Return of Souls

If war is hell, there is no word to describe what Private Jones has been through. Forced into a conflict with an unknowable enemy, he awakes to find himself in a strange land, and is soon joined by young woman, Morana, who tends to his wounds and tells him of the battles played out in this impossible place.

She tells him of an Iron Beast that will end the Great War, and even as he vows to help her find it, enemy combatants seek them, intent on their utter annihilation.

The sequel to A Song for No Man’s Land, Andy Remic’s Return of Souls is available June 14th from Tor.com Publishing. Read an excerpt below, and check out Jeffrey Alan Love’s artwork for all three novellas in the No Man’s Land series.

 

Chapter 1

The Rusting Jungle.
“A Taste of Reality.”
17th. August 1917.

 

Robert Jones, 3rd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers, sprinted through the trenches, filled with an absolute, mind-destroying terror. Ahead, the route lay deserted. Behind, around a corner in the moonlit-painted trench like some scene from a ghastly, sick painting, he could hear heavy, lumbering boots pounding the duckboards. They were coming for him. Coming fast…

Rain fell, cooling skin, drenching his coat and hair and face. His boots thudded on uneven boards as he powered on, fingers flexing uselessly as if in some unbidden awareness that he had no weapon. No weapon.

He stopped suddenly, sliding on treacherous, mud-slick timber. His hand steadied himself against the damp earth wall, fingers leaving tiny indentations. Above him, thick streamers of twisted barbed wire rattled in the wind.

He listened.

There… again… they were following. He could hear boots raking the boards, clattering as they pounded down a parallel communications trench to his left. Jones ducked down, kneeling, cowering against the damp mud wall which stained his coat, trying to hide from them… whatever they were.

Water soaked through his trousers and his toes went numb with the cold.

I wish I had my ——ing SMLE, he thought, mouth dry, eyes tired, mind firing like a tank’s massive, roaring engine. He patted his pockets, looking for a blade or pistol. He remembered Bainbridge’s Beholla, of which the man had been so proud. Jones could have done with that gun now…

Suddenly, he realised the sounds of charging boots had stopped.

His head came up, looking around. Where were they?

Damn. Damn!

Move! his instincts screamed at him, and he heard the scrabbling of stones and soil, glancing up as a huge black shadow loomed above him. It was big, wearing a heavy German overcoat, but within this shell, its body was slick and black, thick twisted coils like oiled tree roots. The face was narrow and pointed, and merged with a Hun helmet, flesh and metal fused, grey eyes narrowed, long yellow fangs curling up from a disjointed jaw that looked more like machinery, cogs in clockwork.

It screeched and leapt at him from the top of the trench, but Jones was already kicking backwards, slipping and sliding, and the creature hit the duckboards, slipping itself, pitching forward, and Jones saw his opportunity. He leapt, boot lashing out, connecting with the creature’s jaw. It howled, stumbling back, and Jones waded in, fists flying, right straight, left uppercut, all the while fear and disgust rioting through him. What is it? his mind screeched. What the ——ing hell is it? He planted his fist in its face, snapping a long yellow fang, but then something heavy landed on his back, crushing him to the ground.

Ah. There were more…

His head lashed backwards, and he felt something break, but then something appeared before his eyes. It was a long curved bayonet, etched with runes and rust. Slowly, it turned before his eyes, as if he were being offered the chance to survey this murder weapon before it did its dirty work.

“No,” he managed, as he watched the creature in front of him stand and touch its broken fangs tentatively. Steam came in snorts from its nostrils, and those grey eyes fixed on him with total evil.

The bayonet pressed against his throat.

“What are you?” he managed.

The face loomed close, and it stank like a corpse. Jones realised it was grinning. “We walriders. We eat you now.” The face seemed to twist and grow in his vision, and he struggled violently, trying to break free as all that time, the terrible stink invaded him, raped him, forced itself down into his very core…

The shell blast rocked the trench, shrapnel screamed, fire roared, and the very world seemed to fall down to Hell. Jones felt the weight from his back lifted and blasted back down the trench, bouncing from walls like a broken doll. The walrider before him was slammed against him, grunting, and he felt its body being pounded by the blast of shrapnel, wave after wave until Jones could take no more, thought he’d be crushed to death by sheer pressure…

And then, peace.

He opened his eyes, to stare into the dead walrider’s face. Its tongue was poking out to the side like a purple slug. Jones saw the one remaining yellow fang and noted it was hollow.

With all his strength, he heaved the heavy corpse from himself, watched it topple back, overcoat smoking. Above, stones trickled down into the trench. Jones frowned. He was sure he heard… a scrabbling sound. Like thorns clacking on stone.

This is a nightmare, he thought.

He blinked. The world, the trenches, the walrider corpses, all faded to black, leaving shocking bright afterimages in his brain.

The war was gone.

Jones’s eyes flared open, breathing sharp and fast in his ears, fingers clutching the blankets tight; and he was afraid.

His breathing slowed.

His eyes narrowed.

And reaching across, he plucked a thorn splinter from his flesh, leaving a tiny bead of blood.

 

 

Chapter 2

Ypres Salient (3rd. Battle of).
“Dugout Dreams.”
18th. August 1917.

 

Robert jones sat in the stale dugout, breathing the scent of mud, a plate of gypo steaming on his lap. But he had no appetite. He kept hearing voices; he could hear Bainbridge moaning about water in his rifle; he could hear Webb complaining about Bainbridge’s bullying. Their voices gradually faded in Jones’s mind, to be replaced by a low-level rumble of distant gunfire and a sporadic trembling of the earth.

He stretched his neck, easing tension. He felt so low. So down. The depression had settled in his abdomen, and he felt physically sick.

Slowly, Jones reached out, picked up his fork, and put a lump of meat in his mouth. It was cold.

Had he been seated for so long?

Jones chewed the meat (horse? dog? who knew?) slowly and swallowed. Then he pushed the bowl to one side, watched as it fell from the bunk and scattered contents across the bare earth floor.

He lay back on his bed and closed his eyes. He could feel the meat inside him, cold, greasy, crying to get out, crying to be released… His eyes rolled backwards and images of violence flooded his mind, blood, death, a chest exploded with a bayonet thrust, blood spraying outwards, the man screaming, cutting his hands as he grabbed the sharp steel… another, charging through a shell hole, then hit by a crump. Bam. Body parts exploding outwards in a hot hail rush of smoke and shrapnel and tattered strings of bloody flesh.

“Pull yourself out of it, lad; you’re being a ——ing girl!” It was Bainbridge. Charlie Bainbridge!

Jones sat bolt upright, eyes wide, mouth open, panting, hands clawing the cheap rough blankets.

But he was alone. So terribly alone.

I wish I was back in Dolwyddelan, he thought.

I wish I were back home.

He sat there for a minute, then for an hour, cradling his diary. But no words came. He could not write. He was alone—he was ——ing alone, and he knew it. They were dead, both dead, and who could he turn to now?

Jones kicked his bowl across the dugout and threw his diary onto Bainbridge’s empty bunk. The world felt grey, and he wondered when the war would ever end. How could the bastards force men through all the shit? How could the brass hats expect good, honest men to endure such awful conditions? Suffer through so much death? It was ——ing arsapeek.

Then Jones smiled, for the first time in days. “You don’t give a shit, do you?” he whispered. “You’re all bastards. We’re just numbers. Cogs in the machine of war.”

“It’s a bad sign, talking to yourself.”

“I’m okay, Johnson. Come in, make yourself at home.”

The sergeant stooped his head, ducked inside, and, eyes full of concern, sat opposite Jones. His muddied boot pushed a potato across the floor.

“I see the food’s up to its usual amazing standards.”

Jones barked a laugh and lay back on his bunk. “It’s like eating from a bin. Anyway, what brings you down here, Sergeant?”

“Don’t play games, Jones. You know why I’m here.” Johnson leaned forward and placed a large, hairy hand on Jones’s arm. The two men locked gazes.

“Do I?”

“Yes. I care. You’re a good soldier”—Jones gave a bitter laugh—“you’re a good soldier, and I’ll not see you give up now. Listen, man, Bainbridge would want you to fight on; he’d want you to be brave.”

Jones sighed. “I know. But I miss him. I miss the old bugger.”

“So do I, Jones. He was my friend as well…”

“I’m sorry, Sergeant. I must appear completely self-centred, full of bloody horseshit.”

“No, you don’t, lad.”

“Yes, I do… I know I do. I’m lying here, wallowing in my bunk… but I need action; I need to get out there and do some killing or take a bullet myself. It’s this waiting shit that’s destroying my soul… at least when I’m shooting a rifle in a Hun’s face, I’m marking up another notch for Bainbridge. Getting some payback.” He lit a cigarette, coughed heavily on the blue-grey smoke. “You want one?” The sergeant shook his head, and Jones continued. “Am I going crazy, Sergeant? Has it finally got to me?”

“No, soldier. I feel like that sometimes—we all do. It’s the trenches. It’s watching your mates getting shot, watching them crawl through the mud towards you with hands outstretched, bullets cutting past as they drag themselves along, begging for life… and just as you reach out to pull them into the trench, a ——ing piece of shrapnel takes off the back of their head. Out here, we all go a little crazy. I know it sounds Irish, but it’s the only way we can keep sane… you know?”

Jones nodded, and savoured his cigarette. He only had three left.

Sergeant Johnson pulled a flask from his pocket, unscrewed the cap, and took a hefty swig. He offered it to Jones. “Want a shot?”

Jones took the flask, enjoyed the burning in his throat because it told him he was still alive and still in control, despite reminding him of older, badder days. He handed the flask back. “How come sergeants are finding whiskey in these harsh times? I’ll be damned if I know how you do it.”

“A privilege of rank, son.”

“I’ll just have to get promoted, then.” The taste was sweet on his lips. Like a good woman.

They sat, talking for a while, remembering men who had fallen, remembering moments of great heroism and insanity witnessed during the war. Johnson told Jones about an earwig race they were going to have in the communications trench that evening. There was a lot of money bet on the race, and Johnson shared his secret with Jones, with a broad wink.

“It’s all in the technique,” said the sergeant.

“What technique? How can you have a ——ing technique when you’re racing earwigs?”

Johnson grinned, and Jones could see the older man was debating whether to share his secret with the Tommy. Then he grinned, and Jones witnessed an internal battle won.

“I dips ’em in whiskey!” said Johnson. “Makes the little buggers run like the wind.”

Jones paled, and the sergeant laughed out loud, and for a moment, Jones could have been talking to Bainbridge, as the scene went hazy in his mind… but then he was back, and Johnson was still laughing.

“Tell me you don’t.” Jones pointed at the flask.

“Not with this,” said Johnson, sloshing the flask. “But don’t worry—a bit of earwig never hurt anybody.”

“It’s not anybody I’m worried about; it’s bloody me,” said Jones with a look of disgust. He thought for a moment. “You say there are bets on this race?”

“Yes, Jones. Why?”

“Oh, I used to be quite a gambler.” He finished his cigarette and stamped it under his boot. “Come on, you can show me which trench it’s in. Who’s taking the bets?”

“Eldritch.”

“I might have bloody known.”

Jones climbed from the dugout, and for a moment, Johnson paused, glancing around the deserted room. He felt a cool breeze pass across his soul, and he shivered, imagining the anger of the big bearded man. “I’m sorry, Bainbridge,” he whispered at the gloom. “It’s the only way I could get him out… you understand?”

Sliding on mud, he climbed out of the trench and looked up at streaked grey skies. Black smoke curled nearby. Then, ducking against the light drizzle, he led Jones towards humanity.

* * *

The battle on the Salient churned on. The British Fifth managed to move forward a few hundred yards at the Battle of Langemarck, and diversionary tactics were successfully mounted by the Canadians at Lens during mid-August. Haig was planning to secure the ridge east of Ypres by three battles, each with limited objectives… but still, men were dying in their thousands, still the rain fell, the mud drowned, and screams haunted a land once green and beautiful and filled with life.

* * *

It was morning. Jones was talking with three new conscripts who’d just arrived in his trench. He was explaining the basic rules when suddenly a voice could be heard, distant and soft, and most definitely female.

All work ceased in the trench as the men lifted heads, smiled, looked at one another and cracked jokes. The voice was high and bright and filled with hope… and for a while, the mood in the trench lightened perceptibly.

“That’s a beautiful voice,” said a new conscript, a small, wiry man with the look of eagles about him. His name was Sullivan, and most of his front teeth were missing, giving his speech a curious lisp.

“Aye,” said his mate, Nelson, “a song to turn the head of any man out here. What say you, Jones? Does she tickle your fancy?” The men laughed in good humour.

Jones shook his head and looked up at the ladders and ridge lined with strung-out coils of barbed wire. “You lot won’t be laughing for long when the bullets start eating away at your friends.”

The laughter stopped, and cursing, Jones left the group and headed across the duckboards, hands in pockets, face grim. But—how could he tell them? How could he say that the woman’s beautiful, hope-filled voice had no effect? It had been a grey sound, devoid of colour, devoid of joy. Because that’s what he had become. A man without joy. Without hope.

How the hell could he tell new conscripts what lay out there for them across No Man’s Land?

He trudged on, chewing his lip, and reached his dugout. He unlaced his boots, kicked them off, and sat back on his bunk. He wished Johnson was there with his generous flask of whiskey… Jones could taste the whiskey, sweet in his mouth now and…

“Stop.” He breathed out. And smiled.

Bainbridge would have been there with his fists if he’d known Jones was back on the shit—when he could get his paws on it. Bainbridge would have beat sense into the disillusioned Tommy.

Taking up his pen, Jones began a letter home to his mother, but after a few sentences, he stopped writing and threw the page to the earthen floor. It was all lies. All lies! How could he write home and say, The weather is awful. Men are dying outside. I am dying inside. I fear I am going insane. All my friends are dead. There is no longer any reason to possess hope. There is no longer any reason to live.

How could he write that? He couldn’t, and so he had to lie on paper, and one lie begat another begat another, until the farce continued into oblivion.

“Why did you have to die? Eh, Bainbridge? Webb? You were bastards, both of you. Sad, funny cases. But I loved you both. Loved you with all my heart.”

And that was it. He could say it… he could finally say it. Love, such a funny word, a word men found difficult to say to one another without the suffix like brothers. But Jones understood now, understood the true feelings of love, and what it was like to lose that love.

Now he understood what Webb had felt, what the young Tommy had experienced when he watched his mother die, cancer eating her black and skeletal; and he knew what Webb had endured after the terrible event, the finality. The world was an empty place. A shell.

And he thought about Sarah.

His lost love.

All thanks to the whiskey, you dumb, dumb bastard, said a little demon in his soul.

Tears drew silver star-trails down his cheeks.

Jones drew his knees up on his bunk, scratched at lice in his hair, and shivered as a pain began to throb deep in his belly, and he groaned, wrapped his arms around himself, and waited for the pain to go, to leave him, to depart. But the pain remained, nagged him, ate him, and burned him with acid ice sharpness. He shivered again. His mind felt fragmented. Like broken glass.

It was not cold, but Robert Jones, private in the 3rd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers, was cold to the heart.

Excerpted from Return of Souls © Andy Remic, 2016.

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