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They called him Crazy Ivan. Behind his back. To his face it was Nikolai. Always Nikolai. Once, some years past, I witnessed Nikolai murdering a guard. Nikolai was manacled. He strangled him, crushed his throat like a paper tube. Nearly severed the head. So violent. So efficient. So impressive. About two seconds this took, and nobody ever saw. In the midst of a gulag riot it occurred. Many suspected but none knew, not for sure. Except me, and I did not talk. You didn’t talk. You don’t. But that was before the war. Before Nikolai took the devil Stalin’s pardon and fought. The Great Patriotic War. Before the schism and blood-birth of the two factions. The Vor and suka. Thief and bitch. Before the Suka Wars raged in the gulags from Siberia to St. Petersburg. A purging. Two wars. Inside and out. And Nikolai had survived both. He was different. To look upon him was to know this. Forget that he turned suka. Forget the stories. And there are many. The man had seen and committed more killings, more atrocities than both of us combined. And this, I am telling, is no mean feat. His story. A ridged script etched in scar tissue upon his flesh. He had been hammered into something so compact and solid he appeared made of iron. A real girevik. Nikolai. Crazy Ivan. A killer born. And that before Berlin. Kursk. Even Stalingrad. Over thirty nine murdered since, they whisper. Amidst the Great Patriotic War? Double it. And no telling before. What was it he claimed he was then? A butcher? Well, a butcher he was still.
Suffice it to say he was dangerous. A more dangerous man I could not conceive.
That is not why we killed him.
That is why we killed him first.
Halfway to the Sevvostlag gulag our prisoner transport smashed something a glancing blow, shanked off the road then tumbled down an embankment and into the bed of a stream. The water was not deep or we would have all been dead. As it were, only most of us were dead. Ten prisoners. One guard. Our chains restricted movement. To some degree. The communal chain round our ankles bound us together and to the carrier. But it was broken in places. Manacles bound our wrists. I heard grunts and sobbing when I came to. I was not out long. The man next to me was my old cellmate. He was decapitated when the carrier rolled to a stop on its side, though his body was somehow pristine. His head had been thrust out the side of the carrier, its walls being but canvas. I did not know his name. I did not care.
“Comrade.” Someone whispered. “Semion.” My name…and then a cough.
“Frisk?” I whispered. Jesus, it was Frisk, another Vor. A foul pig of a man, but a Vor nonetheless, and so by thieves’ law my brother. But was I his? I rose, extricating myself from a tangle of chain and bloody limb. Frisk hobbled to my side. Chains clinked. He pointed past me and I turned. In the darkness I saw what he pointed at. Comprehended. Nikolai lay amidst a pile of other prisoners. Vor and suki and political. A tangle of bodies and limbs that moved sluggish like a bed of drunken worms. Some did not move. Most. A flap of skin the size of a pig’s ear lay open on Nikolai’s head, skull gleaming crimson slickness beneath.
“Yeah.” It was all I had to say. Frisk and I had no love for one another but in this we were of one mind. One word, that is all it took. Nikolai would die. He must. Many had tried. All had failed. Frisk slapped a shiv into my open palm as another appeared in his right. There might never be another time. I pounced upon Nikolai the next instant, my shiv disappearing into his side and Frisk was beside me there for a step then disappeared. I stabbed again. And again. Kept stabbing. Jabbing.
Nikolai said nothing. This man, a grunt is all he offered in recognition of being shanked. A grunt. That was all. What he did was considerably more.
Lightning. He moved like it. Dazed, blinded by a river of blood, injured, maybe dying even, who can say? Nikolai brought hell like a fucking demon. Even as my shiv rose a huge fist staggered me. Iron fingers rasped my face, his thumb penetrating my mouth, nails tearing my ear as he grasped my face like a handful of weeds, twisted, and pulled. Flesh and sinew ripped. My ear tore from my skull. Blood exploded.
I kept stabbing. Kept screaming. He smashed me down on a carcass heap.
Then he was on top of me. Smashing. Biting with his metal teeth. I screamed but nothing came. Couldn’t move, I couldn’t breath as this fiend savaged me. Blood filled my mouth and blinded me and then Nikolai had my wrist. He peeled the shiv from my fingers as though from a child. My jaw dislocated and everything squeezed to black.
And then I could move…barely.
I sputtered. Choked. Seized. Gagged as I yanked his fingers from my throat. Hacked as his thick form crushed me. His stink was suffocating.
I bucked and kicked and bit until I realized Nikolai was inert.
Slack heavy with death. Crazy Ivan. Nikolai. Dead Nikolai.
“I am thinking we should not do that again, neh?” Frisk grunted as I wrestled Nikolai’s carcass off. It took some doing. Frisk offered no hand. I expected none. “Sorry. My chains tangled on a corpse.” Frisk’s explanation—dogshit. “And my ankle’s broke.” Whore. “Better late then never, neh?” Fuck you. He cut a sleeve from my decapitated cellmate then held it to his bloody forehead. “He fucking savaged you, man,” No shit. “Get some cloth. Wrap your face. Jesus, you’re a mess. Can you talk?” To you? No. “Pop it back in. Bah. Forget it. You look like you’ve had a stroke. Like your face got caught in a thresher. Or no—set on fire and now it’s melting off.” His eyes went wide as I turned. “Shit, boss, fucker tore your ear off!” I couldn’t feel the left side of my face. It hung limp in shreds like a dead squid. Blood soaked my prison drabs. I shivered in the aftermath of adrenaline and cold’s onset. “Lucky you were always ugly as sin, neh?”
“Fuck you…do you see it. My ear?” I grunted. Talking hurt, breathing…worse. Broken ribs at least. Felt shattered. Wrong on the inside. From the crash? Or from Nikolai? Did it matter? I glared down at his carcass. Pushed his head aside with a boot. Spat a maw full of blood. A tooth. “Seems smaller now?” My speech was a spatter of slurps and red drool. “Never a big man, Nikolai, but…dense. Hard. Jesus…my side.”
“They always do.” Frisk slumped on the bench and clutched his side. Chuffed. He coughed. Red spit dribbled from his lips. They wobbled as he spoke. Spattered. “When they are dead. Death…it subtracts something. I cannot explain.” He clutched his side with one hand. “Please…how far from Sevvostlag are we, do you think? How long did we drive? I fell asleep.”
“Forty miles…fifty… hundred? Who can say?” I shrugged, then wrapped my face and head with my old cellmate’s pant leg. A sleeve. Secured them with shoelace. “I don’t know. This land drags forever. Carries a black reputation.”
“Peasant bullshit. What land doesn’t, neh?” Frisk twisted his shiv free of the base of Nikolai’s skull. It scraped like a fork on teeth. He wiped it clean. Pointed with it. I wondered where mine went. “I think your ear is over there.”
Frisk poked a hole in the canvas roof, tore it wide, peered out. Dying orange of dusk glazed in, soon to be twilight. A bone chill ghosted in like mist and he leaned back. Shivered. We both shivered. Our prison drabs were thin cotton. Cheaply made. The cheapest possible. “What do you suppose we hit?”
“A tree…a rock…ice? Did we skid? I was sleeping, too.” I shrugged. Winced. “And what matter? Driver probably fell asleep. Or drunk off his ass.”
“Vodka. Lucky shit.” Frisk drooled.
“What I wouldn’t do. Maybe we slip these chains, have a look. A taste.”
Frisk nodded then froze as one of the carrier’s front cab doors smashed open beyond the canvas walls. Glass rained on rock and water. Someone in the pile of bodies grunted and I told him to shut the fuck up. Whoever it was listened.
Boots crunched on snow and made their way toward the back of the carrier.
Frisk and I froze, our breath steaming in the dark the only betrayal of our survival. The rear canvas flaps pulled back and a guard peered in. A black shadow against a canvas of vermilion snow. A spectre in the dying light. He clutched a rifle and favored one leg.
“Any of you shitfucks still kicking?” the guard grunted.
“I…I am.” A voice in the darkness. Past us. Who? One of the politicals. Buried beneath a cargo of flesh. “Help me. Please. I—I can’t move…”
“So the fuck what? Anyone else?” He nosed the canvas further aside with the barrel of his rife and froze when he saw Frisk. And then he saw me. And stepped back. Pointed with the rifle. “By the saints—what the fuck happened to you?”
I shrugged, drooped, mumbled. “The accident. Luckier than this one.” I kicked at my decapitated cellmate.
“Yeah, but not by much.” The guard pointed at Frisk. “You, then. Come.”
“Can’t.” Frisk clinked his chains. Shook his head. “Where are we?”
Frisk thumbed his shiv at his side. Waited. The guard was out of reach. The numbness in my face was slowly evolving into pain. Standing was an effort. My ribs scraped like broken ice cracking as I shivered uncontrollably.
“About sixty miles from the Sevvostlag Gulag.” With one hand holding his rifle the guard began sifting through a ring of keys. Turning them over one by one. I glanced at Frisk and he at me. The sun dipped beyond the horizon and the dark spectre of the guard became a pale scared boy, barely a man. Probably needed shave only his upper lip and then only infrequently. His coat was too big for him, hat, too. I imagined they might fit me just fine.
“Please, what happened? What did we hit?” Frisk asked. “Are you the driver?”
“The driver is dead.” The guard blanched. Swallowed. “Eusei—my sergeant says we hit a—it is none of your concern. Stand back.” He raised the rifle to his shoulder and aimed it at Frisk. “Neither one of you moves, yes? Here. Unlock your leg. Then give me back the key. If either of you—” he swallowed, “I will shoot.” He wiped the back of his mouth with a hand and then slid a key down the bench toward Frisk and took a step back. Rifle aimed.
Frisk unlocked his leg and hustled out the canvas flap.
Fifteen minutes later Frisk was back and so was the peach fuzzed guard. And so was the sergeant. On a broken ankle Frisk had dragged him like a sack of grain. Both were pale. The sergeant’s legs were both shattered. They trailed behind like ropes of seaweed, form dictated by the contours of the ground. A bottle of vodka lay throttled in his hand and from time to time he suckled it. Clear trickled and dribbled down his stubbled chin.
“We’ll make you comfortable, Sergeant,” the young guard said. “You.” He pointed at Frisk. “Put him there. Sit him up. Make him as comfortable as you can.”
Frisk followed orders, hissing through grinding teeth as he did so.
I watched as he did this. Watched as the sergeant’s eyes adjusted to the deepened dark and then fought to focus on me. Barely his head remained erect, bobbing like a palsied child’s. “You should kill them.” He said it softly, but he said it with conviction.
“Eh?” the young guard said, rifle still at the ready. “You.” To Frisk. “Lock yourself again, but further down the line. The far side of your friend.”
“This one is not my friend, neh?” Frisk scowled at me. “I would have killed him had you not shown when you did.”
“Bite your whore tongue. Lock yourself in.” This guard was young, but would not be swayed by games. Or so it seemed. Best not to test. Men fear prison because of prisoners. They ought to fear the guards. They are the ones who chose to spend their lives in prison. Such men I do not understand. Frisk closed the cuff around his ankle once more. “Tighter, or you die.” He shouldered the rifle. Took aim.
“Shoot them, Alec.” The sergeant whispered it again. His breathing was shallow and though he wore a thick wool coat it was clear his chest was collapsed in some manner. His whole aspect was sunken. Hollow. Grey. “Shoot all three of them. And any others alive. Take the food. Leave this place. Before it comes.”
The political had dug himself from the bottom of the pile while. Whimpering, shivering, he sat crumpled like a dead leaf on the canvas ground. Glassy eyes. Snot and blood had frozen to half of his face and he cared not to clean himself. His eyes fidgeted from me and Frisk, to the guards, and then back. I could read his mind and did not envy him his future. Short. In the end, he just sat between our two parties. Sniffling.
The guards whispered back and forth. Desperate angry whispers. Fierce. The young one was pleading. The sergeant was adamant. That much was clear. We only caught parts of the exchange.
“Before what comes?” I asked.
“Eh?” Alec turned. His rifle turned with him. Spoke for him.
“Please—the sergeant said, before it comes. What is it?” Frisk groveled as he spoke. Alec lowered his rifle.
“Shut the fuck up. No one’s talking to you.”
“Perhaps you should go get the food the sergeant was speaking of.” Frisk rubbed his hands together and then breathed into them. “He will need it to stay strong. Some petrol as well. Might help start a fire, neh? Keep him warm.”
The sergeant’s eyes spoke volumes of hatred but he said nothing. His eyes never left Frisk’s. “The dog speaks true, Alec. Go. Get the food and some petrol. Some wood if you can manage.”
“I cannot leave you with them.” Alec frowned at the three of us.
“Go. They’re chained like the dogs they are. Go. Go or we will surely freeze to death.”
“Here, take it.” Alec proffered his rifle to the sergeant. The sergeant waved him off.
“No. You may need it more than I.” He swigged a mouthful from the vodka. “I have all I need here.” He drew a sidearm from his coat pocket and laid it upon his lap. It was of German make, a Luger, I think. “Go. We will need a fire to survive the night. You had best create some sort of roadblock as well. Perhaps another transport might happen down this shitstrip. The wreck is not visible from up there. Perhaps we may drive out of this yet. God willing.” Alec nodded, his eyes wide. “And unlock the Worm before you go, Alec. And the dead. Yes. I will have need of the dead.”
Alec raised an eyebrow. “This idea is no—”
“The Worm. And this is no idea—it is an order.” He slobbered up from his cairn, pointed the vodka—nearly spilling it—and froze an instant. Then he settled down again into the bliss of dying drunk. Eyes closed, he spoke. “The other two I would not, but the Worm is a worm. He can do nothing. And the dead are the dead.” He cracked a glare upwards at the dead hanging by their ankles from their bench above. It was like a meat locker. Shanks of pale carcass hung swinging. Twirling. All freezing. All Dead.
Worm, the political, shivered in the dark, hugging himself tight. Bleeding. Dilapidated. He was a small man, was once handsome before the prison pallor had robbed him of health and a full head of hair. Of esteem. Worth. Pride. Haughtiness. Had broken in him what made him once a man. He raised his eyes to the sergeant and then glanced at me. Then Frisk. Twin dagger glares slung silence.
“Start working, Worm.” The sergeant pointed the Luger as though it were a scepter. Indeed it was. Upon a dying cripple it conferred mastership of three whole men. Well…two and a quarter, perhaps.
Worm shivered. Glanced around. Once he had been one of the most powerful businessmen in St. Petersburg. An importer of various goods. A player in the major arenas. Well placed in the party. But his weakness for western proclivities was discovered and he and his family had paid. Were paying. Would pay. “W-what is it you wish of me, sir?”
“This wind is robbing me of what little I have left. I would die in comfort. Relative…comfort.” Despite his thick woolen greatcoat and fur cap the sergeant shivered. He could barely reach his blue lips with the bottle.
Indeed, the wind had risen with the fall of the sun and began howling. The thick canvas roof and side stopped some of the wind, but the canvas doors were torn beyond repair and stopped nothing. They flapped like the wings of a raging hawk. And in came the cold. It had begun as a cold death creeping in like mist to steal the warmth from our bodies and soon grew into some cold rasping banshee whose bone hands hungered for our souls, clutching and scraping up our limbs and into our core. We shivered and huddled and rubbed our limbs and we froze nonetheless.
“Bulwark the opening with your dead comrades. That is what I wish of you, Worm. That is what you will do.”
And so Worm began dragging the dead past us. Around us. Past the sergeant. He watched like a hawk, when conscious. His head nodded from time to time, folding gently onto his concave chest. The vodka nuzzled in the crook of his arm like a babe while the Luger’s muzzle peeked from the sleeve of his other arm. Upon his chest. Rising and falling. Rising and falling. Rising…and falling…
Outside the walls of our canvas tomb, snow crunched as something lumbered near. Haltingly. I peeked out the tear in the roof and swore. Shale and rock tumbled from above and crashed into the undercarriage. At first I thought it the young guard come back. But it was not. I silenced Frisk with a raised hand as the crunch of snow grew louder. I could not see what it was but I could guess. My eyes strained to see but whatever it was chose not to make itself known and eventually wandered off. Our crypt was silent but for the wind’s banshee howl. For each of us had forgot to breathe. None of us saw it but we all knew what it was. A bear.
“Can you get his gun?” It was not even a whisper. It was a clipped hiss. A stare. A glare at the guard. A shadow-hand of a gun signed in fenya, the Vor’s pidgin-talk. Worm ignored my silent inquiries. He continued in his labors, dragging the dead with his cracked bloody hands. Grunting and huffing. Sweating while Frisk and I shivered.
“We shall need it when the other guard returns,” Frisk whispered.
I nodded. “Or the bear.”
“Yes…the bear.” Frisk paused and then looked at me. “I saw bloody tracks outside in the snow. Huge. Bigger than dinner plates. And the front bumper of the truck. Covered in blood and hair. Ruined.” I watched Worm’s eyes grow and glisten as Frisk spoke. “Like it struck a building, neh. And it is still out there. Lurking. Waiting.”
“It left.” Worm wrung his shirt between thin pale hands. “It’s gone.”
“Waiting, Worm. It is waiting. Winter is near and he nearer. And he is hungry before he sleeps, neh? Think it won’t be back? With all this fresh meat?”
Worm hazarded a final warning glare amidst his labors. But that was all. He continued his labors. Building a wall of dead for the dead. From time to time, amidst Worm’s sniffling huffs and Frisk’s teeth chatter I heard the tread of massive paws crunching through dark crystalline snow.
“I think he is dead.” I squinted in the dark. It was impossible to tell. The guard had not moved in quite some time. Not even to drink his liquor. But… “He is dead. Get his keys.”
“He’s not breathing.” Frisk confirmed.
“The keys. In his pocket. Do it, Worm. Before the other guard returns. We will take care of him. We’ll remember this deed and repay.”
Worm collapsed broken into the corpse pile and lay there huffing in the dark. He lay near the sergeant. An arm’s breadth away. The Luger lay there upon his chest. Worm lay there for some time. Watching. Weighing. Risk. Consequence. Neither Frisk nor I dared draw breath. Minutes passed where only the cold friction of wind upon the canvas was audible. A white blade of moonlight stabbing through our roof was the sole source of light. With silent swallow he decided. Worm crept forward like his namesake. He was a cautious man. Weak. Inching. Staring. Watching. Counting. Patient. He listened for breath after each infinitesimal movement. Wide eyes dilated watched for so much as twitch. A tremor. And finally. His hand quivered out over the sergeant’s chest. A quivering albino tarantula twitching across frozen white moonlight.
But the sergeant…was not quite dead.
His eyes sprang open like steel traps and he and Worm grappled instantly. “Fucking Worm!” Grunts and curses bit through exhaled mist. He hurled Worm about like a child. The sergeant was a large man, but laid out. Injured. Broken. Worm crouched above, kneeling on his chest. Biting his hand. The sergeant howled.
Me and Frisk dropped to the ground as the gun waved about then discharged—a stunning blast in the cold. I huddled against a freezing corpse. A second shot, shattering the cold air like a hammer on ice. A third shot and more—I pressed further back. Further down. Willed myself smaller. Harder. Slid sidewise folding into nothingness.
“Hah!” Worm sprang up. Gestured an obscenity with his free hand and kicked the sergeant in the ribs. Once. Twice. In the face. And then shot him there. Worm had won. Triumphant Worm. He turned. “Fah! You sons of bitches. Fuck you. Fuck you. I have it. I am in charge.” He waved the Luger around like a drunken conductor. Pointing at each of us in turn. Closing an eye in his aiming.
“The keys,” I whispered. “Get the keys.”
“Screw your mother.” Worm didn’t even look our way. His eyes were all for the sergeant. Teeth grimaced. He kicked him in the side. Stomped on his head and chest and stomach. He collapsed to his knees and began tearing—hammering the corpse with the pistol. It rose and fell until bloody dripping with bits. And he collapsed, huffing on his back like some tortoise flipped over in the sun. For some time he lay there. Finally he did the sensible thing. He wrestled the greatcoat from the dead sergeant’s carcass and donned it. The hat, too.
Frisk and I said nothing.
Whether it was the bark of the pistol or stench of dead meat and blood is irrelevant. The bear returned not long after the melee. Worm froze as he donned the sergeant’s hat. Eyes wide.
I could see it this time as it lumbered through the stream. It roared. The three of us froze as one. The bear came limping from the shallows to investigate the wreck. A thing borne of hell. Drenched fur matted flat and bloody black to its face and legs. Frozen blood jagging at mad angles. Skull and broken fang stood bare and bright as the snow as it limped down. Icicles of gore dangled and broke from its chin. Its tongue lolled swollen like a fat black slug. It was a bear but unlike any bear I’d ever seen. Massive.
“What’s it doing?” Frisk whispered.
Its ears pricked at Frisk’s voice. It turned. Listened. Sniffed. The canvas walls of our tomb pressed in as it lumbered along its length. Wire bristle fur protruded in through tears. Its gait was horrid. Obscene. Degenerate. It hobbled like some old broken thing, past the open back of the carrier, sniffing the bodies of the dead as it limped. Growling with each breath. Slurring blood and hacking bile into the snow. One eye had been rasped from its skull in the collision with the carrier. Ridged bone and black socket stared continuously. It’s horrible injuries served only to make it more terrifying. For the longest moment of it stood there in the swell of moonlight. Huffing. Asthmatic. Something akin to hatred dwelt within its single black rotting eye. Something beyond mere animal. Thick drool coursed from its maw, splashing upon the carcasses.
Worm raised the Luger. Aimed it. What effect if any a Luger might have on an animal this size? But anyways—Worm fired. The shot was lost in the wind’s scream. The thing merely stood there, its gaze now fixed upon Worm. Worm squeezed the trigger again and nothing happened. CLICK. Like a dying flower Worm shriveled back into the carrier, as far toward the cab as he could go, crawling backwards blind over the corpse pile. The thing merely glared with that one black eye, naught but a pinprick of moonlight on black. Then it was gone.
It took some time for Worm to creep from his hole. Tentative, he crawled over his dead compatriots and back toward the opening. Me and Frisk huddled shoulder to shoulder. We had stripped whatever prisoners were within reach and used their clothes to bolster our own. It did little good. The chatter of our teeth make conversation impossible. As though me might converse.
Worm crawled past us, toward the billowing canvas doors. They cracked like whips in the blizzard wind. When he passed us, and was out of reach, he turned toward the whipping canvas. The door. Escape. And then from behind, Frisk pounced. Tackled him. His shiv rose and fell as Worm twisted, slammed the Luger into Frisk’s face, twisted free and kicked and swung and swore. They rolled and Worm gained the top. My hand clamped on his wrist and tore him on towards me. The Luger came, too, Worm flailing it at me like a club but it tore past my head. I slammed a fist into his gut and Worm crumpled over right into my knee. Frisk’s shiv was at his throat point pressing into his neck. Twisting. A bead of blood trickled to a thick slow seep.
“Easy, Frisk.” I tightened my grip on him. “Don’t kill him.”
“You my fucking boss?” Frisk wheeled the shiv into Worms neck. “Am I suki now? Or is Worm yours? Huh, Worm? You his? He lay his stamp on you?”
“Watch your bloody tongue.” I almost kicked him in the face. “He’s the only one not chained.”
“You fuck, I slipped the chain an hour past.” He turned back to Worm. “You might be mine, Worm. I’d treat you nice.” Frisk continued crooning, grinning like a mad jackal as he stroked Worm’s head. Wheedled the shiv. He cackled at the hilarity of it all. “There, there, my sweet. Wakey wakey. No sleeping yet.”
“Get the fuck off him.” I scanned the ground. “Take off the coat, Worm.”
Worm lay weeping, fetal, crumpled. Where was the Luger? I scanned the ground and saw it. Scooped it up. Tucked it into the back of my pants.
“Take it off.” Frisk kicked Worm. “Do it, you Worm. Worm. You fucking ass licking faggot Worm.” Frisk grabbed him by the lapels and shook him. Swatted him. Spit in his face. “GET IT OFF!” Frisk tore the hat from his head and then beat him with it. Worm whimpered and clutched at his head in a pathetic attempt to block. By the back of his collar I hauled him to his feet and then tore the coat down from behind. Frisk stabbed him in the gut—“Die. Die, you fuck. Die,”—shucked him from the greatcoat like an oyster and then only he and I were standing. Both clutching an arm of the woolen greatcoat. Salvation.
“Fuck you, comrade. You think you the boss, neh?” The greatcoat would be Frisk’s, he made that clear. Immediately. In a Chinese grip, point up, he clutched his shiv. For close work. Like Worm. For puncturing bowels. Like Worm. Kidneys. Anything down low. Its tip pricked cold against my navel. I glanced down at Worm writhing on the canvas floor. “My thanks, comrade.” Frisk leered as my fingers creaked open and the greatcoat fell away.
Frisk. My brother Vor.
I stepped back and fell to a crouch, leaning against the overturned carrier seat. Fuck. Worm next to me shivered like a dog. Frisk donned the greatcoat and hat and then tied his shoe. He’d left the ankle cuff loose enough to slip. The guards hadn’t checked. No doubt he’d lost some skin. A small price for freedom. Like an ape he scurried over the fallen bodies and to the sergeant. He peered out the canvas doors for an instant and then grabbed the edges and weighted them with the dead. It did little.
I drew the Luger from my pant waist and examined it as best I could in the dark. It seemed whole. Slick but undamaged. No bullets, though. Hell, at least it was metal. A poor club but a club nonetheless when the time came. And it would come. I glanced up at Frisk, living up to his namesake, and tucked the Luger back. Frisk drained the last of the sergeant’s vodka then hurled the bottle into the night.
Worm, on the ground, clutched at my ankle. Was whispering something I could not understand. Even by the cold pale of moonlight he looked drained of life, except where the dark of blood had spattered his lips and chin. Five black holes had materialized upon his belly, soaking through the coarse fabric, spreading. Reaching like things alive. Five black promises soon to coalesce into one that would swallow him whole.
His fingers grasped at my shoe. Nails plucking at my shoelaces like the strings of a violin. Eyes unfocused. Head lolling back like some broken necked doll. Breath shallow and fast. Weeping. Bleeding. I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Mouth gaping. A dying fish. The wind consumed whatever drivel trickled past his white lips.
Frisk hunkered limping through the crypt and back towards me. Scanning the ground. Grunting, wheezing in pain. He was looking for something. The Luger. Had he found bullets on the sergeant? A spare magazine? I rose to a crouch. Frisk clutched something. A magazine? Or his shiv? I readied. Drew the Luger.
Frisk froze. Just out of my reach.
His eyes met mine. “Fuck!” they said.
The guard, Alec, had returned. Frisk turned slowly toward him, hands raised.
“You fucking filth.” Favoring his right leg Alec aimed his rifle. “Take off his coat you son of a bitch! Take it off. NOW!”
“Easy now, boy.” Frisk raised his hands. They were empty now. He slowly drew one arm and then the other free of the greatcoat. He held it out at arm’s length. “What was your name? Alec, neh? Alec, please, I did not kill your man. Your sergeant. How could I? We are chained where we stand, neh?” He kicked at some chains on the ground for effect. “I wanted only to keep warm. To survive.” He tossed the coat and then hat toward the guard and then raised his hands once more.
Alec swallowed and then aimed the rifle at me.
“It was Worm.” I indicated with my head the pile of bleeding offal at my feet. “He beat your sergeant to death. He was drunk. Dying. Unconscious. Worm stole his pistol. Used it. Bludgeoned him to death. See for yourself. We could do nothing.” As if we would.
“Send him over here.” Alec drew the bolt back on his rifle, checked it, rammed it shut. “Send him over here. Now.”
“Get up, Worm. Stand.” I nudged him with my foot. “Get up! Guard Alec wishes a word with you. I’d not keep him waiting.” Worm grasped at my foot and whimpered in response. I kicked my foot free and then spat. “He cannot move, guard, I am thinking. His dying is near.” I glanced at the rifle and shuffled from its path.
“Do it! Both of you. Stand him up. I will not shoot a worm in the dirt. Stand him up like a man.”
Frisk’s glare met mine as we stooped. Took Worm by the underarm and pant waist. “You have the gun?” Frisk whispered almost inaudibly. We hauled him to his feet. They dangled withdrawn already atrophied it seemed, afraid of the ground, and then they touched. “Yes. And you, bullets?” A twitch of a nod was Frisk’s reply.
Worm was on his feet, a shivering dead thing that hobbled, teetered, and fell the instant we let him go. Blue vein crisscrossed beneath translucent skin and I imagined I could see his very skull grinning under the harsh swell of moonlight. Worm crouched on all fours and then managed somehow to stand, pulling himself up by the manacle chains hanging from above. His thin arms shook as he clutched the chains like a lover weeping blood. He raised a hand as if to ward off the guard and turned his head.
I turned as well.
Alec raised the rifle to his shoulder. His body jerked. A shot rang out dwarfing those of the Luger’s before and Frisk and I were covered in a spray of bone and blood. The shot reverberated in my ear. “The gun. Give me the gun…” Frisk mouthed.
“The two of you, stand. Stand up!” Alec chambered another round. A steaming cartridge landed sizzling in snow. The wind ripped Alec’s hat from his head. He did not flinch. “Up. UP, I said! You fucking deaf?”
Frisk and I rose to stand amongst the dangling chains. Acrid haze stung my nostrils and burned the back of my throat. A welcome relief from the stench of corpse. Chains clinked. The wind ripped zipping across the canvas walls. As my eyes focused I became aware of a dark mass growing behind Alec. Like some tidal wave it grew and grew, rising, drowning out the trees and stars. I thought it a trick of the darkness and moonlight until this wave roared and then broke, dropped crashing, felling Alec like a thunderbolt. It smashed him to nothing. He was there one moment and then next…nothing.
One eye. One eye gleaming ice blue amidst this black thing. Ice blue sparkle from a dead star. And teeth. What teeth! And gleaming half skull. All that were visible in shade and white glare. Thick claws scraped through carcass and snow alike. It huffed. Snorted. Bone cracked and something broke in Alec’s chest as the bear limped forward into the carrier. Its huge form swallowed the darkness, eclipsing everything. It froze in the glare of moonlight as though it were something painful. Shied for an instant and then pondered on, cracking bone and brushing aside steel chain links.
Frisk hunkered behind me, shiv point digging into my spine. As though it mattered. As though I wouldn’t gladly trade death by his knife to death by this monstrosity. A pinprick versus being disemboweled while yet drawing breath. His hand was shaking. As was I. Before me stood certainty.
“Give me the gun,” Frisk whispered.
“Give me the magazine.” I held out my hand.
The bear paused not a foot from me. Its long tongue dripped some foul ichor. Bile. Its lungs drew air like a bellows as it sniffed long and deep, taking in my scent. Asthmatic wheezes whistled long after its exhale. Its wide wet nose palpated my foot then moved up. Snuffing. The scent of death on the thing enveloped me. White bone steel hard vaulted above as it raised itself up wavering on two legs.
“Give me the gun.” Frisk’s lips did not move as he spoke.
“The fucking magazine.” Neither did mine.
“The gun!” Louder this time. A desperate squeal. “Give me the gun—”
“Give me the fucking magazine!”
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