Tanaka ran from the sounds of gunfire, his steps splashing through puddles of stagnant water and fresh blood. The broken tiles were slick beneath his boots, though, and he went down in a heap. Pain raced up his leg, and he clamped a hand over his mouth to stifle a scream. For a moment the world went gray, and the sweat running down his cheeks felt cold. The world tried to fall away from him. He gritted his teeth, and focused on his breathing. If he passed out now he was going to die… the only question was whether he would wake up before a bullet found him.
The wave of numbness and shock ebbed, and Tanaka found himself staring into the eyes of Corporal Yamada. His teeth were still clenched in a fierce snarl, and his uniform was pierced through in a dozen places from where he’d been shot. He still clutched a shin gunto in one hand, the blade nicked and bent from where it had hacked through meat and bone. A red flower bloomed from a hole in the center of his forehead, the petals slick with blood and brain matter. It was as if the gunshot had let it out, drilling open his skull so it could blossom. Beyond him were the bodies of the soldiers who’d died on his blade, most of them cut apart so savagely that Tanaka would have to look at their uniforms to tell one man from another. Tanaka looked away from the dead men, and dragged himself up the wall until he was on his feet again. He took deep, shaky breaths, and tried to focus on his ankle, rather than the smell of death that tried to crawl up his nostrils, and down his throat. He didn’t think he’d broken anything, but he couldn’t be sure. He limped into the shadows, breathing through his open mouth, putting as much distance and corners between himself and the firefight as he could.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. The spit of land barely big enough to call itself an island was in the middle of nowhere, and command had assigned his unit there as a formality. There was next to no chance that the United States fleet would come this far south, and if they did it would be impossible for him and the others stationed there to do anything to stop them. They were observers, meant to watch the empty ocean, and to send word up the chain in the unlikely event they saw something worth reporting. They hadn’t even been given the materials to build proper fortifications, instead being ordered to take over a crumbling Spanish mission that no one had so much as laid eyes on in centuries, and to make due by repairing it. No one, even the commanders who had sent them to this island, expected them to so much as see the enemy.
Now that far-off enemy was Tanaka’s only hope of surviving whatever insanity was loose on this island.
The gunfire ceased as Tanaka reached the radio room. He swallowed hard, licking his lips and touching the Nambu pistol holstered on his hip. Every instinct he had told him to draw that weapon, and to put it to use, but after what he’d seen he suspected the gun would do him no good. So instead he eased open the door, and closed it behind him, carefully pushing wooden chocks beneath the door to make it harder to open. Using wooden crates and leaning tables for support, Tanaka hopped across the room and sank into the radio operator’s chair. Pulling up his trouser leg and carefully unlacing his boot, he slowly tested his ankle. There were no bone shards or other signs of a break, but the swelling was already immense. Grabbing two pieces of scrap off the table, he made a makeshift splint, breath hitching as he cinched it into place. His immediate concern taken care of, he turned to the equipment that dominated the table.
The radio setup was a patchwork of old parts, fresh restock, and field repairs that barely held together in the damp, island heat. The radio itself had been useless for weeks now due to spotty microphones and speakers, and they’d had to make due with sending out messages via telegraphs, the text disguised with whatever code the captain decided was most appropriate on any given day. Tanaka was not a trained telegraph operator, but the message he needed to send was simple. He put his fingers on the Morse key, and tapped out three dots, three dashes, and three more dots. He followed it with the coordinates of the island, marked out on a piece of paper pinned to a cork board above the equipment. He breathed deeply, and forced himself to wait before he sent out the SOS again. And again. And again.
This had all started with the red flowers. The flowers, and the stranger that had arrived with them.
When they’d first come to the island, Captain Hara had ordered a full sweep of the island to be sure they were truly alone. The soldiers had found snakes and spiders aplenty, but there were no other signs of human life or habitation on the island aside from the crumbling constructions left by the Spanish centuries ago. Satisfied, the bespectacled commander had turned his attention to the matter of their mission, ensuring that they kept watch on the ocean in the event they saw the Americans or their allies trying to cut through their waters to sneak up on the Japanese lines.
With all their eyes turned out toward the waters, none of them had truly noticed when the red flowers began to bloom all across the island.
They were strange things, those flowers. Their petals were arranged in tight blooms like tropical roses, but they were far too large, and they were a red so dark that they looked black until you saw them up close. The petals were ragged, soft, and they had a strange, cloying scent. None of the soldiers could quite put their finger on that smell, but no one much wanted to, either, as the stems bore wicked, hooked thorns that seemed to reach out for anyone who got too near. The flowers bloomed all over the island, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Even stranger, though, they seemed to be the only flowers at all on that ragged chunk of land in the middle of the ocean.
Things had changed a few days ago when Private Nomura was assigned to patrol the island. The young man had glasses thicker than most portholes, a bad case of asthma, and could barely pass a single one of the physical regimens required for service. He had a weak stomach, a soft constitution, and he had fallen asleep on guard duty more times than Tanaka could count. He had no business being in the army, but they were at war, so exceptions had been made. And since boredom was the true enemy on this island, Captain Hara ensured that everyone took their turn reconnoitering the territory. Even if the true purpose of the patrol was to clear their heads and stretch their legs, rather than coming to grips with foes hiding in the bush, it still had to be done.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary at first. Nomura loaded and checked his rifle, his sidearm, and filled out the form for the Kurogane Type-95 scout vehicle they’d been given when the outpost was established. Once there was petrol in the tank, he started it up, dropped it into gear, and headed out along the rutted path that had been established by all of the previous patrols. His departure was noted for time, but nobody paid him any mind except to remark that if he drowned the motor they were going to leave him out there overnight to fix it himself.
It wasn’t until a gunshot rang out over the island that they paid attention. That first shot was followed by another, and another, each report echoing right on the heels of the last. By the time the sounds faded, the captain had stormed out of his office, fixing his steel-rimmed spectacles in place and barking commands. In short order a squad had been tasked, armed, and dispatched. They headed through the front gate at a steady jog, following the same route Nomura had taken.
The sun was setting by the time they returned. Nomura was slung between Lieutenant Kimura and Corporal Yamada, his head lolling and his feet barely touching the ground. Nomura’s uniform was splattered with blood, but when they drew close to the gate it was easy enough see he was still very much alive, though he seemed completely dazed. Nomura’s eyes wouldn’t focus, and though he was trying to speak, all he could manage was a slurred, confused murmuring. They brought him into the improvised infirmary where Kimura began treatment, and Yamada reported what had happened to the captain.
Nomura had been found stumbling along the track, his glasses broken from where he’d slammed into the steering wheel when his vehicle went off-road. They’d found shell casings from his rifle, and a lot of blood, but no body. In a brief period of lucidity, Nomura claimed a figure had stepped out of the flowers, and right into the track. Nomura had gotten a brief glimpse, and he claimed it had been a man. He’d been shirtless, his sun-dark skin covered in tattoos, and with a mane of tangled hair hanging down around his heavy shoulders. Something was wrong with him, though. His eyes has been empty, black holes, with something burning deep inside them. Before he could get a better look, Nomura said he hit the man hard enough to send him flying, losing control of the vehicle in the process. Nomura had stumbled free, trying to bring his weapon to bear. The man had gotten up without hesitation, and come at Nomura with a knife, hissing in a language the private had never heard before. Barely able to see, his assailant reduced to nothing more than a shadow, Nomura had emptied his rifle into the vague shape of the man. Blinded and deafened, he’d found the track with his foot, and tried to avoid falling into the bushes as he stumbled back toward the occupied mission where the others were.
Not long after the report was finished, Captain Hara gathered the men in the main room to address the situation. According to Nomura, they were no longer alone on this island. He assigned men to guard duty, Tanaka among them, and ensured everyone had coffee, a whistle, and a weapon, in that order. When the sun came up, they would search for the man who had assaulted Nomura, or his body. The captain ordered a standard encryption message be sent up the chain of command, informing their superiors, but to be explicit that it was one man, and no more. Those who had been assigned their positions took their rations and their weapons, staring out into the darkness, determined to spot the enemy before he came upon them.
They hadn’t suspected the danger was already in the mission with them.
Nomura had been dipping in and out of unconsciousness since his return, and he’d begun to babble as he did so. It wasn’t a language any of them had heard before, and listening to it for long started to make one antsy; as if the words themselves were burrowing under their skin, and looking for purchase there. Kimura hooked Nomura up to a saline drip, made him as comfortable as possible, and after a time Nomura seemed to finally be truly resting. Sometime in the early hours of the morning, however, Nomura got out of bed, grabbed a scalpel from the surgical kit, and cut Kimura’s throat with it while the medic slept in the other cot in the infirmary. Kimura never made a sound, if he even woke up at all.
Nomura attacked two other soldiers, wounding both of them severely. He was about to bring his blade down on one of them when Yamada shot him three times, killing him almost instantly. Chaos ensued as the wounded screamed, half-awake soldiers poured into the halls, and every guard immediately abandoned their posts to converge on the rear hallway. It was a miracle no one else got shot in the confusion. When all was said and done, Tanaka and several others had been tasked with taking Nomura and Kimura’s bodies outside, where they would be dealt with in time. Whatever madness had possessed Nomura, it would keep until the morning when they could all see and think properly. Tanaka had done as he was ordered, before returning to his post. He could see the silhouettes of both the dead men from his position, and his gaze kept going back to them as he sipped his coffee, and wondered what had broken inside Nomura to make him go mad like that.
The next day had been filled with a flurry of activity. More telegraphs were sent to command, this time directly asking for a response. Additional guards were posted all around the old church, and a detail was set to bury the remains of both Nomura and Kimura. A large signal mirror was set up on the roof, and a dozen other men, Tanaka among them, were to scour the island to make sure they were truly alone here. As he shouldered his pack and checked his rifle, though, he couldn’t help but notice that one of the strange, red flowers had bloomed out of Nomura’s chest where the bullet that stopped his heart had gone in. It sent an ill feeling up his spine that gripped the back of his skull, and would not let go.
That feeling didn’t dissipate as they left the mission behind them, either. If anything, it grew teeth, and began to gnaw at his guts. Despite the fact that the sun was high in the sky, and the sound of the surf dogged their steps, all of them were jumpy. Every movement in the brush was met with a raised weapon, knuckles white on the trigger. It was just the wind making the bushes shiver and the trees sway, but more than one man claimed they’d seen something moving beneath the deep, green boughs. Even Tanaka was sure he’d caught a glimpse of a foot sliding behind a trunk, or burning eyes in the shadows, but when he pushed the branches aside with his bayonet all he found was more of the dark red flowers, their petals bobbing in the breeze.
They’d made it maybe five klicks into the bush when the hair on the back of Tanaka’s neck rose up. He glanced back the way they’d come, and saw the signal mirror atop the church was swinging wildly, casting a wide arc of light back and forth over the trees. Already sweating and tired, ready to a brief halt to eat and drink in order to calm their frayed nerves, the men turned back the way they’d come on the double. None of them wanted to say it, but all of them were thinking thinking the same thing. It was evident in the way they ran without complaint, and the certainty in their gazes. Something was very, very wrong.
At first Tanaka thought maybe they’d all overreacted. That the feeling in his gut was just a lack of sleep, an overactive imagination, and the isolation of being on this island for so long, cut off from the rest of civilization except for the occasional delivery of supplies. No one from the mission called out to them as they emerged from the tree line, though. There was no movement at the windows, and as they drew closer they couldn’t even hear the sounds of conversation. All they heard was the creaking of the door in the wind, and the shush of the trees behind them as their branches waved back and forth. As the wind died down, though, they heard another sound… a wet, rhythmic sound like someone chopping meat.
What they saw inside that church froze their blood, and churned the bile in their bellies. Blood splattered the walls, and puddled on the old, broken tiles. Bodies slumped against the walls, and were splayed out on the floor. When they looked closer, they saw most of them were in pieces. The chopping noise grew louder, and louder, until they found Yamada. He was bent over a body that was unrecognizable after what he’d done to it. When he looked up, Tanaka saw there was blood all over his hands, his chest, and up one side of his face. His eyes were wrong, though. They were unfocused, unseeing, and empty… just like Nomura’s had been.
Tanaka had frozen, and that was the only thing that had saved him. Yamada rose from his butchery, his blade grasped in his hand as he stalked through the hallway of corpses. The others, though, reacted more quickly. Muzzles flashed, and the thunder of gunfire deafened Tanaka as the bullets hammered through Yamada’s body. He walked through the hail of fire like it was little more than raindrops, only stopping when a round went through his head. He stood there for a moment that seemed to last forever, before he dropped like a puppet with its strings cut.
Time hung in the air like gun smoke. Tanaka felt his lungs burning as he tried to make himself breathe, but couldn’t. Tears stung his eyes, and he tried to blink them away. The others lowered their weapons, each of them looking at the others, trying to figure out what to do next… all but Okamoto. He stood apart from the others, frowning at nothing, his head cocked as if he were listening to something none of the rest of them could hear. When Okamoto turned back to look at them, Tanaka’s stomach clenched. In the time between one beat of his heart, and the next, he knew what was going to happen next.
As Okamoto raised his weapon, Tanaka broke for the hallway. He knew he had to reach the radio, and try to raise someone. Anyone.
Tanaka’s fingers cramped, and he lost his grip on the key. He gasped, his muscles seizing as he grabbed his forearm with his other hand. He panted, staring around the room. The light, which had been a bright, white square on the wall when he’d snuck inside, was now just a puddle of deep red pooling near the floor. An eerie stillness had settled over the church, and Tanaka was suddenly aware of the sound of his heartbeat in his ears, and the dry, quiet panting of his breath. The only other sound he could hear was the waves on the shore, each one shushing the other as they crashed across the sand.
He checked his weapon, trying to stop his hands from shaking. He made sure the safety was off on the Nambu, and then forced himself to his feet. Dull pain raced up and down his leg, but after a moment it seemed to pass. Tanaka took a steadying breath, then limped back across the room. He took a flashlight from a side table, and switched it on to be sure it worked. Once he was satisfied, he listened at the door. All he heard was more of the same, unsettling silence. Setting his teeth together, Tanaka crept out of the radio room.
He moved from hall to hall, and room to room, his flash and gun searching for any kind of threat. The chapel had become a charnel house, and the only things that moved inside its walls were shadows thrown by the light in his trembling hand. Outside, the wind rose, running its fingers over the shutters, and trying to find a way inside the slaughterhouse. A whisper of a breeze brushed his face, chilling the sweat on Tanaka’s cheeks. He shuddered, and tried to swallow. His throat was so dry that all he managed was a click, and a cough. His gorge tried to rise, but even that felt perfunctory.
Holstering his weapon, but leaving the safety off, Tanaka cast his eyes downward. He had been looking only for movement, for threats, but now he forced himself to look at the remains of the men who’d been stationed on this island alongside him. He found Hayashi, a look of surprise on what was left of his face. Okada lay on his belly in the hallway, a dozen wounds in his back. Maeda had a hand locked around the knife buried in his neck, and Fujita was slumped in a closet, dead from a single stab straight through his heart. Tanaka stepped over the bodies of the dead, ticking every one of them off in his mind. As the moon began to rise in the sky, he realized he’d accounted for every man deployed to the island… every man but one.
Tanaka limped back through the wreckage of his comrades, until he found the stairs that led to the belfry. The door was half splintered, and someone had broken their fists against it trying to batter it down. Tanaka hit the door with its shoulder, but it still didn’t want to open. Taking a step back, he blasted the lock apart with two rounds from his pistol. When nothing came out of the darkness, drawn by the noise of the gun, he climbed the rickety stairs, leaning heavily on the wall, and all but hopping on his one, good leg. He called out for Captain Hara, but there was no response. When he reached the top of the stairs, Tanaka saw why.
Captain Hara was on his knees, slumped over on the upper level of the belfry. His shirt was open, and a deep furrow was dug along one side of his belly. Tanaka couldn’t tell if Hara had lost his nerve, or he’d simply run out of time for a dignified death. His sword was rammed through his chest, impaling his heart, and the hilt was the only thing stopping the captain’s body from flopping over like a dead fish. Tanaka holstered his weapon, and reached for the pack of cigarettes in Hara’s breast pocket. The dead man didn’t stop him as Tanaka took one of the last smokes in the pack, put it in his mouth, and struck a match. He leaned against the tower’s support railing, and stared out at the ocean. Silver crests danced atop the waves, fading into the dark waters. There was nothing between him and the horizon as far as he could see, though.
Tanaka turned, and regarded the island. Beneath the gibbous moon, it didn’t seem dangerous. The trees swayed gently, as if dancing. They shushed and whispered, as if inviting him to join them, and to walk among the shadows. Tanaka dragged deep on his cigarette, and blew the smoke out through his nose. Even beneath the sharp, harsh burn of the tobacco, he could smell those flowers. He finally recognized what their perfume reminded him of.
Blood. The damned things smelled like blood.
As Tanaka took another drag on his smoke, movement from below drew his eye. A shadow moved through the bushes, barely seen between the trees. Then another, and another, and another. Tanaka lost count of them as his cigarette burned down to his fingertips, then winked out. The shadows all looked up at him, glimmering pinpricks of light where their eyes should be. Every single one of them raised a knife. Tanaka drew his weapon, but instead of pointing it at the creatures, he put the barrel to the side of his head.
As he took a steadying breath and closed his eyes, he prayed no one had heard any of the messages he’d sent.
EDIT: There is now an audio drama version of this story, presented by A Vox in The Void!
More Stories From Neal Litherland
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But if you're in the mood for more of my stories, check out some of the following examples!
- Old Soldiers: The Hyperion Conflict devastated the planet, but humanity survived. So, too, did the Myrmidon; genetically-engineered shock troopers who stood on the front lines of the war. Pollux has been trying to escape the horrors of that war for a decade, now, and he may be able to do so... until a shadowy conspiracy makes a move on him. Reassembling the remains of his old squad, he prepares to do what he was made to do, but there is a question in the back of his mind. Is this really happening, or is it all in his head?
- Broken Heroes: Rann was sent out to retrieve a lost weapon, but now he and the squad who came with him are surrounded by the colossal, insectoid creatures that claimed the forest. When a brave act crashes him through the ground and into an ancient bunker, he finds something far more potent than he could ever have hoped for... something that wants to finish the fight it started so long ago.
- Field Test: When Inquisitor Hargrave came to the world of New Canaan a few days ahead of an ork rok, she promised them a weapon that would destroy the greenskins. When that weapon was unleashed, though, none could have predicted just how powerful, or how dangerous, he truly was.
- Beyond The Black: The Emperor's Hand: Gav Smythe has fought daemons and traitors in the Emperor's name all his life... but this may be the greatest challenge the ogryn has yet faced!
- Waking Dogs- A World Eaters Tale: For my fans of Warhammer 40K, this is a story I felt compelled to tell about one of the infamous World Eaters remembering who he once was.
- Broken Chains- A World Eaters Tale: The sequel to Waking Dogs, we see that Crixus is taking his personal crusade seriously. Word is beginning to spread of his deeds, and his old sergeant Atillus realizes that the time may have come for him to pay for the decisions he made so very long ago.