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Milo knew serving in a penal regiment would be dangerous, but he thought he’d at least make it to the frontlines before looking death in the eye.
“Take him behind the latrines,” Jules hissed as his angry, muddy eyes bored into Milo’s pale stare. “I want him sucking his last breath face-down in filth.”
Milo would have spat in Jules’ face if they hadn’t already wound the gag so tightly that his jaw ached. Instead, he settled for straining forward and kicking out as Jules’ cronies began to drag him away. Tall as he was, Milo’s kicks still fell woefully short of their intended targets.
It was early morning, and the rest of the 7th Penal Regiment of the Polish Colonial Forces, the duly named “Mud-Snakes,” were busy prepping for redeployment. As such, no one noticed Milo and his rough-handed escorts as they dragged him across the camp. With one man for each arm and one to keep the gag bound tight at the base of his skull, they skirted the various companies that were hard at work.
Supplies were heaped on flat-backed automobiles, draped in canvas, and then lashed down tight, so they resembled nothing so much as ancient, lumpy beasts of burden. Quartermasters shuffled about, counting and cursing as they sought to dredge order from the chaos, while officers gave sharp, nonsensical orders to men who’d learned better than to pay them much attention. The last ten weeks had not beaten any of the criminal nature out of the motley collection of men in the regiment, but it had taught them that the disgraced officers placed over them were disgraced for a reason.
As the regimental proverb said, “Princes may turn into frogs, but generals don’t turn into mud-snakes.”
More than once, Milo took his life into his hands, straining at his captors to try to get the attention of the men he passed by mouth or motion, but it only earned him sharp blows to the ribs. No one saw him because no one wanted to see him. The sort of business done in the shadows of a penal regiment was something no sane soul wanted to contemplate for long. Even when they reached Milo’s company, everyone seemed to be looking everywhere but at him.
Which was why, not ten paces from the latrines, Milo nearly choked out a laugh through his gag as someone shouted his name through the bustling camp.
“Volkohne! Milo Volkohne!”
The three holding him froze, and Milo felt something cold and sharp pressed against the side of his neck.
“So much as cough,” the man holding his gag whispered, “and I’ll split you like an eel.”
“Milo Volkohne!” came the call again.
Milo didn’t dare move, but he squinted across a row of tents to spy a very large man in an officer’s greatcoat. The seeker’s clothing was stark black instead of muddy gray, marking him as a member of one of the Federated branches of the Imperial German Army and not one of the colonial branches. Milo couldn’t spot the rank on the coat’s shoulder, but it didn’t matter. A Federated officer or Blackcoat of any rank had more authority than a general of the colonial forces.
“It’s a Blackcoat,” the man on his right hissed.
“Shut up,” the gag-handler hissed, the steel blade nicking Milo’s cheek before drifting away.
“Milo Volkohne! Report at once!”
“If he spots us…” the man on Milo’s left wheezed, his grip slackening.
As surreptitiously as he could, Milo started to shift his weight.
“Don’t you dare!” the gag-handler snarled in Milo’s ear as he hauled back on the gag hard.
Through the filthy rag, Milo grinned as he drove his head back into the man’s nose.
Twisting sharply, he tore his left arm free, and just managed to snag the gag-handler’s knife hand by the wrist. The man on his right arm yanked, and Milo was hauled sideways as he let his weight drop. The straining knife skimmed just above Milo’s hair to sink deep into the meat of the left-hand man’s chest. He’d been so busy reaching for Milo’s shoulder that he hadn’t been paying close enough attention.
The knifed man screamed as Milo and the man still gripping his right arm tumbled into the mud, thrashing and punching. Milo hoped that would get the Blackcoat’s attention, but with the ruckus of mobilization, he wasn’t going to leave it to chance. He ripped the gag from his mouth and bellowed at the top of his lungs.
“Volkohne! Volkohne! Volk—”
The man he was grappling threw his considerable weight onto Milo and both pitched into the mud, Milo on the bottom. Earthen slop filled his mouth and he felt the bigger man pressing down, both hands ramming Milo’s face into the smothering muck while weighty haunches settled on his back. Milo kicked and flailed but even when he managed to twist his head to the side, he was so deep there was still no air, only mud.
He felt his strength failing him as his lungs burned, and the only thing he could think of was how much he wished that wretched name wasn’t the last thing he’d spoken. An unshakable mark of the Bellus Orphanarium, he hated that his last breath had been spent uttering it. Volkohne: folk-less in bastardized German. Dear God, how he hated that name.
Somewhere far away, Milo heard the bark of pistol fire, one shot after another.
Are we under attack?
Milo knew he was dying, his lungs throbbing as they prepared to suck in a desperate mouthful of mud. Something inside his chest kicked, a spasm of surrender, and then he was being hauled upward. Muck came out in a gagging spray, and he fought to breathe between wracking coughs that expelled more mud.
“Get up,” a deep voice told him, and had he not been occupied with cleaning his airways, Milo might have complied.
As it was, a huge hand gripped the front of his uniform and dragged him to his unsteady feet. Something soft and dry was pressed into his hands, and by reflex, Milo cleared the filth from his watering eyes.
Two men were dying at his feet, whimpering about the darkening bloodstains swallowing the breasts of their uniforms. A few strides away, face down, lay a third man, the back of his coat sporting two ragged holes. Still retching up mud, Milo turned and saw the huge Blackcoat officer looking down at him with a flat expression.
“Th-thank you, sir,” he choked out, fighting to straighten up. He thought he should salute, but feared doing so might have him getting sick all over the man.
“Come,” the giant growled in a thick accent as he turned on his heel. “We are already late.”
Though he’d only been in the building once in his life, Milo recognized the converted compound as soon as they approached.
This was the building where he’d sworn he’d lost his mind.
The 7th had been encamped in a gutted public park a few city blocks to the south of the town square, in which the Central Command of the Coalition Army was sprawled into every available building. This particular building was just across the street from the town hall, where the top brass of Central Command spent their time pretending to be very busy.
Moving down said street, Milo had spotted smartly dressed officers moving about with the swift, sure movements of men who had somewhere to be. Most were in the drab colonial colors, though peppered here and there was the striking black of Federated personnel. A few called to each other as they toted their satchels and bags full of official documents and all the bureaucratic trappings of men ready to send other men to die in their thousands. Men like Milo, men with no choice, and even worse, no hope.
He stared, mouth open, as two young colonial officers threw salutes as they passed, calling to the huge Blackcoat leading him.
“Victory through brotherhood,” they belted out, which was the “new” rallying cry of the Coalition.
The Blackcoat ignored them, but Milo, feeling momentarily insulated in the presence of his intimidating escort, gave them pitying looks.
Who were they fooling?
Milo didn’t know which was a bigger joke, brotherhood or victory.
The colonials from the likes of Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, and many other lands once under the wing of the Russian Empire had flocked to the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians out of desperation, nothing else. Outside the hearing of their new masters, Milo had listened to their true opinions, and even his seasoned ears had been burning by the things they’d whispered about the Blackcoats.
That was a dream that had died sixteen years ago in 1918 when Petrograd burned, and the war promised to grind on. Only madmen and politicians still talked about victory.
The Blackcoat barely paused as the soldiers stationed there hurried to pull the double doors open. Realizing his bitter musings had put him out of sync with his erstwhile savior, Milo rushed to catch up.
The building might have been a large boardinghouse or perhaps a hotel before the war, but now it was just one of the many buildings hosting one branch or another of the Central European Coalition Army here in Zabrze, Poland. The lobby had been converted to a typing pool, where men and women in crisp gray uniforms punched keys in front of a wide staircase that led to a second level full of interview rooms. Milo couldn’t keep himself from counting over to the one he’d been sent to three weeks ago: Room 7, just before the corner.
A longboard was lashed between the rails lining the second-floor gallery, bearing a sign in German that read, Offices for the Non-Conventional Application of Tactics (Nicht Konventionelle Anwendung der Taktik). Milo suppressed a shudder, just as he had on that first day. No one knew what Nicht-KAT really did, and in such fertile soil, rumors, huge and thorny, flourished.
“Captain Lokkemand,” called a young woman who rose out of the typing pool with a handful of documents. She might have been the prettiest creature Milo had seen in some time, which wasn’t saying much, but the severe bangs cut into her dark hair made her look serious to the point of caricature. The stern set to her jaw didn’t help things as she rushed toward the towering Blackcoat.
“Not now,” he rumbled, and he swept past her like an urchin on the street hawking yesterday’s news rags.
She caught Milo watching her for a reaction as he followed the captain toward the stairs, and her eyes narrowed at him for an instant. Something sharp and acidic curled at the back of her throat, but then her eyes darted over her shoulder, and her mouth snapped shut. Without further complaint or even a glance at Milo, she turned smartly and made for her desk.
Milo couldn’t shake the feeling that her glance at the second level was directed at Room 7, and the realization set his teeth on edge.
How could she know? Who else knew?
Not for the first time, Milo Volkohne began to wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to die in the mud.
Milo had been in Room 7 for nearly an hour, which struck him as ironic considering the first thing Lokkemand had said to him was, “We are already late.”
It didn’t surprise Milo, even though it was tiresome.
The truth was that more than the business of being a soldier—no, a conscript, the sergeants had been clear about that—his short time in the Penal Regiment had taught him to wait. Wait and stand in line. Wait inside, wait outside, stand in line in full battle gear, stand in line stark naked. He wasn’t sure he was any better at waiting, but he was now keenly aware of how long he’d been waiting at any given time. He told himself it was a way to ensure he knew how long between meals, but a more honest and spiteful voice acknowledged it was his way of defying his masters. Deep down he wanted a record, an account of all the ways his life was being wasted.
Keeping time also helped him ignore the small, shadowy figure lurking at the corner of the room. Milo was glad that so far the little…thing hadn’t turned around, since that would have made the last fifty-six minutes impossible to stomach.
As it was, when the doorknob of the interview room gave a rattle, Milo made sure to add the time to his tally before bracing himself for what would come next. Out of the corner of his eye, Milo noted the figure shuffle from one foot to another, but thankfully, that was all, even as the door swung open.
Thankful for something else to direct his attention to, Milo watched quizzically as a small trolley, complete with white cover and a silver domed dish, rolled into the room. Within the space of a breath, the delicious smell of seasoned meat filled the room. Milo’s stomach gave a lustful gurgle despite the knots it had been tied in. Of all the things he’d expected to enter this room, a delivery of food was not one of them.
Pushing the trolley was a slight man, slow and stooped, who shuffled in without any introduction. He rolled the trolley past the salivating Milo and up to the rough table before stepping around to brace himself against the table as he let go of the cart. The man seemed unsteady on his feet, his movements those of a person very old or very ill. That seemed strange, considering that while thin, he seemed hale enough.
He took the seat across the table, his back to the figure in the corner, and settled in with a sigh that seemed both grateful and apologetic. He looked at Milo for the first time through round spectacles that sat on a square, bearded face.
For a moment, neither man said anything; both just stared at each other.
“Is he still in here?” the man asked in Russian, his dialect impeccable Moscovian.
Milo balked for a second, unsure of how to respond.
“They haven’t beat all the Russki out of you, have they?” he asked, looking askance across the table.
Milo shook his head.
“Nyet,” Milo answered in his admittedly stilted Russian, fighting the urge to cross his arms. “I still speak it.”
The man’s lips raised at the corners, but something about the expression was not a smile despite the similarity.
“We can speak Deutch if you prefer?” the man offered, fluidly switching to German.
Milo’s eyes narrowed, sensing a test, but the slight sway of the figure in the corner was a relentless drag on his focus.
“Whatever you want,” he muttered quickly in German, trying to keep his eyes from sliding off the man sitting in front of him and toward the corner again.
Again the not-smile tented the corners of the man’s cheeks, and a glimmer of something sharp shone behind his spectacles.
“Whatever you want, sir,” he said a little too crisply for Milo to ignore.
“You’ve broken rank three times, Conscript Volkohne,” the man explained, his mild tone belying the growing intensity behind his eyes. “I was just reminding you since you seemed to have forgotten.”
Milo’s stomach sank as he suddenly realized the small, bookish man who moved like an invalid was dressed in a uniform of matte black with an Oberst’s shoulder board, complete with three gold pips marching up its black and white coils.
This man wasn’t just a Blackcoat but a full colonel in the German Federated Army.
The thing in the corner was no longer the only frightening presence in the room.
“M-my apologies, C-colonel,” Milo stammered, rising woodenly to snap a shaky salute. “Won’t happen again, sir.”
The colonel looked Milo up and down, his eyes lingering on the exposed tattoos on Milo’s arms and neck before nodding slowly.
“No,” he mused, his voice icy. “No, I don’t suppose it will.”
The implied threat hung in the air, but the colonel was talking again before Milo could begin to think of how he should respond.
“At ease,” he instructed and waved his hand gracefully at the chair across from him. “Please sit.”
Milo sank down, wincing as the chair creaked in protest.
“You still need to answer the question, Volkohne,” he stated, eyes dark and inscrutable behind the glinting glass lenses. “Is he still in here?”
Milo couldn’t keep his eyes from sliding over to the corner again. The figure had turned its head just enough that a small dirty face could be seen in profile. The eyes were mercifully hidden beneath a ragged fringe of hair, but knowing what lay beneath made Milo’s stomach twitch and curl.
“Sir, I…” Milo’s mouth went dry as he fought to force words around the bile in his throat. “I’m not sure.”
The colonel held up one finger for silence.
“Conscript Volkohne,” he began, his voice intense yet indubitably sincere, “the only answer that can save you in here is the truth, whatever that may be. Starting things off with a lie between us will only make matters…more complicated.”
Milo nodded even as his eyes shifted toward the corner once more, and he forcefully repressed a start. The thing had not only turned all the way around but had taken two steps forward. It stood only a few feet from the colonel, head still bowed.
Was it smiling?
Everything in Milo told him to lie, to defy the trap yawning before him. They had asked their questions before, and he had seen the looks the interviewer had given him three weeks ago. This was the final, irreversible step into the pit, the last nail in his coffin.
He could escape the grave a little longer if he would just lie, deny, and denounce.
It would hardly be the first time he’d lied.
The thing’s soiled face tipped up incrementally, just enough that Milo could see its bloodied teeth spread in a wicked grin.
Milo swallowed and made up his mind.
“Yes, sir,” he declared, meeting the colonel’s gaze as levelly as he could. “He’s still in here.”
The colonel nodded and sank back against the chair neither had noticed he was on the edge of. Another sigh passed his lips, and this one had the sweet music of relief in it. Milo’s heart skipped in his chest.
“I’m glad you are finally being honest,” the colonel said, his voice carrying no reproach. “Very good.”
He’d passed. What he wasn’t sure, but he’d passed, and that was something.
Milo let out his own sigh and nearly choked when his gaze turned back to the thing behind the colonel.
It was glaring at Milo with periwinkle eyes that didn’t belong in such a young face. They had seen too much, borne witness too often, and looked on horrors too many times. They were Milo’s eyes, and as they bored into him, he felt the rest of the world unraveling into fractals of light and color where darkness yawned between the threads.
“Tell it to leave, Conscript Volkohne,” the colonel’s voice instructed from somewhere outside the thing’s gaze. “Tell it to leave your presence.”
Unwilling to release him, his eyes in the mock-child’s face pinned him in place as it raised small grubby hands to grip its ratty black hair by the fistful.
“Can you see it?” Milo hissed, his throat tightening it.
“I see the darkness it is composed of, just a dark blur, but that doesn’t matter,” the colonel explained, his voice patient but unyielding as stone. “Tell it, no, command it, to leave.”
Milo looked on in horror as the homunculus pulled its hair, tearing itself in half with a soft, wet rip. Behind the ragged edges that flapped and shuddered was a patch of darkness as tangible and tangled as a nest of webs.
“What is happening?” Milo whined, his chest suddenly too tight to hold his hammering heart. “What did you do to me?”
“Command it to leave, Milo.” The colonel’s words were sharper but more distant, javelins hurled from a distance shrinking toward oblivion’s horizon. “On your life, boy, tell it to leave!”
The colony of un-light shuddered once, and a flickering image with too many eyes and too many legs skittered out. The unblinking gelatinous gaze studied him hungrily before it advanced, each limb reaching out to him. Milo wanted to run, to hide, to scream in terror, but he was frozen in terror.
Then something, some deep power, maybe inside or beside where a soul might lie, awoke.
“BEGONE!” the power cried, and with a shock like ice water, Milo heard the command in his own trembling voice.
The nightmare twisted back on itself, its body rupturing with the violence of the movement.
“I said, BEGONE!”
The horror came apart into numberless fragments, each fleeing member frantically crawling away and disappearing into the voids between the lines of light and color. The emptied sack of woven shadows gave a wheeze like a deflating bladder, and a breath, cold and rancid, slapped Milo’s face.
He coughed, his nostrils and tongue revolted by the assault, but by the time he’d finished, it was all gone.
He was sitting in Room 7 in the Offices for the Branch of Unconventional Tactics, and the colonel watching him with a true smile spread across his weary face. No one else was there.
“What just happened?” Milo gasped. He swallowed hard at the colonel’s strange expression, “I mean, what just happened, sir?”
The colonel straightened in his seat, and in his deliberate manner, reached out and laid a square-fingered hand on the covered tray on the trolley. The dome rose with tantalizing slowness, revealing a steaming pile of pierogi, their sides glistening with butter.
“You, Conscript Volkohne,” he said, the slightest tremor plucking at his voice to catch Milo’s attention, “have just performed magic. Now, would you like something to eat?”
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