A cloud of dust, raised by machines of war.
For the last several kilometers along the abused dirt road, Wehrmacht Captain Rickard Wetzel and the vehicles of his command have been passing German Army vehicles: trucks, jeeps, armored personnel carriers, trucks towing artillery pieces, motorcycle couriers, even some tanks, all heading in the opposite direction, towards the front. Now, in late afternoon as the sun breaks through the clouds, they come to their destination.
It’s a Wehrmacht forward command post that’s using an abandoned village as a gathering place and an easy map point. Similar to the one a hundred kilometers or so the west where Wetzel and his soldiers had destroyed the American patrol.
Wetzel raises his goggles as his jeep comes to a halt. He looks back to see the rest of his vehicles pull up behind him. Krober gets out of the lead truck and Wetzel goes to meet him.
“Take some men and get us resupplied. I’m going to find Major Dagheit and get briefed on our new mission. I’ll find you back here when I’m done.”
“Yes, sir!” Krober salutes and moves off, shouting and gesturing to the men in trucks. Wetzel watches for a minute to make sure that everything is moving smoothly. Krober has it all under control, no worries there. Krober’s been a great success, a much better sargeant than Waldmann, who got shot in the face in Greece, that worthless piece of shit only had his rank because of some relative in the Wehrmacht bureaucracy in Dusseldorf. Krober’s the complete opposite: fearless, a good tactician on the unit level, the men trust him, a veteran up through the ranks.
As he walks towards the largest cluster of men and machines, the Major will probably be there, giving out orders and receiving reports, a new sound catches Wetzel’s ear and he turns to look. A squad of the new tank men units is marching up the road, past the command post. They look good, new, bristling with weapons. It’s nice to see that the alliance with the Japanese Empire is finally paying off in the promised technological sharing. The tank men are accompanied by motorcycle scouts who are carrying the latest energy weapons. Those, Wetzel is less fond of, memories of how badly the battlefield testing of those things went on Crete. If he closes his eyes, he can still see Drucker unraveling, his flesh flying off of him in strips as the weapon’s battery pack overloaded. It seems like Drucker was still screaming even when he was rendered down to nothing but a skeleton. No, Wetzel pats his machinegun in reassurance, he’ll stick to the old standards for now.
Wetzel leaves his men and walks through the crowd. He stops and asks a soldier, who gestures towards a cluster of officers grouped around a halftrack. The officers are getting a briefing from a higher ranking Wehrmacht officer, DAGHEIT.
Wetzel waits until Dagheit’s finished with a group of officers and then steps forward.
“Captain Wetzel, reporting as ordered, sir!”
“You made good time, Captain. That’s what I like to see.” “The map of the Zahir Castle area.” As the aide hurries off to the staff car, Dagheit turns back to Wetzel. “What’s your impression of the front?”
Wetzel thinks for a minute, choosing the right words. “Creaking. The Americans are citizen soldiers. In fact, they can barely be called soldiers at all, compared the British, or, God help us, the Russians. They’re quick learners, though, I’ll give them that. But why the front is creaking despite their ineptitude is that there are a lot of them and they are very well supplied. My experience has been that I can destroy a patrol, a platoon, and I will be facing two the next day.”
Dagheit nods, accepting the analysis. “And what about their technology? Are they presenting any new technology in battlefield strength?”
“Not in battlefield strength. I haven’t seen any myself, but I have heard from other front line units that they’ve occasionally faced tank men and even more infrequently, energy weapons. Nothing up to our standards, however, and the American’s tactical ignorance hampers their effective use.”
“That’s very good to hear! I’m sure that you saw the new tank man units advancing up the road. They’re the latest models, Japanese technology coupled with the best in German engineering and manufacturing. I’ve heard that the Japanese call them mecha.”
The two men turn to look down the road in the direction of the marching machines. “I did indeed see those, Sir, and they look very impressive. Much more impressive than anything I’ve seen the Americans fielding.” Dagheit nods in pleased acceptance. After a brief flicker of internal debate, Wetzel continues in a tone that’s a lot less enthusiastic. “However, Sir, I have to say, I was surprised, unpleasantly so, at the strength of the American, or rather Allied, ‘unconventional’ forces in the field and their effectiveness.”
Dagheit catches his meaning. “And you’re not the only field officer who’s reporting that. I’ve sent word back up to the line to both Kesselring and Rommel, letting them know that it’s becoming an issue.” The Major turns to his aide who’s arrived with the map. “In fact, that leads very nicely to the reason why I’ve got this mission for you.” Dagheit spreads it on the hood of his car. “Here’s what I need you to do, Captain. There’s a Waffen SS unit stationed at a castle in the north, about a day’s travel behind our lines. And not just any Waffen SS unit. One from Ahnerbe Section H. You understand?”
Wetzel grimaces in distasteful remembrance. “I do, sir. I’ve had some experience with Section H soldiers before. Can you tell me which… variety… these are?”
Dagheit’s voice takes on a rote quality, an officer repeating Army doctrine that he really doesn’t believe in. “The Waffen SS forces from the Ahnerbe Section H have proven their usefulness on the Eastern Front, but here in Africa things have been different.” And then his voice changes to match Wetzel’s distaste. “Too much sun, I suppose. And the sun is a problem to this … variety. These are Nosferatu.”
At that word, Wetzel tastes the blood in his mouth again, hears the screams again, the screams and the laughter. That hideous laughter from the bent and inhuman forms that sliced red agony from the prisoners, the helpless civilians. He looks away and swallows, hard, and makes sure that his voice will be level when he speaks. “Ah. Some of them.” It’s level enough, so he returns his gaze to the Major and lets distaste color the rest of his words. “I was part of the army group that moved through the Balkans and took Greece. It was there that I was seconded to a Section H unit that was given the job of making an alliance with a nest of Nosferatu. Their actions following the alliance made me think that they don’t make the most disciplined of soldiers.”
Dagheait nods in understanding. “You’re completely correct, Captain. They make shit soldiers, no matter what certain parties in Berlin say. And that’s why you’re here. I need you to go there and remind them what German Army discipline is. It’s a proper dog’s breakfast up there in that castle. You’ve got Section H, which has always been stand-offish. Then there’s the Waffen SS, who always feel that they can do whatever they want. Add Nosferatu to the picture.” His tone becomes particularly arid and strained. “And to top it all off, the Gruppenfuhrer of this particular unit of Waffen SS Nosferatu is nobility, or so she says.”
Wetzel runs the words back through his mind to make sure that he’s heard them correctly. Yes, the Major did indeed use that exact pronoun. This time, he takes no care to control his voice, either the tone or the volume. “She? A woman Gruppenfuhrer? Have they gone mad?”
Dagheit catches his aide’s gaze and nods him away. The man goes off, disappears into the bustle of soldiers. Then he leans in close to Wetzel and his eyes emphasize his warning. “You’re a good soldier, Captain. One of my best. So please take this warning in the spirit it is offered: That’s perhaps a question that should not be asked too loudly, Captain.”
Wetzel stiffens to attention, a spinal reflex. “My apologies, Colonel! I spoke without thinking!” Inside, he’s yelling at himself for being so stupid. He knows better than to speak like that out in the open where anyone might be listening. It’s his duty to take stupid risks on the battlefield. It’s also his duty to avoid any sort of risks on the political battlefield. He hadn’t realized that the news that he’d be in contact Nosferatu again had rattled him so much. He’ll have to take that into account. He buries memories of the living bodies writhing on stakes.
Dagheit waves him at ease and keeps his own voice low, the words meant to go no further than the two of them. “Maybe so, but you’re not far wrong.” Then he straightens and returns to his briefing voice, starts pointing out places on the map. “So, this Gruppenfuhrer, Countess Erizbet Bathory, some Hungarian family I believe, is becoming a pain in my ass. You and your men will go to this outpost that she’s set up in some old Crusader castle. You will tell her that you’re speaking with the highest authority in the field. Let her know that her demands for resources are unreasonable and will not be met. Her unit is to function smoothly within the command structure of the Afrika Korps. There will be no adventurism and no independent movements. She is to gather her forces and await further commands to move against the Allied forces. If she objects, you will remind her of the responsibility that comes with the uniform she is honored to wear and also remind her of the penalty for disobeying orders.” When he gets to the end of the briefing, Dagheit’s voice is iron.
Wetzel asks the obvious question. “And if she persists in her actions?” And gets the answer he was hoping for.
“You have full authority to deal with her as you see fit.” Dagheit’s voice is uncompromising with a bit of approval.
“I understand.” Wetzel can’t hold back a smile that combines teeth baring and happiness. He knows himself well enough to know that he’s afraid and pasting over that fear with enthusiasm. But this is a chance to exorcise those fears that entered his soul back in the Balkans. A chance to erase those memories of his actions in that small town up in the Croatian mountains, the memories of what he said, the memories of how he felt. Captain Rickard Wetzel has been at war for the last three years. He has a lot of nightmares. But now, this is a chance to stop the worst of them. He blinks away the monsters feeding on the bodies. “Then I’ll need to draw special weapons before I leave, Major.”
“I thought you might.” Dagheit snaps his fingers and his adjutant appears from the busyness of the depot. “The authorizations for the Captain’s mission.” The aide instantly produces them from an inside pocket. The Major takes the proffered papers and hands them to Wetzel. “Here are the authorizations for weapon supply as well as documentation of your orders and authority.”
Wetzel takes them and quickly scans them.
“As you can see, they come from General Rommel himself.”
Wetzel folds them up, stows them, and gives Major Dagheit a crisp salute. “Please assure the General that these Waffen Nosferatu will trouble him no more!”
Dagheit returns the salute. Wetzel leaves as Dagheit’s aides move back in to surround him and he goes back to issuing orders and signing papers.
Wetzel threads his way through the busy soldiers and vehicles until he gets to his own men. He’s pleased to see that they’re all busy loading crates of ammo, fueling the vehicles, and filling jerry cans with extra gas. “Sergeant Krober! What’s our status?”
The man turns at his name and salutes. “Status is good, sir. They have the ammo that we needed as well as fuel. And no problems with getting it.” He sees something over Wetzel’s shoulder. “Buchlander! Put that crate of grenades in the other truck!” He turns his attention back to the Captain. “Sorry about that, sir. We should be ready to go in ten minutes.”
“It might be a few more minutes than that.” In answer to Krober’s raised eyebrows, Wetzel pulls out the orders and requisitions that Dagheit had given him. “The reason we were called here is the mission that we’ve just been given. And hold onto your nuts, Sergeant, this one’s ugly. Here, take a look. We’re going to be loading more gear.”
Krober whistles softly through his teeth as he scans the pages. “Shit, sir. Those Balkan monsters.” He turns the pages and grows marginally happier when he sees the list of weapons they’ve been authorized to pull. “Oh, this is good, sir, this is very good. Been wondering if I’d ever get the chance to use this stuff. This will give us the edge.”
“It had better, Sergeant. Because the edge on this mission is going to razor thin. And we can’t afford to cut ourselves.”
The setting sun raises a crimson glow from the tank men marching past.