It was just after dawn on the twentieth day, when Karl tore out his own throat and continued to rant and rave, that Lars' nerve finally broke.
Whatever evils nature hid in the woods, they could not match what he had seen and heard in the past weeks on the battlefield. Soldiers screaming as they were torn apart by invisible hands. The howling of men blown in half by an artillery volley, howling that never ceased. He had to get out. He would run all the way back to Bavaria, if necessary. Just away.
Lars scrambled to gather a few supplies in a rucksack before he left. Tins of food. Compass. Knife. The men in the trench, their bodies and minds in varying degrees of mutation, paid him no mind. Lars glanced at a rifle leaning against the trench wall. Memories of Russian soldiers screaming, faces consumed with fast-growing tumors, ran through his mind. He shuddered and moved on.
By the time he was ready, the first light was beginning to creep over the tops of the trees. Lars tried not to speculate why the sunlight was a deep emerald color. He nodded and sped away from the rear lines. No one noticed as he he dashed across the scarred mud and twisted trees of the battlefield. He didn't stop sprinting even when he encountered the beginnings of the woods.
A part of Lars' mind told him that he would need to conserve his strength, that running was a bad idea. He ignored it. Even a few hundred meters away from the battle, the trees became less crooked and twisted. Running from that damned place felt like the only thing to do. He could walk later. For the first time in several months, Lars smiled.
After several minutes of running, Lars stopped to catch his breath in a clearing. Suddenly, he heard a humming sound from behind him. It was a sound that he knew all too well; the accursed rifles of the Austrian scientist warming up.
"Turn around, please. Slowly," said a voice behind him, in a thick Hungarian accent. Lars did as the voice commanded, and found himself facing a wounded man sitting on top of a long wooden box with rope handles at each end. The man's eyes were of differing colors - one blue and one grey - and he had stitches over a wound running from his left ear to his chin. Lars recognized him as Nemeş, the scientist who had insisted that they use the demon weapons.
Despite the wound and the dirt, Nemeş' hair and mustache were immaculately neat. He wore the blue uniform of an Austro-Hungarian officer. Several large spikes of bone - from the Russians' rifles, no doubt - had torn through the uniform on his right shoulder and arm.
In his left, Nemeş held a rifle, aimed squarely at Lars' chest. He looked Lars up and down.
"Deserting is a capital crime, you know. I would be well within my rights to shoot you here and now. It would be befitting a coward of your stature," Nemeş said. Lars felt his mouth go dry. Once upon a time, he had considered death by poison gas or a shell to be the worst thing in the world. The past weeks had taught him otherwise. He thought about dying here in the woods, his body distorted beyond all recognition and felt his legs nearly give out.
Nemeş motioned to a shovel propped on a tree at the edge of the clearing. "Take the shovel," he said, "And dig a grave. Don't stop unless I say otherwise."
Lars's throat tightened. He opened his mouth to protest. Please, I was doing reconnaissance. Please, I was running messages to a secret detachment. Please, I have a wife and child back home. The doctor's eyes narrowed and his finger slipped beneath the trigger guard of the rifle.
"Take the shovel. And dig until I say otherwise," he said,"Unless you would rather I shoot you in the jaw first. I have heard that it is extremely painful."
Lars nodded and took the shovel. He began to dig in the middle of the clearing. So this is how he would die: In a forest, forced to dig his own grave.
It had been two days since he had slept, and the exhaustion, combined with the labor of digging, helped to remove him from the situation. He didn't feel any fear, just a dull resignation to the objective facts.
When the top of the hole reached above his head, Lars stopped digging. His shirt was soaked through with sweat, and his arms ached.
"Keep going," came the voice from above. It sounded more ragged than before. Lars sighed and continued to dig.
At three meters, it became almost impossible for Lars to throw the dirt out of the hole. "Stop!" the voice barked. Lars was happy to obey.
Nemeş' head peeked over the edge of of the hole. Lars could see the tip of the rifle beside the man. This was it, he thought, dead in a forest. He felt like crying, but couldn't summon the energy to do so. Instead, he just looked at the ground.
Suddenly, Nemeş' hand came into his field of vision. Lars looked and saw that the doctor was extending a hand down to him.
"Take," he said. Lars grabbed the shovel and took the doctor's hand. Suddenly, he found himself being pulled out of the hole and placed on level ground. Lars stared at the doctor for a moment, panting. Who the hell was this man, who had lifted him out of the grave with just one arm, as if Lars had weighed as much as a kitten?
Nemeş reached into a pocket and pulled out a silver flask. He pushed it in Lars' general direction.
"Drink," Nemeş said. It was only then that Lars realized how thirsty he had been. He opened the flask and took a swig, nearly choked on the burning liquid. The doctor stood silently, waiting for Lars to finish. After his coughing subsided, Lars took another drink. After all this, he could use a drink.
Nemeş pointed to the box he had been sitting on, then to the hole.
"Take," he said. His voice was low and raspy. Lars realized the truth of the situation, and felt relief flow through him. He was just helping a burial, not arranging his own. The relief shooed away any inconvenient questions that lingered behind.
He went to the box, followed by Nemeş. Lars took one end, while the doctor took the other, using his good arm.
When they were a meter away from the hole, a loud thump came from the coffin. Lars dropped his end of the casket. There was another thump, then the muffled sound of panicked screaming that Lars recognized as Polish. The coffin lid opened a crack, and he saw a few fingers probing desperately at the air.
Nemeş slammed his hand down on the lid, eliciting a scream from the box and causing the fingers to quickly draw back in.
"Take!" he commanded again. His eyes narrowed. Lars felt he might be sick, and regretted downing an entire flask in a single sitting. He looked at the ground, and noticed that the rifle was by the officer's feet. He bent down and picked up his end of the coffin. Together, they carried it to the edge of the hole.
"Drop!" Nemeş said. Lars obeyed, and the coffin landed with a loud thud. The voice inside began screaming again. The doctor jumped into the hole and opened the lid, setting one foot into the coffin.
"Bury!" he said. His voice sounded like stones grinding against one another now.
Lars nodded. Nemeş opened the lid, and for a half second, Lars could see the occupant of the box. He wore the uniform of a Russian soldier, and his hands were bound together. The skin on the left side of his face, from ear to chin, was gone, revealing a scabbed-over mess. The man in the box stared up at Lars, his remaining blue eye wide with fear. The doctor laid down and slammed the lid shut behind him with a force that caused the sides of the grave to shudder. A screaming came from the coffin once more, but was quickly cut off.
Lars stared at the grave for a moment. Then, taking the shovel, he began to fill in the hole as quickly as possible. There was not enough soil that he could put between himself and that officer.
Within a few minutes, the work was done. Lars was exhausted, and felt his insides burning. But, more than ever, he needed to leave. He sat for a few moments to catch his breath before grabbing his pack and leaving the clearing.
Again, he began to run, just to get as much ground as possible between himself and the box. After a few seconds of running, he doubled over. His insides were burning.
He felt the heat, hotter than any furnace, fill him. The pain made it impossible for him to scream, so he gurgled in agony. He fell on the ground and tried desperately to get the burning out of him, tearing at his stomach to get something, anything, out of him.
For a split second, his thoughts turned to the flask Nemeş had offered him. What the hell had been in it? That evil, con-
Then there was only fire.
Three meters underground, Feliks heard the explosion from Lars' body. An intense heat washed over him, and the ground quaked for several seconds. He cried out, and was about to pound on the lid of the coffin, when he heard a low bark coming from beside him.
Feliks whimpered as the thing that had once been Dr. Mátyás Nemeş growled beside him.