A ear-piercing scream cut through the silent, moonless night. LT Anderson awoke from a fitful sleep. His brain began processing. Was that his dream or was it part of reality? The two seemed to blur anymore. Even more so during the long, dark nights. Anderson continued to shake the cobwebs from his mind as he reached for his sword and helmet.
“Talbot! Status!” Corporal Talbot was one of Anderson’s best non-coms. Talbot was always doing his best to make his men laugh. But when it was time, he was all business. “All clear. All personnel accounted for, sir,” shouted the corporal. His voiced carried through the clear night air. If it weren’t for the threat lurking beyond the trenches, Anderson would have enjoyed this seemingly peaceful evening.
The LT started jogging down the line toward the outpost. After about a click, he came upon the ladder leading out to the outpost. He stepped up the ladder and yelled, “Lee, you see anything? Hawthorne, what about you?”
“Nothing, sir,” replied Sgt Lee. “Way too dark to see anything tonight, sir,” added Hawthorne.
“Then what is going on?” demanded Anderson from no one in particular.
The sound of plodding feet and heavy breathing caused Anderson to turn. He could see a runner coming his way. Francon, that was his name. Private Francon from LT David’s platoon. They were positioned about a mile away but a large ridge kept them out of visual contact.
“What’s the message, private?” Anderson stepped down the ladder while Francon bent over sucking in air. After a few moments he got enough breath to talk. “Enemy got past our sentries, killed Private Occoa and wounded Private Darkon. Thing took off most of his arm but they stopped the bleeding. No sign of the enemy.”
“Thank you, private. Keep watch and stay safe. Tell DT, I mean the captain, I said hi and ask if he can spare a case of MREs. A case of ours were trampled in an attack last week.”
DT, or Captain Timothy Augustus, was Anderson’s long-time friend. They had joined up together and had done over seven tours together before DT was promoted and put in charge of Bravo company. Tim got the name DT during their seventh tour. There had been another Timothy in their unit. So people started calling him Tall Tim, which changed to Double T, then to DT.
Anderson walked back to Talbot’s position, the recent attack weighing heavy on him. “Talbot, you and Smart go relieve Lee and Hawthorne. I don’t want anything getting through our lines tonight.” Anderson knew he couldn’t go back to sleep now, so he walked through the trenches talking to each of his men, trying to encourage them. The men appreciated it even though most were seasoned veterans.
Talbot and Lee had both served 10 tours. Hawthorne had eight under his belt and the scars to prove it. During his fifth tour, he was attacked during a night watch. If he rolled his shirt sleeve high enough, one would see three crimson lines running diagonally along his left tricep continuing onto his shoulder. Hawthorne wore them as a badge of honor and used the shock value to impress upon the new grunts the need for vigilance.
Anderson made his way back to his “rack.” Not that it really resembled a bed. It was just some palettes leaned against the back wall of the trench. Just enough that he wasn’t sleeping in the mud. “Preston, call me in four hours. We’ll take the next watch.” He hated being on watch, which meant you were in an outpost, quite a distance forward of the trenches. Those on watch were the first to be attacked. If they did their job, the enemy would usually retreat. If they were overcome, it would move on toward the trenches and find someone else to devour. An odd word choice, Anderson thought, but for some reason it seemed to fit.
This new enemy was unlike any other. It only attacked at night and was stealthy. A few of those that had survived attacks swore they heard a roar pierce the silence right before. The idea of a lion-like creature intensified each time there was an attack. If there was a body left after an attack, it could best be described as having been mauled.
Whatever it was, the LT knew first hand its effects and he didn’t want to be on the receiving end again. That’s why he always had multiple men on watch and they always carried their swords. Carrying a sword like a Roman legionnaire still brought a smile to his face. When the battalion moved to this new front, they had brought M4s, Browning 50 Cals, Howitzers, everything.
But after that first attack, the men realized they were going to need a different type of weapon. You can’t shoot what you can’t see. And even for those sad few that got a glimpse of the enemy, they were unable to fire because the enemy was right upon them. One soldier had been able to pull his KA-Bar knife during a fight and landed a blow against his attacker. He lost several fingers and the use of his right arm, but his story fueled the adoption of swords and knifes as the new weapons of choice. A few fresh grunts had brought broad swords, but quickly found those ineffective. The men needed something that was quick and easy to thrust in hand to hand combat.
Since they couldn’t openly attack their enemy, they had transitioned into a defensive strategy. They dug trenches along the front line. Their orders were to hold the line at all cost. Thinking back on it now, this was the life Anderson had known for close to 20 years. Life on the line with his platoon. They fought together, ate together, laughed and grieved together. Sometimes, Anderson caught himself wondering why they defended this specific piece of ground. But then he was reminded after each new attack. He wasn’t defending a piece of dirt, but fighting to keep his men alive and to keep his family and friends safe back home.
Now there were times away from the line. Those were amazing. After a period of time, the company would get a call from HQ that the general was coming for an inspection. He would arrive, perform the inspection and then send the men to the rear for a period of time to relax and recuperate from the fight. You never really knew when your tour was up, but you knew when the general was coming, your tour was coming to a close.
How long had it been since he’d had some R&R. Sixteen months, no wait, seventeen. He had deployed just before his little sister’s 30th birthday. He had missed so many of her birthday’s over the years. Maybe he’d be there for the 32nd. It was thoughts of her and his parents that went through his mind each time the alarm sounded at the enemy’s appearance. Anderson wanted desperately to go home. The endless watches, the constant fear of death, and the overall weariness that seemed to seep into his bones. It this made him long for home.
But wishing wouldn’t get him home any sooner. Anderson heard someone coming his way. It didn’t look like he was getting any sleep before his watch. “Preston, I’m right behind you.” Preston was a greenhorn. He’d been transferred to Anderson’s platoon about four months earlier. He was a tall, lanky kid with a big heart. But he was sorely lacking in discipline. The LT had made it his personal mission to get this kid battle ready.
“How did you know it was me sir?” Anderson smiled to himself. “You drag your feet when you walk, plus no one else in their right mind would be up unless they were going watch.” The LT arched his back trying to work out the kinks, but to no avail. “Well, let’s go relieve Talbot and Smart,” he groaned while pushing himself into a standing position.
They grabbed their gear and made their way to the make-shift steps which topped the trench. “Talbot, Smart. Coming up on your six.” In traditional warfare, you never wanted to reveal your position. But it seemed with this enemy, it never attacked where there was a group who were awake and alert. It always attacked those who were asleep or alone.
The outline of the outpost was barely perceptible in the darkness. “Anything unusual, Talbot?” Anderson could hear the shuffling of gear in the darkness. “No, sir,” was Talbot’s reply, fatigue in his voice. ”Alright, you two head back and grab some sleep before the sun comes up.”
The first couple of hours passed without incident. Their watch was passing into the third hour when Anderson started to get restless. His body was aching and he just needed to get up and go for a walk. He was finding it harder and harder to focus on the horizon.
He was tired of this. Why didn’t he make someone else take his place on watch. He was the LT after all. He could be back in his rack asleep. Better yet, he could be back in his bed at home warm and safe. And to wake up to his mother’s cooking. Hot pancakes, eggs, and bacon. Oh, and a big cup of coffee. He could see the steam coming off the cup and feel the warmth of the cup as he cupped it in his hands. And his mom’s pot roast with…
Something broke through his wandering thoughts. It sounded like heavy breathing. The lieutenant slowly reached for his sword and brought it into position. Anderson looked over to Preston and caught a glimpse of two red orbs hovering in the night. In the same moment, he heard an ear-piercing scream, a combination of a cat growling and a woman screaming. On instinct, Anderson lunged at the two eyes with his sword. He felt an unseen bulk impale itself up to the hilt. The next few moments were a blur but Anderson remembered hearing Preston cry out as well as another screech from his attacker. Then pain flared through his left side and head. Then the lights went out.