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Contest Draft[]

Author's note: This is my entry for Tewahway's Wheel of Misfortune 2022 story contest. My challenge was "Write a story set in a combat environment".

When silence finally fell, Private Olliff didn’t know if the onslaught was genuinely over, or if he had simply gone deaf.

The shelling had started without warning, and no one had known where it was coming from. There was only the distant sound of mortars firing, the portentous whistling as the shells soared through the air, and the all too near explosions when they struck the damp earth.

The shouting of men followed immediately after as the troops raced for their rifles and assumed defensive positions. Olliff could barely see anything through the thick haze of smoke from the shells, and so instead he listened carefully for the sound of approaching enemy soldiers or vehicles. This proved futile, however, as the shelling was damn-near constant. The shockwaves from the explosions violently shook Olliff’s eardrums and reverberated throughout his bones and organs, making him feel as if his insides were turning to jelly. He considered switching from his rifle to his sidearm, since between the smoke and racket from the shelling, it seemed it would be impossible to detect any enemy until they were within point-blank range.

Olliff cursed the foul fumes from the shells that grew rather than dissipated over time, and only slowly did the men realize that this grey miasma was not smoke at all.

“Gas! Gas! Gas!” his sergeant’s voice screamed from somewhere in the fog, sending the men scrambling for their gas masks in the quickly diminishing visibility. Olliff was already thoroughly disoriented by the time he heard the first of his comrade’s screams. All it took was one unseasoned recruit to open fire at a passing shadow, and soon many of the younger soldiers were firing blindly into the haze. Senior officers began barking orders, but the gunfire continued, sending Olliff jumping for cover behind the first heap of sand bags he could find, lest he become the victim of friendly fire before the enemy even got a chance to kill him.  

The shelling continued, the gunfire continued, the screaming continued, and it seemed like no one even knew where the enemy was, let alone who they were.

It was the rapid beating of his own heart that convinced Private Olliff that he had not gone deaf and that a lull in the fighting had, in fact, fallen. For many uncounted moments, he remained perfectly still, waiting for some sound to inform his next action. Orders from his commanding officers, the incomprehensible language of a foreign adversary, or the universally understandable screams and wails of dying men.

And yet, the silence remained.

Slowly, so slowly he was barely sure he was moving at all, Olliff rose from his hiding place and peeked out over the top of the sand bags. The smoke, the gas, whatever it was, still hadn’t dissipated. It hung thick and heavy in the air, lazily circulating but otherwise seeming quite happy where it was. In addition to reducing visibility, the mist dampened sound as well, leaving Olliff with no way of knowing what was just a few yards in front of him.

He reflexively held his breath, loathed to inhale such a strange substance and cursing himself for not being able to find his gas mask in time, but realized that he had already been breathing the stuff for several minutes at least. If it was a chemical weapon of some sort, he had yet to notice any ill effects. He briefly wondered if it might be an hallucinogen of some kind, the fog was so strange, but that seemed like an awfully risky thing to gas a group of armed soldiers with. He considered that perhaps it was meant to be a slower acting agent, but what good would that be in live combat? Then again, as far as he could tell, the enemy still hadn't advanced on their position yet. Maybe whatever this gas did, it was worth waiting for.

Regardless, Olliff now had a choice. He could stay put, and wait for his enemies to come to him or for their strange weapon to possibly destroy him from the inside, or he could use the cover they had created to his advantage.

Clutching his rifle firmly in both hands, Olliff stealthily crept outwards and into the shrouded ruins of his company’s base camp.  

He was careful even to breathe quietly, fearing both his unknown enemy and fellow soldiers who would shoot at the first thing they heard. It wasn’t exactly his plan to do the same, but neither could he say for certain that he would not.

As he made his way through the fog at what felt like a glacial pace, he would occasionally catch a glimpse of a familiar silhouette; a truck here, a tent there, sometimes intact and sometimes blown to Kingdom Come. They were never more than silhouettes though, as he took care not to come too close, since they would be perfect places for an ambush.

The only things he ever came close enough to actually see in the thick fog were the craters and shrapnel from the shelling. The longer he walked though, the absence of any bodies perversely began to unsettle him. How could an attack like that have left no causalities, no dead or injured comrades who should still lie exactly where they fell?

He froze when he came across a depression in the earth that wasn't a blast crater. It was a footprint, bare and elongated; so long, in fact, it didn't seem like it could be a human footprint at all. Olliff just stared at it utterly befuddled, unable to reason out what this strange new omen portended to.

A sudden gust in the fog caught his attention, and in the periphery of his vision, he was sure he had seen something striding past. He aimed his rifle, but held his fire, unwilling to give away his position just yet. Another gust, and Olliff spun around, this time catching a glimpse of a silhouette bobbing through the fog.

He had only seen it for an instant, but he was sure the figure was at least ten feet tall. It has been shaped like a man, if only vaguely, but no man could stand so tall or move so gracefully if he did. Olliff’s heart began pounding in his ears as the strange reality of his situation dawned upon him. Assuming his senses could still be trusted, and that was admittedly a dubious assumption at this point, the thing – or things – that hunted Olliff in the fog were not human.

To his great alarm, Olliff noticed that the fog was finally starting to thin. Dead ahead of him, he was now able to perceive an outline of one of the creatures, except that this one was standing still. In its hand, it clutched the body of another soldier like it was a rag doll. The body twitched slightly, indicating that some sort of life still lingered within it. That was quickly snuffed out though when the creature raised it to its mouth and bit off the head with a single swift chomp. It tossed back its head and crunched the skull in between its teeth, bits of brain and viscera shooting out between them, as it ate with little concern for etiquette.

Olliff did not scream, but his lungs felt as if he was screaming louder than he ever had before. With his eyes and his rifle trained at the man-eating monstrosity in front of him, he inched backwards solely with the intent of putting as much space between it and him as he could before it noticed him. He did not get very far, however, when a pair of leathery, elongated hands set themselves upon his shoulders. Their grip was firm, and Olliff entertained no delusions of escape or survival now.

Instead, he tilted his head backwards, hoping for nothing more than to see what it was that would send him to his maker. Towering above him, he saw a wizened, mummified face, its grey skin cracked like parchment and bereft of any hair. Its beady eyes glimmered with a predatory cunning, but its wide mouth opened in a serene smile that came from knowing it had caught its prey.

The last thing Olliff heard was air rattling around in its chest, wheezing up through its throat and forming a raspy but still all too human voice.

“Found you.”  

Written by The Vesper's Bell
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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HopelessNightOwl (talk) 19:00, 9 April 2022 (UTC)[]

This seems pretty good, my only major critique is a technical matter: I'm assumming this takes place during the First World War, since that's the only time poison gas has been used as a standard battlefield weapon. However, Jeeps were not invented until World War 2. I don't know enough about World War I to say what would best replace the jeep in this story. Maybe a destroyed artillery piece.

The story could also use some spot cleaning for missing words and such.