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Messing With Time

I have a hard time with alternate history as a genre. It isn’t that I mind entertaining the idea of alternate realities, but rather that I more broadly dislike what alternate history most commonly means: it means that the Nazis won the war.

What is with this shit, anyway?

And yes, I know it’s not always the Nazis. Sometimes it’s the Confederacy. Or the Soviets. Or the Romans conquering the Earth. Sometimes Nixon is still president. But you know what it almost never is? JFK eluding assassination (Stephen King’s novel excepted, I guess). It’s never women getting the right to vote in 1812 (or always having the right to vote!). It’s never the Native Americans kicking out European settlers right from the get-go and continuing their civilization uninterrupted. And sure, sure – just by writing this, people are going to start pointing out novels where all of these things have happened, but you know what I mean, right? They aren’t the majority. They don’t attract much attention.

No, it’s usually the Nazis. Look, I know they make good bad guys, but there’s lots of ways to have Nazis running around without invalidating the hard-won victories of the Allies in WW2. Guys, that war wasn’t close – the Allies didn’t win that thing by the skin of their teeth. We freaking murdered those goose-stepping shits. We ground their fucking army into dust. We filled their hateful ruler with so much despair, he shot himself in a bunker rather than be taken alive. And it was glorious – evil was not just beaten back, it was utterly, completely vanquished. Sure, sure – we’ve got Nazis goosestepping around all over the place today (hell, look at the current US administration!), but the cold hard fact is that they lost big time last time they tried this shit and I have always taken comfort in that.

So when a book or show or movie comes along and decides to chuck that out the window for the sake of a metaphor, I get uncomfortable. I just don’t like it. I guess maybe I’m just not a fan of dystopias. There’s more to it than just that: I also know that there are people out there – real, actual, living people – who deep down wish the South had won the Civil War and insist to themselves that the CSA would have freed their slaves eventually anyway and so on and so forth and these dystopias aren’t so much dystopian to them as utopian.

And that turns my stomach.

There are people out there watching Man in the High Castle and admiring Rufus Sewell’s uniform and fuck that. His character is a goddamned Nazi. He isn’t cool. He isn’t someone we can or should identify with. He’s the closest thing to the embodiment of pure evil we have on this planet and he isn’t even entirely fictional. People like him do exist and did exist and will exist again and maybe this is very close-minded of me, but I don’t want to sympathize with them. Not ever. It creeps me out how hard people want to try.

And then there’s another level to it, too.

As a white American male, I have a certain comfort with the arc of history as it has played out. History, after all, has been very good to people like me. It is an aspect of my privilege that I can look back on history and feel like the good guys have won. I know that I’m wrong, by the way – white men have been the villains more often than they’ve been the heroes, on balance – but I think there’s a deep-seeded level at which monkeying with the timeline makes me feel insecure and uncertain and afraid. And I guess that only means that it makes me feel as vulnerable as everyone else always has felt. This is not a pleasant feeling, as much as I recognize the importance of me feeling it. It’s just that I’m not going to actively seek out this feeling as part of my entertainment.

Furthermore, this is probably why the white men who dominate the alternate history genre are so often resurrecting the boogey-men of Western Euro-centric history – because fighting those old battles over again make them feel more comfortable than figuring out their place in the new battles that are brewing. And, of course, some percentage of those white dudes ultimately sympathize with the side that was wrong.

So go on and enjoy your Nazi dystopias and modern day confederacies. Just leave me the hell out of it.

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Writing News

Astute eyes may have noted that Book 4 of The Saga of the Redeemed has been pushed back to release in March. Sorry, sorry – things have been crazy at my publisher and they had to push it back. I expect to be finishing up edits on the book in the next week or two and will have a whole pre-order teaser/back copy reveal soon, so watch this channel! Thanks to everyone for your patience!

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The Lych of Stalingrad

Author’s Note: What follows is an excerpt of a project I’ve been working on for a little while now. It’s been a while since I’ve posted any of my own work, so I figured I’d toss this one out there. The novel itself is in a state of severe ‘take entirely apart and put back together again’ revision, so whether this scene even stays is on the ropes. I think it makes for a pretty sweet opening, anyway. Hope you enjoy it and, of note, it is *rough*, so please excuse the occasional typo/awkward phrase. Thanks! ~AAH

Prologue

November, 1942

Stalingrad

 

snowy_tiger_by_radojavor-d4jkpl5The men moved like hunting dogs in the dying light – heads cocked, ears pointed to the sky, every step made with ruthless caution. The ruined city looked as though cloaked in snow, a thin layer of white coating the blackened remnants of apartment buildings, machinery, and lampposts. It was not snow. It was ash.

Somewhere not very far away the frenetic pop and crack of rifles would start up and then stop and then start again. This was a time of peace for the city; in an hour or so, when darkness filled every empty doorway and rubble-choked trench, the real dirty fighting would begin again. Face-to-face, toe-to-toe, Stalin had ordered his soldiers as close to the Germans as they could get, hugging their lines in a masochistic embrace. The dead were piled in every alley, Russian and German alike.

Then men creeping down the ash-white street knew this. They were all veterans who had invaded the city with Hitler’s Sixth Army and had been here ever since, painting the masonry of Stalin’s city with the blood of its defenders. Hard men in chalk-grey coats, their eyes a thousand miles away, their fingers never far from the trigger. They moved quickly; they knew the way.

None of them looked at the officer who was with them, striding down the street as though this place were the corridors of his private library. His black trenchcoat was spotlessly clean, his peaked cap, which had never known the touch of dirt, sported the silver eagle of the Reich, and his leather gloves still shone. He had arrived in the city just yesterday, with a signed order from the Führer himself. He said his name was Hoffstadt, and that ten men were to take him behind Soviet lines and into an area of the city known to be abandoned and avoided by both sides for reasons no German officer had been able to adequately explain to his superiors.

No one had dared to argue with him; the men simply hoped Hoffstadt would catch a sniper’s bullet and then the ten of them could ditch his body and head back to their own lines. He had not. Not yet.

Stalingrad had been so ravaged by the battle that it was difficult, at times, to tell where a street ended and a ruin began and vice versa. Hoffstadt got the sense that they were crossing streets and slinking through ruins rather than following the map he’d been given; he found himself passing through the devastated remnants of kitchens and sitting rooms, bullet-riddled bedrooms and bathrooms. He felt like an archaeologist of sorts, passing through the living spaces of people long since dead and gone and for whom there would be no eulogy save their bathtub, shrapnel cracked and smoke stained, that had once served as a crucial machine gun nest.

The sergeant called the men to a halt with a silent hand gesture. They were at the base of a stairway that led to nothing – a building whose top floors had been removed by some work of explosive destruction – peering through a half-open doorway with the tangled concrete rubble of the rest of the city block on two sides. Not bothering to duck, Hoffstadt stepped beside the sergeant and whispered. “What is the matter? Why the delay?”

“Please, mein Herr, lower your voice.” The sergeant hissed. “The enemy could be anywhere.”

“We haven’t seen or heard a Russian for blocks now.” Hoffstadt said, brushing dust off his epaulets. “You men have become overly cautious. This area is devoid of enemy activity.”

“And yet, mein Herr, those who go in do not come out.”

“That, gentlemen, is why I am here. Trust me – I am prepared for what we face.” He patted the satchel at his side. “Is it just over there?”

The sergeant poked his head out of the door in the direction that Hoffstadt pointed. “The Russians claim the koldun lives in that church across that plaza, yes. Allow my men to secure the area, though, before you…”

Hoffstadt stepped through the door and into the open.

The church was not a church, of course. Not anymore – the communists had repurposed the building, torn down its iconography, and made it into a shrine to the Russian Worker, instead. Iron murals of taut-muscled young men working hammers and scythes flanked the entryway; posters with red stars and the mustachioed face of Comrade Stalin were plastered across fat stone pillars. The front of the church had taken a direct hit from an artillery shell, leaving a ragged hole in the upper façade, like a mouth wailing at the sky. Hoffstadt walked toward it, and when he was not shot, the soldiers followed, hopping from cover to cover as they crawled in his wake.

The plaza before the church was strewn with rubble and threaded haphazardly with razorwire, but these things did not catch Hoffstadt’s attention. He stepped around and past them, his eyes fixed on a spectacle spread out across the base of the wide stairs leading up to the church’s front doors. It was a row of wooden stakes, each over six feet long, set into the ground at regular intervals. Impaled on each was a human head, severed at the neck or perhaps torn from its moorings – it was difficult to tell. Flies buzzed around each stake, and as Hoffstadt grew closer, he could see that each was sticky with blood. He stopped just shy of crossing the line. The soldiers, weapons ready, crouched in the half-darkness behind him.

“Hello in there!” Hoffstadt yelled in Russian. The deathly silence of the plaza seemed to swallow the words. He raised his voice. “Is anyone at home? Hello?”

As one, the eyes of the severed heads opened. Hoffstadt’s breath caught in his throat. “Is that you, Khostov?”

The bloodied, lipless mouths of the heads moved in unison. The soft, rasping whisper of a dozen severed vocal chords awkwardly vibrating filled the air. “Who are you?”

Hoffstadt smiled and looked back at the soldiers. Their faces were as pale as those of the heads. They looked at him with wide, panicked eyes. He motioned for calm and, just for fun, gave them a wink. He then planted his feet and faced the heads again. “So it is you, isn’t it?”

Who are you?”

“I am Ernst Hoffstadt, special advisor attached to the Führer’s SS. I am looking for the Russian sorcerer named Vitaly Khostov. Is there anyone by that name here?” Hoffstadt grinned. “Perhaps it is one of these heads, eh?”

“You are not welcome here.” The heads moaned. Their fish-white eyes rolled in their blackened sockets.

“Yes. I had gathered that.” Hoffstadt reached into the satchel and drew out a small pewter flask embossed with a golden swastika. He casually unscrewed the cap.

“Sir!” The sergeant had his MP40 trained on the heads; his hands shook. “What…what is this? Is this real?”

Hoffstadt looked down at the man and thought about it. No, there was no sense in explaining. “It’s electronics, Sergeant. A theatre show, yes? Remain calm – all is well.”

“You are not welcome here.” The heads repeated.

Hoffstadt chuckled. “And yet, here I am.” He stepped forward a full pace, up to the very edge of the line of stakes, and poured a fine white powder out of the flask. It collected in a small pile at his feet; he began to walk, drawing a white line against the scorched, blackened earth in a large circle about two paces across and then took up a position at the center of it.

“Begone.” The whispers from the dead lips lacked inflection, but Hoffstadt felt he could detect something behind the words—frustration, perhaps. Annoyance? All the better.

“I will not leave until I’ve completed my mission, Herr Khostov. My mission is to speak with you, in person. If you will come out of your little ruin and have a conversation with me, I will gladly go away. Until then, I’m afraid you’re stuck with me.” Hoffstadt smiled and folded his hands behind his back. He waited for the counterstroke.

It came from one of the soldiers. He was a simple private – a youngish man with an uneven yellow beard. His blue eyes were transfixed on the heads, his face locked in an expression of mute horror. Out of the corner of his eye, Hoffstadt saw him slowly stand up, Mauser rifle gripped tightly in his hands, eyes still glued to the heads. Hoffstadt could see their lips moving, but they made no sound. Whatever they said, it was for the soldier alone.

“Gerd!” The sergeant barked, “Get down! What is the matter with you.”

Hoffstadt smiled and drew his nickel-plated P38 from its embossed holster. “Do not worry, Sergeant. Gerd isn’t himself at the moment.”

The soldier turned his rifle towards Hoffstadt, his eyes nearly popping out of his head, his veins bulging from his neck. Hoffstadt waited just long enough to make certain the young private couldn’t snap out of it, and then he shot him once through the heart. Gerd dropped his rifle, fell to his knees, and then collapsed, face first, into the ash. The soldiers were utterly still; some of them looked to the sergeant.

“You acknowledge, Sergeant, that young Gerd over there was about to shoot me, yes?”

The sergeant was looking at Gerd’s body. His face was as gray as his coat. “Yes, mein Herr. Yes, but…”

Hoffstadt turned back to the heads. “A very good trick, Herr Khostov, but you must agree that it is inefficient. I can shoot down any man you seek to dominate, and then where are we, eh?”

The heads regarded him with their empty eyes, their mouths quivering in unison. It took Hoffstadt a moment, but he realized that they were laughing.

“Mein…mein Herr…” The sergeant managed to croak, his voice labored as though he were carrying a great weight. Hoffstadt looked – the sergeant was slowly rising, his eyes fixed upon the dead gaze of the heads, just as Gerd’s had been. All nine of the remaining men were doing the same, all of their faces frozen with terror, all of them slowly, inexorably turning their weapons towards Hoffstadt.

Seven rounds left in the magazine, nine men. Hoffstadt kept calm, taking careful aim. The pistol barked seven times, and seven more bodies dropped. The last two were the Sergeant and his corporal. Hoffstadt could see them fighting the compulsion, their bodies trembling as though they might shake apart at any moment. Hoffstadt fell to one knee as the corporal fired, the rifle shot zinging past his head close enough to blow off his hat. He ejected the P38 magazine with one hand as the other fished its replacement out of his satchel. The corporal’s trembling hands reluctantly worked the bolt on his Mauser.

The sergeant’s MP40, though, was unlikely to miss at this range. The submachine gun roared to life, spitting a half dozen rounds into Hoffstadt’s chest, ripping apart his fine trenchcoat and throwing the SS operative onto his back.

The sergeant’s weapon jammed, but the compelled German soldier could not stop holding down the trigger. Hoffstadt rolled to knees and stood up, chuckling. “You are not the only one with secrets, Herr Khostov.” He chambered the first round in his pistol and shot the sergeant in the face, then the corporal in the throat – his aim was a bit off.

The heads had fallen silent.

Hoffstadt took off the trenchcoat. His uniform beneath was likewise riddled with bullets, but the effect was less noticeable. He shook himself and the flattened slugs clattered out from underneath his shirt. “The Green Draught – surely you know it, yes? My, but it tastes terrible. The effects, though,” Hoffstadt pointed to his chest. “They cannot be argued with.”

“It only protects against some things.” A figure in a dark cowl stood in the doors of the old church. Hoffstadt could see nothing of his features, but his voice was somehow still and cold, like a pond in winter.

“Herr Khostov, I presume.”

The figure did not move. “What do you want?”

Hoffstadt holstered his pistol and picked his hat up, brushing the ashes off its brim. “It is not what I want, Herr Khostov, but what you want. I come with an offer from the Führer himself.”

The black-cowled form of Khostov came closer, seeming to float down the cracked steps. In the distance, an artillery shell exploded, lighting the sky. “And why would I accept an offer made by your Führer?”

“Do you think there is a future for you here?” Hoffstadt squinted in the dying light at the Russian sorcerer. He thought he might have seen something…glowing. Underneath the hood of the cowl, perhaps?

“You presume a great deal.” Khostov stood at the edge of the line of stakes, their grisly top-pieces now silent. Another shell brightened the waning light of day.

“The Russians are finished, Herr Khostov. When we have crushed them here, it will all soon be over. Even if it weren’t true, just how welcoming do you think Comrade Stalin will be of a man of your…peculiar talents? He will seek to enslave you; the Reich would seek to uplift you. We welcome you as a member of the superior race. This could be the beginning of your greatest triumph.”

“You would have me abandon brutes to work with butchers.” Khostov observed quietly. Hoffstadt could definitely see something glimmering beneath the cowl, now, as the night was falling faster and faster.

“We are but pruning the tree of humanity, Herr Khostov. We are paying the price for a better tomorrow—surely you, of all people, would understand the need for sacrifice to achieve greatness.”

Khostov, now barely visible except as a black outline in the dark, shook his cowled head. “No. I am no judge of such things and neither is Hitler. I reject your offer, Ernst Hoffstadt.” The sorcerer moved to come closer, but paused at the edge of the white powder the nazi had poured around himself.

Hoffstadt grinned. “Salt, Herr Khostov. The barrier your kind cannot cross, yes? We have studied, you see. We know more than you realize.”

Khostov produced a sound that Hoffstadt thought was some kind of cough or wheeze, but as it intensified, he realized that the Russian sorcerer was laughing. It was a thin, gallows-laugh, mirthless and chilling. Somewhere, far away, another bomb dropped, shaking the earth. “I’m afraid I don’t understand what’s so funny, Herr Khostov…”

Khostov’s hooded head turned towards him, and now Hoffstadt could see the two globes of pale green light hanging there in the depths of the cowl – the eyes of something wicked, something damned. “You have made a mistake only a Nazi would, Hoffstadt.” The sorcerer – the creature – stepped smoothly over the line of salt. “This salt is not kosher.”

Hoffstadt staggered backwards, but Khostov’s hands – little more than bony claws – seized him by the arm. There was the flash of a distant flare and, for a split second, Hoffstadt saw what was beneath the sorcerer’s cowl: A half-decayed human skull, muscle clinging in tarry strips across the face, and floating in the empty eye-sockets was that deathly green light.

Ernst Hoffstadt’s screams were muffled by the sound of Nazi bombs and artillery shells rending asunder that which, with utmost care and hope, Russian hands had put together.

The Koldun in the Wood

The air was hot and thick with ash; the shetl had burned easily, even without gasoline. Obersturmfuhrer Werner Stolik was pleased with this – the army was moving quickly through the wide open steppes of Russia, and gasoline was becoming increasingly difficult to replace. Bullets, too; he’d ordered the villagers to be bayoneted, to avoid further wastage.

All in all, things would be going smoothly and this little errand for his superiors would be resounding success, save for one small hiccup. It was a ridiculous thing, honestly, but the SS didn’t deal in loose ends and somebody somewhere down the line has screwed up. That person’s name was Untersharfuhrer Marcus Dantrich, and presently Stolik was off to fix whatever mess the idiot sergeant had gotten himself into.

It was amazing to Stolik how easy it was to lose men in the steppe. He didn’t mean casualties – he’d barely had any of those – but rather the literal meaning of “lose”. The broad, flat, open plains could somehow swallow you and, if you wandered too far and didn’t keep a keen eye on your compass, you’d be as lost as any sailor at sea. Stolik had sent Dantrich off on patrol with three men to try and round up any of the villagers who had tried to slip off. They hadn’t come back.

They were stormtroopers – SS – the Fuhrer’s finest. Stolik had every confidence they were fine, but they were almost certainly lost, and they needed to be found. Losing men in Russia reflected poorly upon one’s service record, and Stolik had every intention of keeping his record spotless.

Five paces in front of him, their local guide stopped walking. Stolik drew his Luger. “What? Why have you stopped?”

The man was a skinny, stoop shouldered Jew, shirtless, sweating, stinking of fear. He pointed ahead of them, where a small wood could be seen looming in the orange haze of the smoke-filled air; the trees were bare, straight and black, like charred bones. “Your men are in there.” He mumbled in imperfect Russian.

Stolik straightened his jacket and looked at the two men he had with him, grinning. “So this is where the fearsome wizard lives, is it?”

The guide nodded, clutching a pouch to his chest. “The koldun, yes. If your men did not come back, this is why.” He turned to the three soldiers. “Please, I have shown you – let me go now?”

Stolik chuckled; his men followed suit. Typical Jew behavior, he thought – trying to dodge out of a tough situation. “And be robbed of your fine introduction of this  no-doubt powerful and respectable old man?”

The man’s shoulders somehow managed to sag even lower. When Stolik motioned with his Luger, the man turned and kept walking.

Stolik glanced at his two men and gave orders in German. “Expect some kind of trick.” They nodded, and readied their MP40 submachine guns. The sound of them working the slides made their guide stiffen, but he kept walking, never looking back.

The forest swallowed them. In a matter of moments there was no sign of where it had begun or where it ended; just the silent, black trunks of the pines on all sides. It was so quiet that Stolik found himself clearing his throat just to confirm he could still hear. Their footsteps were engulfed by the loose soil at their feet, leaving only vague depressions behind them.  There was something dreamlike about it all; it was as though they were only partially there.

The guide stopped again, shuddering visibly.

“What is it now, filth?” Stolik barked. He came up behind the man, figuring the feeling of a pistol pressed against his bony spine might motivate him.

At the guide’s feet was a thin, white line, perhaps two inches wide, that was comprised of some kind of granular powder. It stretched off in either direction, curving away into the fiery haze of the silent, dead wood. “Is that salt?” Stolik asked, nudging it with his toe.

The jew convulsed, as though Stolik had touched a live electrical wire. He quickly stuffed his hand in the crude pouch he carried and sprinkled more salt atop the part Stolik has smudged. When he finished, he hung his head. “Please…please, do not touch the seal. For your own sakes. For all our sakes.”

Stolik scowled. He seized the man by the chin and pulled his face upwards until they locked eyes. “I am not the one in danger here, Jew.” Pointedly, and without looking away from the thin face of his prisoner, Stolik brushed his foot back and forth across the salt line until he’d made a substantial gap. “Your weakling superstitions do not concern me. Lead on or die here.”

The guide was corpse pale, but also too broken and cowardly to show any defiance. He stepped gingerly over the salt and kept going. His feet dragged, though – perhaps from terror, perhaps from emotional and physical exhaustion. He’d been digging graves most of the morning. Stolik imagined it would be easiest to shoot him here when their business was concluded. Whatever that business was.

The two soldiers with Stolik followed along, but he could tell they were getting nervous. “Herr Oberst,” one mumbled behind him, “This is supposed to just be a single old man, right?”

Stolik grunted. “Yes, yes, but so what if it’s half a dozen? Unless this rat is leading us to some idiotically placed Soviet tank or machine gun nest, I’m not concerned. Show a little backbone, soldier.”

They walked on a short way further before the little hut emerged, squat and black in the weird half-light. The guide stopped as soon as he saw it, frozen with some provincial, superstitious dread that made Stolik’s lip curl. He ignored the guide –  it was clear enough they were where they were supposed to be. “Don’t go anywhere.” He growled at the man as he passed him by.

The first thing Stolik’s eyes resolved out of the haze were the bodies – four of them. Three German soldiers, their bodies bent and warped into unnatural positions before the darkened doorway of the shack. Stolik didn’t need to check to see that they were dead; how he couldn’t guess, but now was not the time. His nostrils flared at the scent of blood. He was glad his pistol was already drawn.

The fourth body was that of an old man, naked. It looked as though it had been dead for some time or, possibly, embalmed at some point in the recent past. It was small, pale, skeletally thin, its mouth fixed into a rictus grin beneath milky white eyeballs. For reasons Stolik couldn’t quite justify to himself, this body was riddled with bulletholes. It was missing a leg beneath the knee, an arm above the elbow, and its chest was perforated with at least seven or eight other direct hits. There was no blood that he could see.

Stolik pointed at the dead old man and shouted at the guide. “Is that the sorcerer? Is that your koldun?”

The Jew was trembling uncontrollably now, crouched upon the ground, his fingers awkwardly pawing at the bag of salt he’d stubbornly clung to all this time. Beneath his breath, he kept muttering the words ‘eretnik’ and ‘nechistaia sila’ as well as a variety of things in Yiddish. Stolik’s Russian wasn’t good enough to translate.

He turned back to the hut. “Dantrich! Are you in there? Dantrich, it’s Stolik! Come out!”

“Dantrich isn’t here, Herr Oberst.” A man stepped out of the darkened doorway, clad in a heavy holocaust cloak with a deep hood. His voice was heavy, cold, and flat, like a piece of slate. He spoke perfect German.

Stolik pointed his luger at the stranger. “Are you the wizard?”

“I am the koldun. My name is Vitaly Khostov. You are tresspassing.”

Stolik opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off by the piercing sob of the guide, who was now hurriedly pouring salt all around himself. He kept muttering ‘eretnik, eretnik.’ What did that mean? Heretic? Was this some kind of religious nonsense among Jews?

“You have burned the shetl.” Khostov announced.

“What happened to my men?” Stolik barked.

Khostov shrugged. “I killed them.”

Stolik glanced at the bodies. “How?”

Khostov’s laugh was mirthless. “Does it really matter?”

The wretch had a point. Stolik shot him in the chest; the pistol’s sharp report didn’t echo.

Khostov jerked with the impact, but he did not fall or cry out. He instead took a step closer to Stolik. “Your fellows did the same thing, you know. You Germans – utterly lacking in creativity.”

This time Stolik’s shots were joined with those of both soldiers, their MP40s rattling off rounds into the koldun’s chest, legs, and arms. Now, however, Khostov didn’t move slowly. In the blink of an eye, he was standing before one soldier, his body bending awkwardly from the ruin the bullets were making of his torso. He – it – seemed to convulse, and a gout of gore vomited from beneath the hood and covered the Nazi stormtrooper. The soldier fell to the ground, screaming and clawing at his face as though being burned.

The other soldier charged, swinging his weapon like a club. Khostov caught the gun by the barrel, wrenched it from his hands, and then struck the stormtrooper hard enough that Stolik heard his neck break from the impact. He fell to the ground like a sack of flour.

The clearing was suddenly quiet; Stolik realized that he was pulling the trigger on an empty pistol. Click…click…click.

The Russian wizard paused a moment to…straighten his broken body into something somewhat more upright. There was a couple visceral pops and a squelching noise.

Stolik couldn’t move. Somewhere behind him he could hear the jew, moaning some prayer in Yiddish. All he could manage was, “You…black… black sorcery!”

Khostov came closer, moving with slow, fluid steps. It seemed as though he were floating above the ground. “All sorcery is black sorcery, Herr Oberst. It is a power we inherit from God, but that we use without His consent.”

Stolik sank to his knees. “You can kill me, but we will crush you anyway. One panzer will crush your miserable hut; you will die screaming.”

“Do you know why you Nazis will fail?” Khostov stopped in front of Stolik’s paralyzed, kneeling body and crouched down. “You think that death is the worst thing that can happen to a person.”

One blood-soaked hand emerged from the holocaust cloak and pulled back the hood. Stolik found himself, eye-to-eye, with the smiling face of Marcus Dantrich. Stolik tried to scream, but something was choking off his speech. He clawed his throat, but there was nothing there. He was suffocating, but his body refused to breathe. The world began to dim.

“Do not worry, Herr Oberst, Mother Russia will teach your people about what is worst of all things.” Khostov/Dantrich smiled, his teeth a broken ruin of blood and gore. “And it will be a long, long lesson.”

The world narrowed to a tunnel around the koldun’s face. The last thing Stolik saw were the corpses of his fallen men, rising up from the earth.