An Excerpt from
Wolves of War -
A John Hartman Novel
Darkness filled the ancient woodland, permeating everything around Hartman just as much as the frigid air chilled him to the bone. Nothing about his slow, quiet trek through the forest felt pleasant, and a sense of foreboding hung heavily in the air, tempting him to abandon his mission and start hoofing it back to France. It wasn’t the first time he longed to be back with the regular Army, taking it to the Jerries in a straight fight, but this was different. John just couldn’t shake the pervasive dread he felt as he ventured deeper into the German wood.
He shouldn't be alone out here. It was one thing to undertake a solo operation, a task he had accomplished many times in the past. But this time, he was supposed to have a guide with him who knew the woods better than he, but his contact failed to show up at the designated rendezvous. Maybe the he had gotten held up by German soldiers, or maybe he had to hunker down somewhere. After a while, John decided he couldn’t wait any longer, steeled himself and went on with the operation.
For the fourth or fifth time, John wished he’d procured a heavy coat to keep the damp cold at bay. He found a tiny break in the eldritch canopy, through which shined a beam of pale light from the full moon overhead. He stood in this welcome dispeller of darkness long enough to unfold his map and become certain of his bearings. He had only a few miles left to traverse until he broke from the forest into the open where he would have little protection from watchful German eyes, and yet, he would breathe more easily once free from this place.
A shiver ran through Hartman, and he thought, Damn, it’s cold! He began to fold the map back into itself, but his hands seemed to slow with each progressive crease. Surely, they were cold, but it wasn’t the near freezing night air that made them react so. He slipped the map into a jacket pocket, and his motion slowed to a complete halt. He stood perfectly still, and the hair on his neck and arms would have stood on end were it not for his appropriated German uniform.
Narrow set, disembodied red eyes materialized out of the gloom some distance in front of him, seeming to glow with an inner, baleful light. They hovered perhaps a foot off of the ground, but Hartman couldn’t for the darkness be sure if they were five feet ahead of him or twenty five. He knew only that he stood transfixed by that hellish glare, apparently frozen to inaction while they regarded him. He needed to act, draw a pistol and shoot at those eyes, ready a knife, something, but his limbs wouldn’t obey his brain’s commands. The entire encounter felt eerily familiar. He had been in some freezing German wood at some point before and had seen those eyes there and then as well, but this was also different. Hartman was alone, and the darkness and cold were all pervasive, not simply offensive to the senses. And there was only one set of eyes, though he remembered, on that other occasion that other attackers had come at him from the sides.
Hartman broke his paralysis just in time to see a silver and black streak from the right as it caromed off of the back of his legs. The energy from the blow knocked him off balance, and it was only his superb athleticism that kept him from tumbling to the forest floor. Just as he regained his footing, another rush of dark motion attacked from the other direction, but this one drew blood. A fierce snapping of unseen jaws severed tendons in his left leg, causing Hartman to collapse, and as he clutched the wounded limb, warm, steaming blood coated his hands.
Either out of a preternatural sense or pure luck, he managed to get his left forearm up just as a huge wolf of silver and black lunged at him. A mouth of wicked, yellowed teeth opened wide in anticipation, and Hartman wedged his arm as far into the mouth as he could. Like a dog whose chewing bone had gone too far backward, the wolf chomped its jaws trying to dislodge him. The power of those jaws wrought tremendous pain, and Hartman felt the teeth puncture the skin of his arm even through the layers of his jacket and sleeve. But it also bought him precious moments. His free hand reached for his knife, but before he could find it, another beast charged from his right. This canine minion of Hell he caught by the neck, and it took all of his might just to hold the thing at bay as it snapped at his face, rancid carrion breath caressing his face. If he could somehow manage to get his legs underneath the creature in front of him, perhaps he could launch the beast just far enough to access his knife or gun. Then, he could turn this fight around.
This glimmer of hope flickered in his mind only to be extinguished in an instant as a third monstrous wolf stood less than a foot away to his left, mouth agape and tongue hanging low out of its mouth. It panted softly, but seemingly out of anticipation rather than exhaustion, and Hartman knew he couldn’t hold this one off; he was simply out of arms. It lunged toward his face, and all he could see was teeth and then darkness as the wolf’s jaws clamped around his face.
Hartman bolted upright, his clothes and the bedsheets of the hospital bed soaked in sweat. As his heart and breathing gradually slowed, his head cleared so that he could regain his bearings. Two nurses moved around the room, drawing back curtains to allow in the first rays of the autumn sun, which told Hartman it was around seven in the morning. There were only six men in the score of beds in the room, and of them all, he was the only one unwounded. He was vaguely aware of a rifle toting guard that stood in a gray uniform next to the room’s entrance.
One of the nurses glared his direction as he watched them, and as she made her way across the room to his bedside, he reached down and rubbed at his ankle, which was shackled to the metal frame of the bed. She stood to his right in her uniform - a dress of narrow, vertical white and blue stripes under an apron of white. Her collar, also white, contrasted against the dress, and was pinned closed severely by an emblem of the Third Reich. A black German eagle clutched a red cross in its talons, though the cross had been extended and resembled an inverted Christian cross.
“Gut morning. Nachtmares?” she asked in a hodge-podge of English and German. She wasn’t pretty in the least, but she hadn’t been unfriendly to him despite their nations’ adversarial nature.
“Es ist nichts,” Hartman replied in perfect German, “Danke.”
“Nothing? It’s nothing you say? You come into my country, my Fatherland, and kill my sons and brothers, and it is nothing?” she asked, her English becoming clearer though accented. Her eyes began to glow with an unholy red light as she continued, “You come here to fight a war that doesn’t belong to you. You kill thousands of good men and deprive the Fatherland what we are owed by right. You do not know what you face, what this Old World can unleash upon you!”
She seemed to grow as she spoke, her uniform tearing at the seams as her bones popped and elongated. By the end of her tirade, her words were nearly unintelligible as her human mouth reformed to that of a wolf’s toothy maw under bright red, demonic eyes. Hair, fur of silver and black had sprouted across every inch of her, and razor sharp claws extended from each of her fingers. The room grew dark, as if her very presence alone blotted out the light of the rising sun.
John shouted in alarm and leapt out of the bed as if a great spring had been compressed underneath him, except the shackle around his ankle prevented him from going too far. His back slammed hard onto the cold floor, and he would’ve cracked the back of his skull as well were it not for his flailing arms somehow breaking his fall. His leg remained suspended in the air, attached as it was to the bedframe, with the hospital bed acting as the only barrier between Hartman and the monstrosity.
“Captain Hartman?” a worried voice said in his ear, and cool hands cradled his sweaty face. “Captain Hartman, wake up.”
John Hartman blinked his eyes and shook his head once to dispel and clear away the fading image. He indeed lay on a cool floor, but it was that of the Army field hospital in France. His left leg was propped up on his bed, his ankle wrapped up in bedsheets so twisted to be as strong as thick rope. The room was dimly lit, except for the warmth of a soft glow emanating from the hallway beyond the door. Somewhere in the next room, he heard a muffled announcer’s voice calling a baseball game. It sounded like the World Series that just ended two days ago with the St. Louis Cardinals beating the St. Louis Browns.
“Captain Hartman are you all right?” the brown haired night nurse asked.
“I’m fine,” he replied with a hardened face as she helped him stand and get back into bed.
“You know, I could find something to help you sleep,” she offered, likely referring to whiskey or some other such spirits; being an officer had its privileges.
“No, thank you very much,” he replied as he laid his head backward to stare wide awake at the ceiling. “I’ve slept enough.”