hands would actu­al­ly keep them hid­den. Siegfried shook the thought away and hand­ed the sheet to Nico­las. “Is this the thing that killed your comrades?”

The young man’s eyes widened. 

“Yeah, that’s it,” Nico­las said, hand­ing the sheet back to Siegfried. The paper rat­tled like a Fall leaf in the young man’s quiv­er­ing hand.

“What is it?” Siegfried asked.

“Evil,” Nico­las whis­pered, hug­ging him­self. “Pure evil.”

“Where did it come from?” Siegfried asked. 

“Top brass dug him out from back home,” Nico­las said. 

“Where exact­ly is that?” Siegfried asked. 

“Point Pleas­ant.”

Siegfried frowned. His knowl­edge of Amer­i­can geog­ra­phy was lim­it­ed to 23rd street in New York City where he per­formed a con­scious­ness trans­fer at the grand Mason­ic Hall. 

“That’s in West Vir­ginia,” Nico­las said with a chuck­le. “We’re not as famous as Paris or Berlin yet.”

“Not to wor­ry, my hometown’s just as obscure,” Siegfried said. “But we are known for our delicious—”

“Pro­fes­sor Engel,” William said, clear­ing his throat. “We need to move things along, please.” 

Siegfried’s guts twisted. 

When they were at the acad­e­my, Will addressed him by last name or rank only when he was dis­ap­point­ed with him. Hear­ing him say, pro­fes­sor soured his nerves. 

“Right. So sor­ry, Major,” Siegfried said. He turned back toward Nico­las. “Tell me more about this creature.”

“Why?” Nico­las scoffed. 

“We’re here to kill it,” Siegfried said. 

Nico­las cack­led, throw­ing his head back. “That thing ripped this camp apart in min­utes! Over a hun­dred sol­diers!” He wiped his eyes and glared at the men stand­ing behind Siegfried. “How long do you think your boys will last?”

“What the hell did he just say?” Eich­horn asked.

“Some­thing about a hun­dred men, I think,” Koch said. 

Siegfried waved his hand, shoo­ing the stormtroop­ers away. He didn’t dare trans­late Nicolas’s out­burst. Instead, he focused on anoth­er mys­tery tug­ging at his mind.

“How did your side man­age to con­trol the crea­ture?” Siegfried asked.

Nico­las shook his head. “I don’t think they ever had the Moth­man under control.”

“The Moth­man,” Siegfried repeat­ed. “What a won­der­ful name.”

“You sound like you’re in love,” Nico­las said, glanc­ing in every direc­tion. “You’ll change your tune if it comes back.”

The hairs on Siegfried’s neck stiffened. 

“I’m sure of it,” Siegfried said. “Still. I have to know. Do you have any idea how your supe­ri­ors direct­ed the Moth­man? Did they use an incan­ta­tion or—”

“How the hell should I know?” Nico­las blurt­ed out. “I’m just a pri­vate. They don’t tell me noth­ing.” He crossed his arms and spit at the ground. “Fuck­ing army.” 

“We’re run­ning out of time. Ask him how he sur­vived,” William said. 

Nico­las glanced at the Major. “What your boss say?”

“He wants to know how you sur­vived,” Siegfried said. 

Nico­las rubbed his chest. Siegfried could see a sil­ver chain around the private’s neck wrig­gle against his clam­my skin. 

A cross, perhaps?

“I reck­on I got lucky is all,” Nico­las said.

A branch cracked. Siegfried looked up and saw a dark shape glide from tree to tree, knock­ing sev­er­al limbs loose.

“What is that?” Siegfried asked, strug­gling to track the crea­ture through the for­est amidst the falling debris.

“What do you think?” Nico­las whispered. 

The dark fig­ure dart­ed out of view.

“Where’d it go?” William asked.

Eich­horn screamed. 

Siegfried turned his head just in time to see the pri­vate pulled from the ground and dis­ap­pear into the treetops.

Were those claws squeezed around his shoulders?

Eichhorn’s leather belt, stud­ded with grenades, fell to the ground fol­lowed by a stream of blood and the low­er half of his tor­so. Siegfried wretched at the sight of the man’s legs pump­ing in the air as if they were run­ning on sol­id earth.

“Paul!” Koch screamed, fir­ing into the treetops.

“What the hell was that?” William asked, aim­ing his pistol. 

“So much for your Hands of Glo­ry, pro­fes­sor,” Nico­las said. “We should get out of here. That thing likes to play with its food.”

“What did he say?” William asked.

“That we should run,” Siegfried said, wip­ing spit and vom­it from his mouth with the back of his hand. “That thing can see us!”

“No, we stay here and kill it,” William shout­ed. “Every­one stay–”

Before he could fin­ish a dark shad­ow whirled around the trees sur­round­ing the camp, slic­ing the tops off. The ground shook as the tim­ber crashed to the ground.

“Fuck this!” Koch said, run­ning back toward where they entered. 

Siegfried watched Koch dis­ap­pear into the for­est, fol­lowed by Mar­ius. William grabbed Siegfried and Nico­las by the back of their coat col­lars and pushed them forward. 

“Run!” He shouted. 

#

Siegfried’s lungs burned. 

Had he been run­ning for min­utes or hours? He couldn’t tell. All he want­ed to do was stop, but the crea­ture screeched some­where above, hid­den by thick, inter­laced branch­es. Its wild calls sound­ed like a cross between a freight train and a squeal­ing hog. 

Siegfried and his com­pan­ions dropped to ground as the beast swooped low, whizzing past their heads. Nico­las was right—it was toy­ing with them. Siegfried glanced around and noticed that the Amer­i­can was missing.

“Where’d Nico­las go?” Siegfried shouted.

“Who cares? We’re almost through!” William said, point­ing toward the edge of the for­est where a few lights in the enemy’s trench works glint­ed through the thick­et. Inspired by the sight, Siegfried pulled ahead of Mar­ius and Koch, but stopped when a sharp whistling sound filled the air. 

“Get down!” William screamed. 

A small cylin­dri­cal object, the size of a small child, crashed in front of Siegfried, the per­cus­sive impact toss­ing him back­ward. Koch ran to Siegfried’s aid and pulled him to his feet. 

“You lucky bas­tard. It’s a dud!” Koch said, laughing.

Siegfried pushed Koch away and walked toward the strange object. Pul­sat­ing veins streaked its shiny, black sur­face and two red orbs glowed from some­where with­in its center. 

“Care­ful, pro­fes­sor,” Koch said, wip­ing his sweaty brow. “That’s live ammo.”

Siegfried shook his head. He had fired enough artillery pieces as a cadet to know that the thing in front of him was no shell. Wisps of white steam hissed from a diag­o­nal seam run­ning down the object. The two lay­ers quiv­ered and then part­ed, reveal­ing the Moth­man squat­ting upon the ground with long arms wrapped around its shiny body. It stood and unfurled its saw-edged wings.

Koch tugged at Siegfried’s elbow, “Get back, pro­fes­sor. It’s…”

“It’s beau­ti­ful,” Siegfried whis­pered, mar­veling at the red cres­cents dec­o­rat­ing the cen­ters of the Mothman’s fore and hind wings. Moon­light glint­ed off tiny scales coat­ing the flap­ping appendages. Siegfried raised his hand, block­ing a dizzy­ing spec­trum of col­ors refract­ing from the crea­ture. The dis­play remind­ed Siegfried of the Notre Dame’s mag­nif­i­cent stained-glass win­dows on a bright, sun­ny morning. 

I won­der if I’ll ever see Paris again?

“Pro­fes­sor!” Koch shout­ed, snap­ping Siegfried back to the present moment. “Get the hell away from it!”

The Moth­man chit­tered, sound­ing like an enor­mous cica­da. Siegfried focused on its face where a pair of crim­son orbs glowed at the cen­ter of a roil­ing, inky-black cloud where its head should have been. 

“You’re block­ing my shot!” Koch said, aim­ing his pistol. 

Siegfried stepped back­ward and the Moth­man mir­rored the professor’s slow, but mea­sured steps. Its thin, spurred hind legs bare­ly dis­turbed the leaf-lit­tered ground.

“You’re beau­ti­ful,” Siegfried said, admir­ing the creature’s mus­cu­lar, obsid­i­an-black body. The plat­ed exoskele­ton resem­bled ancient Samu­rai armor and jan­gled like coins in a linen sack. Siegfried real­ized that poor Eich­horn was right—their pis­tols wouldn’t put a dent in the beast. 

“Use your shot­gun, Koch!” Siegfried said, step­ping to the side. 

Koch dropped the pis­tol and reached for the more pow­er­ful weapon slung behind his back. The creature’s head turned from side to side, track­ing both men, black smoke trail­ing its amor­phous head. Its red eyes nar­rowed to dag­ger-thin slits.

Koch aimed and fired.

The Moth­man chirped like a baby bird. 

Was it laughing?

“It’s not pos­si­ble,” Koch mumbled. 

Siegfried’s gaze dart­ed between the con­fused stormtroop­er and the strange sight in front of him: dozens of ball bear­ings hov­er­ing in the air between Koch and the crea­ture, sus­pend­ed by some unseen force. 

The Moth­man walked for­ward with out­stretched claws and part­ed the float­ing ammu­ni­tion as if it was a bead­ed cur­tain, the pel­lets clink­ing against its chiti­nous skin. 

Koch turned to run, but the Moth­man sprang for­ward, sink­ing a claw into his back. Before Koch could scream, the crea­ture pulled out a sec­tion of spinal cord. Blood sprayed from the wound as Koch col­lapsed, show­er­ing the beast in a thick, crim­son shower. 

A few drops pat­tered against Siegfried’s face. Then, a sen­sa­tion he hadn’t felt since he was a child spread across the front of his pants. He tapped his crotch and looked at his glossy palm. 

“I…I pissed myself.”

“I did the same thing the first time I saw Dhu al-Qar­nayn at work,” a voice said in English.

Siegfried’s stom­ach tight­ened as Nico­las stepped from behind the crea­ture. An acorn-shaped charm dan­gled from a sil­ver chain in his fist. He held it up and opened his mouth into a wide O. Froth bub­bled around his cracked lips fol­lowed by a series of squeaks and squeals. The Moth­man squat­ted in response. 

Bas­tard lied! He knows how to con­trol it! 

“You’d be amazed at what the Two-Horned One is capa­ble of,” Nico­las said, wip­ing his mouth. “So long as you know the commands.”

Nico­las stretched open his maw again and the Moth­man crept for­ward. Siegfried focused on its red eyes in a last-ditch effort to com­mu­ni­cate with the beast using trav­el­ing clair­voy­ance. Siegfried’s mind con­nect­ed with the beast and he found him­self float­ing high above an enor­mous steel bridge. Strange cars, the likes he’d nev­er seen before, rum­bled across the span. 

Is this the future? He wondered.

The sound of his name shook him out of the spell. Siegfried blinked and saw William tack­le the crea­ture. They top­pled to the ground, entwined like Olympic wrestlers with the Major on the creature’s back. The Moth­man tried to shake him loose, but Will held on, sink­ing the length of a trench knife into a gap in the creature’s armored neck.

The Moth­man bolt­ed upright and roared, send­ing William fly­ing off. He land­ed with a thud and gasped for air. 

“Will!” Siegfried screamed, scram­bling to his feet. 

The crea­ture flut­tered its wings, ris­ing to the air. It hov­ered over William’s supine body, releas­ing white pow­der from the red cres­cents dec­o­rat­ing its paper-thin appendages.

The flakes plum­met­ed toward Will’s face as if they were made of lead. William screamed and pound­ed the ground with his arms and legs as lesions bub­bled and popped across his skin. Siz­zling, green puss arced through the air like minia­ture sig­nal flares. 

“Siegfried! I’m so sor­ry!” William man­aged to gur­gle before his head lost all shape and col­lapsed inward like a rot­ted melon. 

Siegfried fell to his knees and sobbed.

“We need to go now, pro­fes­sor,” Mar­ius yelled, try­ing to pull Siegfried to a stand­ing posi­tion. Whis­tles and the sound of approach­ing boots filled the air. “The Amer­i­cans are coming!”

“Is your friend wor­ried that we’ll be inter­rupt­ed?” Nico­las asked, squat­ting over Will’s decom­pos­ing body. He stood and raised the charm over his head. “Don’t wor­ry. No one can see us, unless I want them to.”

Siegfried pulled out the gun that William had giv­en him from his coat pock­et and aimed at the Mothman. 

“Haven’t you been pay­ing atten­tion?” Nico­las asked. “You can’t hurt him.”

The smarmy bas­tard was right, Siegfried thought. The crea­ture was pro­tect­ed by pow­er­ful mag­ic, but Nico­las wasn’t. Siegfried fired. The shot oblit­er­at­ed Nicolas’s hand and the charm. The young man fell to his knees and stared at his man­gled appendage. 

The Moth­man squealed. Siegfried watched as the creature’s dark body fad­ed to a dull gray and shriv­eled. Deep cracks appeared all over its exoskele­ton. It looked as if it had aged a hun­dred years. 

“Even if you kill him,” Nico­las yelled. “There’s anoth­er one grow­ing back home! It’ll be ready to hatch in 45 years! You’ve met the runt of the lit­ter. Imag­ine what its—”

Siegfried fired again, strik­ing Nico­las in the fore­head. His body con­vulsed before top­pling backward. 

The Moth­man roared and loped for­ward. Its flut­ter­ing wings pro­pelled it across the for­est floor with amaz­ing speed. Siegfried fired at the blur­ry fig­ure, strik­ing it in the chest, caus­ing it to fall to the ground, just a few feet in front of him. 

Siegfried exhaled in relief. 

What­ev­er pro­tec­tive spell the Moth­man enjoyed was now gone, thank­ful­ly. Out of ammo, Siegfried searched for anoth­er weapon. He spied Koch’s shot­gun, but it was too far away. Then he remem­bered the flare gun. He fired just as the crea­ture stood. The hiss­ing flare smashed into its wings and ignit­ed. The Moth­man screeched and swung its arms wild­ly as flames con­sumed its body.

Mar­ius pulled Siegfried away from the crea­ture and relit what was left of his Hand of Glo­ry just as dozens of Amer­i­cans appeared. The sol­diers stood dumb­found­ed at the bizarre sight.

“What the hell is that?” One man shouted.

An offi­cer respond­ed by fir­ing his rifle at the burn­ing Moth­man, blow­ing apart its head. The rest of the squad opened fire send­ing chunks of flam­ing, gray armor spi­ral­ing into the air. The Mothman’s body jerked from side to side until it final­ly col­lapsed in a burn­ing heap.

The dough­boys cir­cled the crea­ture as it burned out. A few sol­diers exam­ined the bod­ies near­by. Siegfried lunged for­ward as an Amer­i­can pri­vate kicked at William’s corpse. 

“Pro­fes­sor, please don’t,” Mar­ius said, hold­ing him back. “The Major saved your life. Don’t throw it away now. We can still get back.”

Siegfried knew that Mar­ius was right, but he didn’t want to leave William’s body behind. If they wait­ed long enough, Siegfried thought, then they might be able to drag William back to their lines. Bright white flares hissed through the air fol­lowed by the sound of more Amer­i­can troops approaching. 

Siegfried screamed into the crook of his arm. 

“Pro­fes­sor,” Mar­ius said. “It’s time to go.”

Siegfried nod­ded and walked with his assis­tant. As they approached the first lines of trench works, Siegfried turned back toward for­est and whis­pered, “Good­bye, Will.”

###

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Luis Pare­des (he/him) is a spec­u­la­tive fic­tion writer and author of Out On a Limb, an urban noir fantasy.

His genre-blend­ing work appears in Tan­gled Web Mag­a­zine, the Kaidankai Hor­ror Pod­cast, Crow & Cross Keys, Black Sheep: Unique Tales of Ter­ror and Won­der, Max Blood­’s Mau­soleum, and Tall Tale TV.

Luis’s first full-length hor­ror nov­el, Head­hunters, debuts Fall 2024 from Platy­pus Book Press.

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