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.