Nothing stirs in the courtyard of the castle in the cloudy afternoon.
A giant scarlet banner adorned with the swastika hangs from the highest tower in the castle. Wind intermittently makes it flap and rustle. The wind doesn’t reach down into the courtyard, the air is clammy and still, with a slight odor of decay coming from somewhere. Sunlight is revealed and then hidden by the clouds racing across the sky. Not much light reaches the bottom of the courtyard; the shadows are long even in early afternoon. Sometimes there’s a faint electrical buzzing sound coming from somewhere, like a giant wasp trapped in a glass.
One side of the courtyard is pierced by a gate leading out from the castle and the road down to the plain. Opposite the gate, at the head of a set of steps, is a large wooden double door, heavily adorned with huge iron hinges. The other two sides of the courtyard are overlooked by several stories of windows, blank eyes staring sightlessly.
Engine noise grumbles and echoes in the gateway. Wetzel’s jeep, containing the Captain, Sergeant Krober, and the driver, pulls into the courtyard. The jeep is closely followed by the two trucks in his convoy. Muller parks the jeep in front of the stairs.
Wetzel and Krober get out and Wetzel turns to Muller. “Keep the meter running, Joachim, until you hear from me.”
The driver, who actually was a cab driver back in Nuremberg before the war, grins at Wetzel. “Yes, sir.”
“Get all the men out of the trucks, but the drivers. They’re to be like Muller here, keeping the motors running. Break out the weapons.” Krober nods at his orders and moves away to make them happen.
The men clatter out of the trucks and swap out their usual weapons for one modified for combat against Nosferatu: machine guns and rifles with heavier barrels to take the larger bullets tipped with phosphorus. Krober comes back to Wetzel with a machine gun slung over one shoulder and carrying a holstered pistol. He hands the pistol to Wetzel, who takes it out of the holster, checks the clip, makes sure that there’s one in the breech. Satisfied, he buckles the holster.
“Right. Let’s get this done so we can get back to our real work. Remember, we’re just here to deliver a friendly warning. No shooting unless they shoot first.” Before he and Krober head up the steps to the door, Wetzel addresses his men. “Keep alert, all of you! This isn’t friendly ground.” Satisfied with their seriousness, he heads up the steps.
At the head of the steps, Wetzel raises his fist to bang on the big double door but, before he can, both sides of the door swing open with a maximum of groaning and creaking. Krober stiffens and switches his gun from safe to auto. Wetzel contents himself with ironically raised eyebrows and a bored expression.
Two robed figures, completely cover in black cloth, even veiled across the eyes finish opening the doors and gesture the two men inside. Both the soldiers can tell that they’re women beneath the robes, despite the lack of any sort of body clues. It’s the way they move.
The two soldiers enter Castle Blood.
They see a wide entry hallway, stairs leading up along the sides of the room, doors to either side, and opposite the main door, a larger door leading further into the castle. The double door slams shut behind the men with a thunderous crash, cutting off the sunlight from outside and plunging the hall into a gloom only partially dispelled by some flickering electrical lights hanging from the ceiling. Neither Wetzel nor Krober react to the noise.
Wetzel turns to one of the women and opens his mouth to speak. He pauses until she’s completely finished removing her enveloping robes. He allows himself another eyebrow raise at the sight of Illana’s uniform, which is bright contrast to the black robes. She’s wearing some sort of Austro-Hungarian hussar’s uniform from the previous century, he thinks. Or at least a uniform of that sort designed by a third rate theatrical costumer who’s just abandoned all restraint.
He runs his eyes up the vision. Boots, gleaming black naturally, up to the knee. Tight trousers with gold embroidered braid down the sides. Ornamented belt with spaces for holsters and scabbards slung at an angle around the hips. White blouse covered by high cut jacket that’s been layered with more embroidery and ornaments and medals. The buttons in the shape of skulls match the skull belt buckle.
And then his gaze reaches her face. And his amused contempt is washed away with the reminder of what he’s facing. For a second, he’s back in the Balkans and the monastery is still echoing with screams and laughter as demons dance around the huge bonfire. He blinks and is back in North Africa and is staring into the face of the beautiful monster in front of him.
“I had no idea that the Waffen SS uniform designers were getting so … creative these days.” He’s proud that he’s able to take the tone of an indulgent adult talking to a wilful child. It’s easy. He just imagines his father talking to him.
The nosferatu draws herself up, just like an affronted cat. “This is the traditional uniform of the family -”
Now his tone is that of a commanding officer who’s not in the mind to put up with any bullshit whatsoever. “Captain Wetzel, on orders from General Kesselring. You will take me to Gruppenfuhrer Bathory now.” She’s very close. He’s seen just how fast the blood drinkers can be. If she moves on him, he’ll probably have enough time to draw his pistol. Probably. But he knows that you can never show fear or hesitation to these creatures.
But instead she just smiles. And smiles without showing fangs. “Of course, Captain.” She gestures to the door at the opposite end of the hallway. “Please follow me.”
Now he’s really worried. As the two vampire women proceed them to the door, he exchanges a quick glance with Krober. The Sergeant nods and takes a firmer grip on his gun.
One of the women opens the door and both of them move to flank it. “Captain Wetzel to see the Gruppenfuhrer.” One of them announces in a clear, carrying voice.
The two soldiers move past both women without acknowledging them and then stop at what they see. Wetzel stops as if he was meaning to stop, clasps his hands behind his back, and surveys the room with a pleasant expression on his face. The expression masks a growing opinion that he and his men are fucked. His pulse starts its standard pre-combat slow down and his peripheral vision starts to narrow. Krober stumbles just a bit behind him when he stops. He can feel his sergeant’s unease.
It’s a long room with a high vaulted roof, probably used to be an audience and reception hall back in Crusader times. There’s a big open space stretching down to the far end. Along the left and right sides of the open space run rows of pillars supporting a lower roof, open hallways that run the length of the room along each side. A couple of other exits that he can see, doors on the walls. No windows. It’s lit by large lamps and chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling. His eyes are drawn to the figure seated behind a long table that’s up on a dais at the far end of the room. She wears the uniform of a Waffen SS Gruppenfuhrer and he blinks in surprise. What the hell? She’s got brown skin! Some sort of Arab? But her name’s Bathory! She’s Hungarian nobility. Wetzel curses the pinheads who put together briefing information.
Standing behind her, leaning over her shoulder is a tall, blonde man, looks like he just stepped out of an Aryan recruiting poster. He’s wearing the uniform and rank tabs of a Waffen SS Sturmbannfuhrer. The file had identified him as Frederick von Regensberg. Wetzel immediately hates him. Not because he’s a vampire, but because he looks like he does and has that stupid von in his name.
When Wetzel and Krober come through the door, the room is busy with various vampire SS officers standing over maps laid out on the table and getting messages from a radio communications station in one corner. The room is loud with conversation and orders.
Krober leans in to whisper in Wetzel’s ear. “So much for catching them napping.”
Wetzel barely moves his lips to reply. “I know. Be prepared. This isn’t going to end well.”
The two women vampires in their ridiculous uniforms usher Wetzel and Krober to Bathory at the end of the hall. As they pass, the vampires look up and fall silent. By the time they get to Bathory, the room is completely silent.
She looks down from her dias. “And who are these uninvited guests?”
“A Captain Wetzel from Army Command, Excellency.” There’s a malicious and playful edge in the woman vampire’s voice that makes the hair raise up on the back of Wetzel’s neck.
“I see. And what does Army Command want with me?” Bathory sounds bored and she’s looking at a piece of paper. Wetzel notices a heavy ring, with a carved red stone in the center, looks possibly Egyptian, on one finger.
He decides that he has to take charge of this conversation. She’s very intelligently staged this to have all the advantages over him. So he raises his voice and directly addresses her, ignoring all the others. “I am here to express operational concerns that have recently risen and to make sure that certain orders are clear.”
That gets her attention. She puts the page down and looks at him. “The SS does not answer to the Wehrmacht, Captain.”
There’s nothing sane in her eyes, but he doesn’t break eye contact. She radiates a feeling of age, so very old, and that conflicts with how young she looks. But he doesn’t let that throw him. He keeps his voice flat, informing her of the way things are and will be. “When in the field, they do. This is standard doctrine.”
“Oh, I suppose you’re right. Well, go on then, what are the concerns of the Ober Kommand Wehrmacht? I would think that my successes against the Americans would be acknowledged but I suppose that is too much to ask.” She looks around the room to make sure that all of her followers are aware of just how put upon she is.
“It is those very successes that are to be discussed.” There’s no budge in his tone, no acknowledgment of her reaction. In the cool air of the hall, sweat rolls down his spine.
And that sets off the stupid von. He stalks over to the edge of the dais and sneers down at Wetzel. “Oh, is that what we are doing, discussing? It sounded more like you were criticizing a superior officer!”
Wetzel ignores him instead of giving into his desire to shoot the bastard in the knees. “Gruppenfuhrer Bathory, perhaps it might be better is this discussion were to be continued in private, just the two of us, away from your subordinates.”
“Nonsense! It will do them good to hear this. I am not so thin skinned. Sturmbannführer von Regensberg will behave himself and remember that he is addressing a superior officer. Please continue, Captain.” Bathory waves an encouraging hand. The von stalks back to stand behind her and glares at Wetzel.
“The main issue is this. Unit integration is standard army procedure. SS units must operate alongside Wehrmacht units and towards the common strategy as laid out by Wehrmacht High Command. No more independent raids. Military maneuvers and attacks will only occur when given the orders to do so. These orders come from the highest levels. Do you understand? Your troops are very effective but only when part of a larger plan.” He sincerely hopes that he’s getting through to her. He very much doubts that he is.
“At least you do not deny the effectiveness of my troops. I do suppose that a certain independence has crept into my behavior.”
And now a bit of the carrot. “Your successes are not in question. You and your soldiers of the Waffen SS Section H have been instrumental in slowing the Allied advance. But the current strategic situation requires you to act only when ordered to do so.”
“You’re very blunt, Captain.”
He’d feel much better if he couldn’t hear the undercurrent of laughter in her voice, despite the serious face she’s keeping. “I’m a soldier following orders, Gruppenfuhrer.” His tone indicates that she should do the same.
Bathory stands and walks down off the dais and along the table, not looking at Wetzel but instead pensively down at the map and counters laid on it. “You make very good points, Captain. And thank you for reminding me proper Army doctrine. After all, like yourself, I am a soldier, pledged to obedience, in the armies of the glorious Third Reich.” There is a pause, and Bathory looks up and her fangs are prominent. All the vampires in the room begin to laugh.
Wetzel had started to draw his pistol at her last words. He and Krober start shooting. The monsters are as fast as he’d expected and he doesn’t get lucky. Bathory ducks away from his shots and another one, a low ranking officer, leaps across the table between them. Wetzel shoots him in the head and notes that the monster is still carrying one of those ridiculous sweeper things that tacticians use to move pieces across strategy maps. The monster crouches there, on the table, laughing at the head shot. And then the phosphorus on the bullet tip ignites. The monster has time for one brief scream as his head burns from the inside.
Close combat flashes. The rest of the monsters rushing them. Over the table. Around the table. No chance for another shot at Bathory. Krober steady at his back. Short, controlled bursts from his submachine gun. Making for the door. Can’t see the women. Monsters going up in flames. None of them firing back, just monsters with claws and teeth. Smoke. Gunpowder. Burning monsters. “Reloading!” Krober increasing fire while he swaps clips. Bathory and the stupid von on the walls? How? Trying for a shot, another monster too close. Shift aim, another monster screams and burns. Now covering Krober while he reloads. Where’s the fucking door? They’re close. Get Bleick to call in an airstrike. Artillery. Burn this nest out. Where’s the door?
A few minutes earlier. Out in the courtyard.
Bleick shivers and pulls his coat tighter. There’s something oppressive about the silence in the courtyard. Plenty of times out in the desert, he’s appreciated the silence, it’s a pure silence out there. But here, it’s a lurking silence. The silence of a child killer waiting in an alley. He walks over to Stossel. The sniper is out in the middle of the courtyard, slowly turning in place, looking upwards at the windows, the blank windows, like dead eyes. Bleick shakes his head and tells himself to get his shit together.
The rest of the men are staying close to the trucks. There’s not a lot of talking. But there’s a lot of checking of guns. Everyone’s on edge. A couple of times they’ve gone up against the weird shit in the British and American armies, but they’ve never been this nervous. Even those ancient Egyptian walking corpses hadn’t been as monstrous as the Nosferatu.
Most of the time, Bleick find Stossel’s cold bloodedness off putting. But now, he wants to take comfort from the ice water running in the man’s veins. Standing next to the man, he looks around the courtyard. “This is moderately unsettling.”
Stossel doesn’t even look at him, doesn’t stop surveying the windows. “Stay alert.”
“Do really think these SS bastards will try anything? We’re all soldiers in the Reich.” Bleick curses himself again for the note of hopeful pleading in his voice.
“The captain said stay alert. And these aren’t just SS. These are Nosferatu and there’s no telling what they’ll do.”
“You were with the Captain in the Balkans when there was that action against the Nosferatu. What are they like? Are they as crazy as the legends?” He notices the sweat trickling down the side of Stossel’s face and the bottom drops out his stomach. His grip on his gun is suddenly slippery. He swallows hard. He hears the wind flap that huge red banner.
Something catches Stossel’s eye and he swings his rifle to cover a window. His voice is calm, not loud, but it carries throughout the courtyard. “Attack incoming.”
All the windows overlooking the courtyard shatter as figures leap through them. Figures made monstrous in heavy black leather greatcoats, helmets, blacked out gas masks, and gloves. No weapons. The sound of breaking glass is almost louder than the sounds of gunfire and screams that are coming from inside the castle.
Bleick’s an experienced soldier, so he doesn’t waste any time shielding his eyes from the falling glass. He just squints, ducks his head a little, and starts firing. Next to him, he hears Stossel start to take his shots. In the brief instants before the monsters land in the courtyard, two of them take bullets right through their gas masks and fall as burning corpses.
The rest of the monsters land with no difficulty in the courtyard, even those who have jumped out of windows several stories high. They land like cats and like cats they move fast. They dodge and leap and duck and head right for the soldiers.
Some of them are hit and burn and scream, Bleick knows he got at least one, spraying his submachine gun back and forth, Stossel’s shots a regular metronome in his ear.
But the rest of the monsters are too fast. Suddenly, Bleick can’t tell from where, one of them is right up along side him, the blacked out gas mask making it a blind eyed insect, and his gun is torn out of his grip. He barely saves his fingers. The blank eyes of the mask stare at him as the gloved hands bend his gun out of shape. Bleick takes advantage of the display and lunges forward. He’s able to grip the mask’s dangling hose and pull as hard as he can, desparation and terror increasing his strength. The monster helps by jerking its head backwards. The clasps on the mask snap. Bleick gets a glimpse of a face that’s all fangs and red eyes in the instant before the sunlight hits it. Then the face just bubbles and burns and screams.
No time for triumph. Pain explodes in his back as a heavy blow knocks him to the ground. He tastes blood as his face meets the stones in the courtyard. He rolls and tries to get to his feet. A kick delivered faster than he can see breaks ribs and drops him back down. The pain rips a scream from him and he curls around the pain.
He knows that he’s seconds away from death. He closes his eyes and waits for it. At least when he’s dead, it won’t fucking hurt to breath.
Then he realizes that death is taking a surprisingly long time in coming. Stopped for coffee, he wonders insanely? He can barely see through the tears of pain when he forces his eyes open. The first thing he sees is that Stossel is laying on the ground next to him. He’s unconscious and bleeding from a smashed nose.
One of the monsters stoops over Stossel and smears its gloved fingers in his blood. It stands and pulls its mask aside just enough to slide the fingers in underneath. There’s a hideous slobbering sucking sound that Bleick wishes with all his soul that the couldn’t hear over the sounds of the rest of the soldiers being captured.
He looks away, craning his neck, trying not to move the rest of his body. Almost all of the rest of the troop are being knocked around, weapons taken, kicked, and beaten. He sees one of the monsters look in the back of the truck closest to him. There’s a burst of submachine gun fire and Bleick feels a flare of hope as the monster falls back into the courtyard, burning and screaming. The hope is short lived. Another monster, moving so very fast, darts up and over the truck’s tailgate. There’s a human scream, no more firing, and blood paints the canvas covering the back of the truck.
Bleick closes his eyes and curses, slumps back to the ground. Each time he breathes, it feels like knives stabbing him in the lungs. Which means that when he’s grabbed and pulled to his feet, the pain is so great, he can’t even scream. He just stands there swaying, unable to think, just trying not to throw up. He stumbles into motion, driven by kicks and punches that he can barely feel.
As he’s pushed through a door at the side of the courtyard and starts down some steps, Bleick thinks that he can still hear gunfire coming from inside the castle. It’s probably just the ringing in his ears.
The hall is a mess. Tables are overturned. The radio communications station is sparking and smoking; one of the vampires dodged a burst from Krober and the station got the bullets instead. The air smells of cordite, phosphorus, and burning vampire.
The surviving vampires are ducking behind the overturned tables, staying low, trying to stop Wetzel and Krober from reaching the door. Wetzel’s distantly grateful that none of them have remembered their weapons. From the corner of his eye, he catches glimpses of Bathory. She’s still clinging to the wall, high up, in the corner. It looks as if she’s observing. Every time he tries for a shot, the other vampires get in the way or distract him. Fiercely protective of her, these monsters are. The stupid von pops up from behind a table, tries to wave his troops ahead, tries to get them to rush him and Krober. Wetzel tries to teach him a lesson but he’s too fast and he ducks back down before the bullets hit.
“Almost there, sir! These fucking leeches are cowards after all!” Krober’s voice is loud in his ear and he punctuates his words with another burst from his gun.
Wetzel moves in the direction of the door, shoots twice to drive back a vampire who might be discovering what bravery is. “Keep firing! Don’t let them find their courage!” He’s worried about ammo. He only has one spare clip left. But they’re close to the door, they get out in the sun, they might have a chance.
Wetzel glances over at Bathory, he wants to see how she’s reacting. She not even looking at them. She looking above them! Everything slows down as Wetzel realizes that he’s forgotten the two women in the ridiculous costumes. A piece of stone falls on his sleeve and he looks up.
Just in time to see one of them launch herself straight at him from where she was clinging to the ceiling. He’s too slow to bring his gun up and instead gets a pair of highly polished boots right in the face. He slams into the floor. Gun lost from his grip, spinning away somewhere. Breath gone. He hears Krober yell and then stop firing.
She lands lithely, balanced, right next to him. An implacable grip around his throat, claws draw a little blood on the side of his neck. Effortlessly lifted to his feet.
“You’re only alive because she wishes it.” Her breath smells like old blood. She pulls him around so he can see Bathory.
Bathory leaps from the ceiling, lands with preternatural balance on the side of an overturned table, perches there for a second, a crouched monster in skintight SS leather. Then she steps to the floor and approaches Wetzel. Through the ringing in his ears, he can hear her boots click on the floor. There is contempt in her face and nothing sane in her eyes. “In death, you will be of more use than you ever were alive. You shall be part of the foundation upon which rests the Blood Reich.” She waves him away and speaks to the female monster holding him. “Take him to the cells with the rest of them!”
He struggles briefly, but the monster’s grip is like iron. He knows from those words that he’s fucked worse that he’d imagined. But not completely fucked. He’s still alive, Krober’s still alive, and at least some of his men are still alive. If she’s so self-confident not to kill them right away, there’s a chance. Slim, but a chance. Wetzel spits blood at her. One of the monsters in a SS uniform stoops and wipes the blood up off the floor with a gloved hand. It laughs at Wetzel as it licks the glove clean. Its tongue is grey and pointed.