Story by D.K. Latta
Illustration by Sheik
Like a giant daddy longlegs the watchtower loomed ominously over the barb wire fence.
From the edge of the nearby forest Owl-Eye said, “One man in the tower; two pairs walking the perimeter.” He stared a moment longer — the “Man with the Super-Peepers” as the Dawson City newspaper once dubbed him. He was garbed in a brown leather tunic and yellow pants, a short yellow cape draped over his back. His pupils were so dilated as to make his eyeballs appear black. “A few soldiers wandering about. No telling how many inside the barracks,” he added, unable to use his telescopic vision and his x-ray vision simultaneously.
He shook his head, then blinked, letting his 200×200 vision revert to a normal 20×20 before regarding the man stretched next to him in the concealing shadows of the trees. “Wait till dark?”
“Non.” Big, broad-shouldered, his face concealed by a black balaclava, the other man wore dungarees and a red and black plaid shirt over a black turtleneck sweater. Like Owl-Eye he displayed no official military insignia and was known simply by his Masque name: Le bûcheron — the Lumberjack. Owl-Eye had never seen him without his balaclava — rumour was you wouldn’t want to; the Nazis had seen to that. “Dat Nazi jeep we took out back on de road will be overdue soon. Mais pour maintenant,” he squinted at the prison camp, “most of de guards are relaxed, glad to be stationed ‘ere, and not on de front somewhere. Deir worry is someone trying to get out…not in.” He sat up. “Let’s start earning our rations, eh?”
Five more heads emerged from behind bushes in the grey dappled light of the forest, some masked, all dressed garishly in non-regulation costumes. The Green Bat. Gargantuan. Swiftcurrent. The Amazing Ferrelli. The Revolutionary. And, of course, Owl-Eye and Le bûcheron. Some called Canada home, some America. Originally a Masque off-shoot of the elite joint U.S.-Canada 1st Special Service Force that some dubbed the Devil’s Brigade — but they had evolved into their own unit
To enemies and allies alike they were: Lucifer’s Legion.
They bellied out into the tall grass, terse shots echoing from behind the barracks as off-duty soldiers enjoyed target practice with old cans.
Owl-Eye watched Le bûcheron nod to The Revolutionary, their best shot. One of the Americans in the group, he was dressed in an 18th Century blue coat and tricorn hat, a cape and a domino mask completing the appearance. He aimed carefully with his rifle — 18th Century in appearance, 20th Century in precision — and gently squeezed the trigger. The air barked and the guard in the tower flopped anti-climactically over on his face.
They held their breaths.
No one stirred in the camp; the guards out front attributing the sound to the target shooters out back and the target shooters assuming someone out front would sound an alarm if the shot was heralding an attack. And thus were kingdoms lost.
Le bûcheron nodded at Gargantuan. Big as a bear, bald but unshaven, he wore the black shorts and orange tights he first sported as a circus strong man, and again during a short-lived career as a Masque in New Jersey before signing up when America belatedly joined this man’s war. He unhooked a couple of grenades from his bandolier, the belt clashing with the circus motif. Waiting until one of the guard pairs came abreast the front gate, he popped the pins and let fly the pineapples. They bounced and rolled. One came up short. The other rolled under the gate.
Both grenades went off with a roar, knocking the two guards off their feet. No one would mistake that for the sound of target shooters.
Roaring, Gargantuan jumped to his feet and barreled across the clearing, smashing into the damaged gate like a rogue moose. Metal groaned like a living thing, then the gate fell inward and they poured into the compound, guns blazing.
They were out-numbered, but surprise was a great equalizer.
The Amazing Ferrelli, decked out in a black tuxedo like a stage magician, summoned an obscuring fog around himself as he ran. The Green Bat blasted away with his signature twin .45s, his verdant cloak swirling. Suddenly crimson blossomed across The Revolutionary’s breast; he defiantly squeezed off one last shot as he fell — but blasted only clouds. Owl-Eye hit the packed dirt and rolled, firing at the steps in front of the office where The Revolutionary’s killer stood.
Meanwhile, Le bûcheron hit the side of one of the barracks, then swung around the corner, his trademark axe ready. But the burly German hiding on the other side caught his wrist with one hand and grabbed his neck with the other, slamming him against the dusty slates of the wall. The French-Canadian clawed at the hand at his throat and kicked at the man’s groin, but the powerful German seemed to be a eunuch. Pushing down panic, Le bûcheron forced himself to release his grip on the hand squeezing his throat, punching instead into the German’s adam’s apple. The man fell back, gagging, as Le bûcheron flung his axe back over his head, embedding it in the wall. Gripping the handle with both hands he jumped and kicked both feet into the man’s chest, sending him sprawling.
Growing up among loggers and surveyors, Le bûcheron was more comfortable in a man-to-man brawl than a fire fight anyway.
He deftly wrenched his axe loose and hoisted it above the helpless, retching figure at his feet. He hesitated, fingering the shaft. “Aw, zut.” He kicked the man in the face, sending him sprawling. “Stay down an’ maybe you can see out de war, eh?” Turning from the unconscious man he saw Owl-Eye regarding him skeptically. The bigger man shrugged after a moment. “It ‘elps spread our notoriety if we leave dem to talk about us.”
“Sure, Butch,” Owl-Eye said neutrally. “So anyway — we’ve got them pinned down in a building in the east corner.”
Le bûcheron nodded, satisfied. “Where next?”
Owl-Eye gestured toward one building. It seemed to have been painted with a lead-based paint, so his x-ray vision was having trouble making out interior details. “Funny we haven’t heard any cheering from inside. Don’t they realize we’re here to rescue them?” Then he frowned. Technically, they were here for one person — and one only. If the other POWs wanted to make a break for it, good for them. But they would be on their own. Which pretty much sucked, he thought bitterly. “Well — that we’re here to bust this place open.”
“Maybe dey’re waiting to see if we can do it before dey start tossing around de ticker tape, eh?”
They mounted the steps together, the sunbaked wood creaking. Le bûcheron’s axe tore the lock from the door.
“What de ‘ell?” demanded the Francophone.
Rows of metal cots, their mattresses rolled up, filed away against one wall. The only occupant was a squat woman perched on the only sheeted bunk in the room. She regarded them, blinking from behind thick glasses. She closed the book she had been reading, held it to her breast like a shield, and rose. “Gentlemen,” she said meekly.
Le bûcheron said, “Uh, are you Anastazja Walentowicz?”
Owl-Eye looked around. “Where is everyone?”
Walentowicz shrugged. “Everyone else was removed to other camps weeks ago.”
“They’ve got this whole place…just for you?”
Owl-Eye glanced at his leader. They had been sent to liberate a member of the Polish underground — a lot of risk for one individual. Seeing her in the flesh, it was even harder to credit that this bookish woman was a master resistance fighter. Or why the Germans would devote an entire camp to her.
“Allons-y,” said Le bûcheron at last. “Drop everyt’ing and let’s go.”
Walentowicz looked at her book. “What of my books? One of the guards smuggled them in for me. He was not such a bad sort — the guard, I mean.” She looked up. “I hope you did not have to kill him.”
Owl-Eye stared. In a fight with the enemy you didn’t stop to ask who were bad guys and who might be okay guys in bad uniforms.
Impatiently, Le bûcheron grabbed the book and tossed it on a bunk. “I’ll buy you a library later. Now move. We ‘ave de guards pinned down, but we want to be out of ‘ere before dey try somet’ing cute.” He ushered Walentowicz toward the door.
“It is getting dark.” She stiffened, pushing against Le bûcheron. “I think I should stay here.”
Owl-Eye and Le bûcheron exchanged looks. On top of everything, the pasty-faced woman was afraid of the dark! Owl-Eye had been anticipating someone sterner — a Polish Marlene Dietrich or something. Instead they seemed to have liberated Stan Laurel’s chubby sister. Grimacing, Le bûcheron kayoed her and she collapsed into Owl-Eye’s startled grasp.
“If you want to coax ‘er from ‘ere to de pick-up point, be my guest. Mais moi, I want to get going. She’s right it’ll be dark soon. Dat’s good for us — if we put distance between us and dis camp before it gets ‘ere.”
As they joined up with the rest of their group, Gargantuan looked at the bundle over Owl-Eye’s shoulder and snorted. “That’s her?” Then he ducked as a burst of gunfire chortled from where the remaining Germans were trapped.
“Keep your ‘eads down,” snapped Le bûcheron. “Swiftcurrent, you stay. Fire off a few shots every time dey seem to be getting bold. Make dem believe we’re all still ‘ere. Give us ‘alf an ‘our, den double-time it after us.”
Swiftcurrent, dressed in blue tights but perpetually barefoot, nodded curtly. According to him, he was the illegitimate son of a shaman’s daughter and the famous runner, Tom Longboat — whether he was or it was just a story, no one was sure. But he could run as fast as an automobile. Without a word, he shrugged out of his backpack to lighten his load and tossed it to Gargantuan. Then he settled down behind a jeep and peered at the far building.
Grimly Le bûcheron bent over The Revolutionary’s corpse and retrieved his tricorn hat…
* * *
They were the not-quite-heroes, the men of Lucifer’s Legion; powers enough to be different, but not quite different enough to be special.
Owl-Eye had made the news in Dawson City when he helped find a girl lost in a blizzard. But while telescopic vision was useful on the open tundra, it was impractical in congested big cities. And super eyes didn’t exactly set the underworld a-trembling. Gargantuan, meanwhile, was strong — but strength itself did not a successful crime-fighter make. Then there was the cloaked scourge of the underworld, The Green Bat, who claimed to be America’s greatest detective. He had made the news by unmasking the killer known as The Pirate Skull. But in two years as a crime fighter that remained his only notable case.
Owl-Eye liked to think they had all just drawn a bum hand in the super powers game, but he suspected there was more to it than that. There were Masques with lesser powers than any of them who enjoyed respectable reputations. So maybe it wasn’t their powers that weren’t good enough, he had realized — maybe it was them.
In a way, war was the best thing that could have happened to this motley collection of wanna-be heroes.
Not successful enough to be solo stars, it gave them a stage on which to shine. Too powerful to mesh into a normal army unit, the brass had thrown them together as this elite commando squad where the missions were dangerous, frequently bizarre (The Singing Chalice Assignment, Operation: Ghost Monk) and often dirty…
— ♦♦♦ —
They were grateful when Le bûcheron finally called a halt in the forest, though supper would be cold rations as building a fire was out of the question. As Owl-Eye pulled off his boots and massaged his feet, Le bûcheron sat down heavily close by.
“If Swiftcurrent stuck with de plan, I give de Germans — what? Fifteen, twenty minutes to figure out dey’re alone? So dat gives us almost an ‘our ‘ead start — and dey don’t know what direction we went. And d’Amazing Ferrelli said ‘e wrecked deir radio.”
“I’d say that gives us better than average odds — even having to carry her,” Owl-Eye remarked.
Le bûcheron snorted. “Louis-Joseph Papineau she ain’t.”
Looking deliberately at his socks, Owl-Eye quietly said, “Is there anything more I should know about this party, Butch?”
“You know as much as me.” All they knew — all they had been told — was that HQ had received word that an important resistance fighter had been captured, and it was crucial that she not stay in Nazi hands. Whether even the brass knew the full picture, or simply figured that if she was as important to the resistance as they insisted, then that made her important to the brass, none of them knew for sure.
Owl-Eye leaned back, then stiffened. “What the devil am I sitting on?” He twisted around and realized it was an upright slab, faded words engraved into the surface. He glanced at Le bûcheron who for the first time was noticing a few angular stones jutting up from the earth around them. “It’s a graveyard.” Glancing at the forest Owl-Eye said ruefully, “A forgotten graveyard, I guess.”
Le bûcheron absently brushed the cool stone with his hand. “And I suppose dey figured dese would be deir monuments, visited by kids and grandkids and grandkids’ kids.” His voice faded.
“Y’ok, Butch?” asked Owl-Eye, not for the first time seeing their leader grow suddenly pensive. Despite their friendship, he didn’t actually know Le bûcheron’s real name. He knew The Amazing Ferrelli was really Frankie Spitz and The Green Bat was Alfred Pennington, heir to a shipping magnate’s fortune. But Le bûcheron was as nameless as he was faceless. They just called him Butch as a derivation of Le bûcheron.
He sighed. “I’m just so Goddamned tired. You dink de war will be over soon?”
“Yeah, I do. Italy’s thrown in the towel. The Germans are squeezed between us and the Russkies. Gotta just be a matter of time before they give in. Then Japan. And then we collect our medals like heroes and go home.” He grinned.
“You dink we deserve medals?”
Owl-Eye pursed his lips. They’d been sent on missions all over the last couple of years. There had been a Burmese assignment in particular — a broken leg had kept him out of it, but he knew it had gone bad and Le bûcheron blamed himself for whatever had occurred. “I think we’re helping win a war that needs to be fought, Butch, even if sometimes we don’t always like how we have to do it.”
“De Nazis bomb cities — so we bomb cities. Dey put people in concentration camps — so we put dem in detainment centres,” Le bûcheron said, half to himself. “And if dere ‘ad been POWs besides Walentowicz we were supposed to leave dem. De longer dis war goes, I worry de less dere is to distinguish de sides.”
“We’ve seen the forced labour, the cattle cars; we’ve heard the rumours about what’s really going on in the camps — and it’s not just detainment like back home. We’re on the right side, Butch.”
“I know.” He grinned weakly. “I’m just not sure I’d call us ‘eroes. When dis is over — I just want to forget and be forgotten.” He glanced once more at the overgrown grave markers.
“Was-was I shot?” came a weak voice.
Grateful for a distraction from the brooding conversation, the two men turned as the erstwhile topic of their conversation propped herself up on her elbows. Her glasses hung crookedly on her face. It was something of a minor miracle she still had them.
Le bûcheron said, “Sorry about de goose egg. But you were panicking.”
Walentowicz looked around, gradually processing her environment. “I thought I had been shot, was maybe dying. I’m almost sorry I am wrong.”
Owl-Eye and Le bûcheron exchanged curious glances. “You’re out of that camp, sister,” said Owl-Eye. “Most gals would be dancing a jig, eh?”
The little woman seemed not to be listening. “You said I panicked? You think I suffer from nyctohylophobia, yes?”
“Uh,” said Le bûcheron. “I just figured you were scared of de dark.”
“There is much to be scared of in the dark, gentlemen,” said she, before laying down and curling on her side, as though to sleep.
— ♦♦♦ —
They woke to screaming.
Owl-Eye rolled to his feet, the others scrambling for their weapons. There was a brief burst of gunfire from the darkness. Then silence.
“It’s de Green Bat!” snarled Le bûcheron. Though whether he knew or simply guessed since The Green Bat and The Amazing Ferrelli had taken first watch, Owl-Eye couldn’t say. Suddenly the bushes to their right rustled and they wheeled about, fingers almost squeezing triggers as The Amazing Ferrelli burst into the little clearing, top hat still on his head, wand clenched tightly in his white-gloved hand.
“Where’s de Green Bat?” demanded Le bûcheron.
The Amazing Ferrelli shook his head. “Dunno. Didn’t see any patrols…”
No one said the obvious. A German would want to make the kill quick and quiet.
“Fan out,” hissed Le bûcheron, “but keep someone always in sight.”
They looked at each other, no one prepared to take the first wading step into the dark shadows.
“Maintenant!” roared Le bûcheron.
Shaken from the momentary paralysis, they crept forward, leaving the pitiful moonlight of their little clearing and its forgotten headstones for the blackness of the encircling trees. Flashlights punched eerie tunnels through the night, the men unconcerned the glow would betray them if any Germans happened to be near. The scream would’ve done that anyway.
Owl-Eye wadded forward, branches snagging annoyingly on his cape. He could hear the rustle of leaves, the constricted breaths of his comrades as they moved around him — searching.
“Here!” Beams of light danced and wove through the darkness, converging on the voice. Owl-Eye stumbled up against someone big — Gargantuan — then was past him, joining Le bûcheron staring down at something in the bushes.
A circle of light illuminated a hand. Another showed a foot. The light beams converged to reveal the complete man at their feet.
“This was no German attack,” muttered Owl-Eye as he stared at The Green Bat’s verdant cape and cowl darkening with crimson. “Must’ve been a bear or…or something.”
Le bûcheron reached down solemnly and unclipped the bat-shaped clasp from the dead man’s cape, slipping it into his belt. Then he looked up. “Where’s Walentowicz?
Owl-Eye glanced at the others, faces lit from below like a band of cub scouts trading ghost stories around a camp fire. No one had paid attention to the woman’s whereabouts in the confusion.
“Are you speaking about me?” asked a voice from the darkness. They whirled, lights landing with spotlight efficacy upon the woman in POW fatigues. “What has happened?” she asked.
“What’s ‘appened?!?” demanded Le bûcheron striding menacingly toward her. “One of my men is torn apart by a wild beast — and you know somet’ing about it!”
“Indeed?” she asked blandly.
Owl-Eye found her calm unsettling — no, not calm. But what? Resignation, Owl-Eye realized.
Le bûcheron grabbed her roughly. “You were already scared — you knew somet’ing was out ‘ere.”
The five remaining Masques whirled as a figure stumbled out of the woods. Fingers almost squeezed triggers until light revealed the copper-tinged features of Swiftcurrent. “Whu-what’s going on? What was that thing?”
Le bûcheron shoved Walentowicz aside. “What did you see?”
The runner leaned with his hands on his knees, panting. “I, uh, I was looking for you guys. I was pretty sure this was where we camped last night.” He sucked in a breath. “I spotted someone. Wasn’t sure if it was one of us or a German. I whistled the signal — and he whistled back and I realized it was The Green Bat. Suddenly — Jesus, I don’t know. This huge shape just exploded from the woods and The Green Bat started screaming. I fired off a few shots and it ran. I went after it. I don’t know what I’d’ve done if I caught it. It was bigger ‘n Gargantuan — at least seven feet tall. But, God almighty, it wasn’t no man.”
Le bûcheron put a hand reassuringly on his shoulder.
Owl-Eye said, “Doesn’t sound like a bear. ‘Cept maybe a grizzly, and they don’t live in Europe.”
Le bûcheron glared at Walentowicz with cold, accusing eyes. For a moment Owl-Eye thought Le bûcheron might just chop her into kindling out of spite. Then the French-Canadian turned around brusquely. “D’accord — dere’s somet’ing out dere, eh? Some German trick we ain’t ‘eard about yet. And it’s dangerous. Maybe it’s a trained grizzly, like Owl-Eye says.” Owl-Eye opened his mouth to say that wasn’t what he had said, but stayed silent. “But it’s a day’s walk at least to de pick-up, so we’re stuck wid it, whatever it is. So let’s kill it while we can.” Le bûcheron glanced at Owl-Eye as if hoping for any contribution and the other was struck by the haunted, almost desperate look in his eyes.
He moved closer to his friend and, under his breath, said, Y’okay, Butch?”
The bigger man snorted in what sounded like it started as a laugh but gave up half way. It never ends.”
Owl-Eye remembered their earlier conversation; how he had glibly assured Le bûcheron the war would be over soon.
“Perhaps you should send me back to the Germans.”
Le bûcheron wheeled about. “What?”
Unperturbed, Walentowicz said, “I did not ask to be rescued. I do not want to be here. Let me go back, and you go on your way. And maybe it will all work out for the best.”
Le bûcheron opened and closed his mouth, almost sputtering, trying to say something that wasn’t a snarl. Finally, he looked at Owl-Eye. “You babysit ‘er,” he said between gritted teeth. Then he stormed off into the darkness.
One by one, the others slipped away.
Owl-Eye looked at Walentowicz, her glasses opaque in the reflected glare of the flashlight. “Look,” Owl-Eye said reasonably. “I know you’re scared, eh? But we’ve lost two men on this mission and we don’t even know why you’re important.”
The little shards of glass twinkled back at him. Then, just as Owl-Eye was sure she wasn’t going to respond, she said, “You do not think I am much use to the resistance? Nor do I. I prefer my books. My feet get sore if I walk too much. But I lost most of my family in the Warsaw Ghetto, one way or another. And so I vowed to fight back, in any way I could.” She looked up at the black branches overhead, but drew no comfort from them. “And those I contacted in the resistance, they had use for such a useless woman.” She glanced back the way they had come, in the direction of the POW camp.
Suddenly, she ducked out of the light. So unexpected was her movement, she was gone before Owl-Eye could respond, vanishing into blackness like a beast sucked down into tar.
“Hell!” Owl-Eye plunged after Walentowicz, using his light like a knife to cut out chunks of illumination between the thick boles.
“Hey,” shouted a voice somewhere ahead. “Who’s that? Is that-?” The voice cut off, transmuted into a blood curdling scream. White-blue sparks flashed in the darkness Owl-Eye associated with the electric shocks fired by The Amazing Ferrelli’s wand.
Owl-Eye ran. A break in the overhead branches allowed moonlight to shimmer down, revealing the ghastly sight of the caped magician, his feet dangling three feet from the ground, being shaken as though a rat caught by a dog. Even with his super eyes Owl-Eye couldn’t quite see the thing holding Ferrelli, but fired off a couple of bursts to the left and right. The magician hit the earth with a wet thud.
Owl-Eye stumbled blindly forward, unsure if he might run right past his injured comrade.
Suddenly Gargantuan called, “Here!”
Owl-Eye wheeled about, having indeed missed his goal. He hurriedly joined the others converging around another dead body, Le bûcheron already pulling the wand from between the dead man’s fingers. This time, though, no one had to ask where Walentowicz was. She was crouched some paces away, struggling to straighten her glasses, her shirt soaked in blood.
“What’d you do?!?” screamed Gargantuan, balling a sledge hammer-like fist and hoisting it above her.
“Steady,” shouted Le bûcheron, grabbing Gargantuan’s arm. He looked from Walentowicz to the dead Ferrelli and back. There was no weapon. And no man could do what had been done, not bare handed. “What ‘appened?” demanded Le bûcheron.
Walentowicz was shivering. “I-I was running — I wanted to get away from you all. I heard screaming, but when I stumbled over body, he was already dead. Dead and so — so very bloody.”
Le bûcheron grabbed the woman by the collar, hauling her to her feet. He glared for a moment, convinced Walentowicz knew more than she was telling. But what burned in his stomach like too much acid was that as a military man he knew sometimes people kept secrets for a reason. Perhaps if the positions were reversed, he’d be the one making cryptic remarks while men died around him.
Disgusted with the woman, with himself, with the whole situation, he shoved Walentowicz into Owl-Eye’s arms. “Keep ‘er in one place — even if you ‘ave to nail ‘er down!”
Once more the men dissipated into the darkness, flashlights bobbing and weaving like drunken fireflies.
“Do you know of the Golem?”
Startled by the sudden attempt at conversation, Owl-Eye looked at Walentowicz, her eyes once more unfathomable behind circles of reflected light. “Uh, some sort of Jewish myth. A defender of the defenseless, or something.”
“Or a monster to punish the guilty. Within the resistance cell with whom I became connected there were many people — Kabbalah Jews, Gypsies, Druids, Catholic mystics, and more. Each with their own lore, their own curses and spells.”
Owl-Eye cocked his head. “Their, uh — what?”
“And so they pooled their legends, summoned unspeakable forces, to create an agent — a gestalt, if you will, of their various nightmares. To punish the guilty.”
Owl-Eye stared at the little mirrors over the woman’s eyes, trying to make sense of what he was being told. But it didn’t make sense — not to a rational mind. But he thought he understood the meaning of the words nonetheless — the meaning if not the sense. He nervously aimed his machine gun at the woman. “Uh, Butch. Over here!” He heard the trampling of branches, the thud of heavy feet, and he resisted the urge to take his eyes off the woman.
“I…” He licked his lips. “I’m not sure exactly. She’s been going on about golems and Gypsy curses. And creatures.”
The others gathered, drawn by the shouted voice.
“Owl-Eye,” growled Le bûcheron, “what de ‘ell are you babbling about?”
He dug the heel of his free hand into his eyes. I think she killed the others.” Purely by chance Gargantuan stood behind her; his huge, shambling shape emphasizing the latter’s insignificant dimensions. “I know it sounds nuts — but so does that thing out there. Maybe it’s like; I dunno… a werewolf or something. That’s why she didn’t want to come with us when it looked like night was falling — that’s when werewolves change, ain’t it? Think about it. Who is she? Why did the resistance think she was important? Why did the Germans lock her up in her own little prison? She’s some sort of creature.”
Le bûcheron stared at Owl-Eye, wanting to tell him he was crazy. But something was killing them. Slowly, he looked at Walentowicz. “What do you ‘ave to say?”
Mutely, Walentowicz removed her glasses, blinked a couple of times, then returned them. “Have you read Nietzsche? You will excuse me for quoting a German, but he once wrote, ‘Be careful when you fight monsters, lest you become a monster.’ We are fighting Nazi monsters, and anything seemed justified in our righteousness. But if we create a weapon against monsters, who will we use it against when the monsters are defeated?” Walentowicz looked around at the angry super-commandos. She shrugged. “The Germans thought much the same as you when they captured me. We wanted them to think that. They took me away, and locked me up, and did all sorts of terrible things to make me change, to make me become the monster.”
Le bûcheron had a gun, but he instinctively hefted his axe, more comfortable with his trademark weapon. “So you are de monster dat killed my men?”
“No,” Walentowicz said softly. “That is.”
Owl-Eye, Le bûcheron, Swiftcurrent and the others turned, their beams of light cutting a zigzag pattern through the darkness. Naturally Owl-Eye saw it first: eyes glaring from seven feet off the ground. His flashlight zeroed in below it, and reptilian-like scaly skin glared brightly out of the inky blackness. Another beam and then another showed tufts of weird fur, or a coiling tail, or knife-like teeth glistening, or taloned fingers twice as large as any man’s.
“Jesus!” screamed Gargantuan, and instantly the air was filled with the deafening chortling of gun fire, the stink of Sulphur, and the hysterical screams of grown men as they came face-to-face with something that could not exist.
The creature darted like a fish, so that only glimpses were seen in the circles of light. Leaves and branches rained down, sheared from trees by their gunfire, compounding the confusion.
Swiftcurrent was hefted screaming from his feet, and dashed against a heavy tree. Not swift enough in the end. When the creature struck, it was as if the darkness come alive, sprouting claws and dealing death, before vanishing again.
Owl-Eye felt the ground tremble, smelled the stench of fetid breath, and then the creature loomed out of the darkness. Instinctively he flung himself backward just as talons sliced the air where he had been. His gun flew from his hand as he hit the ground and he started screaming as the thing came at him. Suddenly a plaid figure was between him and death, savagely swinging a woodsman’s axe, oil-black blood spitting into the air. Then the creature was swallowed again by the darkness. Gasping, Owl-Eye rolled to his feet.
Of the original seven, there were now only three. Plus Walentowicz.
At Le bûcheron’s panted command they formed a circle, backs to each other, staring wide-eyed at the blackness. Owl-Eye glanced at Walentowicz. His heart thundered in his ribs, his mouth dry. “If you’re not that thing…then what are you? Why are you important?”
She looked at him, and Owl-Eye noted how she shivered. “A monster can be created…but how is he controlled? How do you make sure he kills the monsters you want him to kill?”
Owl-Eye stared, uncomprehending.
“I volunteered. It was upon me that they laid a curse.” She rolled up her sleeve to reveal a weird rune tattooed on her arm. I am the Judas Goat. Don’t you see? I was supposed to be captured by the Germans. But they were supposed to take me to Berlin, not to this nothing little prison so very far from Hitler and his generals. That must be why my people alerted your superiors, to get me back, so that they could try again and not waste all their planning on an insignificant target. I am the one the monster hunts; I have always been the one. And he will go through anyone and anything to get to me.”
Slowly, Owl-Eye’s eyes widened. People who acted as homing signals for monsters — who could be “captured” by the enemy, taken before important generals, their very presence drawing an unstoppable nightmare. It was brilliant. It was horrible.
“But you cannot fight monsters with monsters,” continued Walentowicz, “or it will never end, and you will need greater and greater monsters to kill the monsters you have created. I see that now. I am the prototype. If I am a failure, perhaps they will not try again.”
At last she stopped shivering, her fright becoming replaced by a newfound determination. Deliberately, she removed her glasses, folded them, and put them carefully in her breast pocket. Then, before Owl-Eye quite understood what she was doing, she raced into the darkness.
“Here I am!” Walentowicz shouted. “Come monster! Come for me!”
Owl-Eye squinted, barely making her out in the darkness. “Come back, you idiot!”
A huge shadow burst from darkness and she screamed, and the beast growled. Walentowicz went down beneath a fury of slashing claws. Owl-Eye felt something rub past him as Le bûcheron started forward. No!” Owl-Eye tried to grab his arm but the masked man shot him a look full of both weariness and sudden purpose — Walentowicz’s words eerily echoing Le bûcheron’s own earlier. And Owl-Eye found himself dropping his hand as the big man in plaid charged ahead, roaring, axe raised.
The creature turned from its prey, clearly not expecting an attack. The two figures came together like Titans of old, demonic talons raking and tearing, woodsman’s axe biting and hewing. Screams of man and thing merging into a horrendous symphony of destruction so that Owl-Eye found himself covering his ears, screaming in sympathy. He was grateful for the darkness then, and that he could see only shapes and not what was happening to those shapes. And at last, the screams choked to a halt, and the thrashing shadows stilled.
He glanced at Gargantuan who stared back at him, ashen-faced. Haltingly, they approached.
They stumbled upon Walentowicz first, glasses still miraculously upon her face. Then the creature, with its impossible mix of scales and fur. Bile rose in his throat and he quickly looked away. Then he stopped over the body of Le bûcheron, sprawled on his back, eyes open but unseeing. He heard a snuffle and realized Gargantuan was actually choking back a sob. Then the big man reached for the dead man’s balaclava, like Le bûcheron had collected The Green Bat’s clasp and Ferrelli’s wand.
Leave it,” muttered Owl-Eye.
The strong man looked at him, surprised.
He just wanted to be forgotten. A man without a name or a face.” He thought of the neglected headstones somewhere nearby. He’s found his rest here. We owe him that.”
Vaguely he realized there was a lightening to the air, that dawn was coming.
“What’ll we tell the brass?” asked Gargantuan softly.
Owl-Eye was silent for a moment. “We tell them we lost most of our team fighting Germans…and Walentowicz was killed in the crossfire. Period. We saw no monster. It’s what she wanted; it’s what Butch would want. For the project to be considered a failure so no one would try it again. Because, I guess, in the end, the only way to fight monsters…is to keep your humanity.” He glanced at Gargantuan, then shrugged, embarrassed by his philosophizing. “Or maybe it’s just a damn stupid idea to use demons to fight Nazis.” He started trudging away.
After a moment, Gargantuan followed.
— ♦♦♦ —
Edge of the Abyss. By Tyler Auffhammer Art by Carol Wellart
Captain Harry Ackerman…even the sound of his name interested Thomas. It had been Ackerman’s name that captured him the first time he read Elliott’s Explorers of the Unknown as a boy. Thomas admired Ackerman’s determination, skills, and reputation. Only, it had slowly become obvious to many that he wasn’t the man he used to be. Now, on an arctic expedition led by the great man, Thomas could only hope that he and the others would survive and live to tell about it. For Ackerman was taking them all to the edge of the abyss.