Nineteen, Goethe, Germany, 4/11/45
Jack could hear three things, the clatter of the rain on the metal rooftops of the camp, the rattle of thunder not nearly far enough off, and the clamber of his own heartbeat. He couldn’t hear Fleming over the cacophony, and couldn’t wait any longer. “Point the direction!” Jack yelled, and Fleming threw his finger into the wind, west by northwest, and Jack burst off. After less than a quarter mile he finally heard the bursts of gunfire breaking through the sounds of the storm, better than any cardinal direction.
The fighting was taking place inside a quarry, where most of the stones used to build the various camp structures had been ripped from the ground. Jack imagined Heshell overseeing the work, standing at the edge of the pit in the earth. Lightning rent the sky, backlighting a German sniper in the same spot. He was facing away from Jack, lining up a shot at some poor American sap inside the quarry.
Jack raised his sidearm and fired several times without slowing. His shots were wild because of his gait, but two from the magazine struck the Nazi in the rib and shoulder, sending him spinning, his own shot firing harmlessly into the sky.
Jack was upon him before he fell, and delivered a haymaker to him, snatching his rifle as the blow sent him hurtling into a pile of rock below.
Jack used the rifle’s scope to survey the battlefield beneath him. A dozen Americans were trapped among the rocks, trying to advance but having difficulties because of the varied and unpredictable terrain. The Germans had better positions on the opposite side of the canyon, with cover, though curiously, they didn’t seem to be using it.
Jack watched a shot strike one of the Germans, twisting him halfway around. He spun back, grinning madly as he advanced. “What the hell?” Jack asked. He steadied his aim against a rock, and put a bullet into the German. It struck him in the stomach, doubling him over, but an instant later the German was standing up straight again, grinning.
“Your rifle won’t work,” Jack heard a voice over his shoulder. He spun, swinging the bayonet on the tip of the rifle menacingly. “On them,” the voice said, again from behind him, “it might on me, and I’d prefer not to test that theory.” Jack frowned. The voice was speaking in Hebrew, but for some reason he’d only just realized it.
“Explain yourself. And while you’re at it, show yourself.”
“Very well,” an elderly man unfurled a cloak where an instant before there had been only the wet, shiny blackness of the camp.
“Who are you?”
“I’d prefer to make introductions while people aren’t being slaughtered by Nazis.”
“Fine. Tell me what I need to do.”
“They’re protected, using the same magic that safeguarded Balder from everything but holly.”
“So I need to kill them with holly?”
“No. Any weapon not made of lead should suffice.”
“They’re protected from bullets?”
“At great expense, yes. I’d wager the spellcraft costs as much for one of them as the entire series of trials that led to your miraculous change.”
Jack looked again down the scope. The German was advancing still, crossing the open ground at the foot of the quarry. A hail of American gunfire buffeted him, but with each shot that bounded off him, his grin grew wider and more unhinged. “That isn’t just a bulletproof Nazi,” Jack said.
“They’re berserkir, Odin’s bear-skin warriors; it’s magic-induced Norse battle-madness,” he said. “These spells are strong, beyond anything I could counter in a timely fashion, all cast by that very large, shirtless seiðmenn.” A man two heads taller than the rest of the Germans stood up. His torso was covered in tattoos, the largest of which was a swastika bisecting his torso twice. Lightning cleaved the sky, shattering a rock several Americans were hiding behind, sending scorched stone shrapnel flying with the violence of bullets in every direction. In his hand he clutched an ancient-looking hammer. “Embedded in the wood is a sliver said to have chipped off Mjolnir itself when Thor struck the world serpent, granting the wielder some fraction of the powers of the Norse god himself.”
“It isn’t an accident that they’re here, is it?”
“Nor I. They have been deployed several times in theaters where you were expected to make an appearance. This is merely the first time you’ve managed to find each other through the fog of war.”
“Let’s go, then,” Jack said.
“You misunderstand me,” the old man said. “I can’t help you. In this fight, my magics would be little more than a momentary distraction. But I can protect you from the lightning.”
“I’ll take what I can get,” Jack said, and started down the rocky hill. Chipped stone began to slide in his wake, nearly taking him off his feet. That gave Jack an idea. He took a grenade off his belt, pulled the pin and let it cook for a moment; he needed it to explode the moment it impacted. He threw the grenade near the far edge of the quarry. Its walls were lined with stones of increasing size the further down the hill you moved.
The grenade’s explosion was lost in another strike of lightning, this one hitting within a few feet of Jack. He spun towards the big Nazi with the hammer; he dragged the weapon across his throat and then shook it at Jack.
Rocks slid in the wake of Jack’s grenade, smaller rocks knocking larger rocks, cascading into an avalanche that swallowed most of the berserkirs. Lightning again struck near Jack, scorching a large bolder. Jack glanced back at the old man atop the hill, but he wasn’t there.
Jack positioned himself under a boulder that weighed as much as two of him, pressed against the rocky wall, and coiled, before springing the boulder into motion. It bounded onto the quarry floor, bowling over one of the berserkirs.
Jack bounded after the rolling stone, landing at the floor of the quarry and rolling. He sprang from the ground, spearing another Nazi in the ribs, and threw him into the dirt. Another berserkir approached Jack from behind, but the seiðmenn raised his hand. “The Jude is mine,” he said.
He and Jack circled one another, with every step Jack trying to cut the distance between them. Closer up, Jack could tell the seiðmenn was missing an eye. He knew his norse mythology well enough to know the significance.
Rain made the quarry floor slick, made it hard for either man to keep his eyes open. Jack wiped a sheet of rainwater from his forehead, smoothing his hair back off his face at the same time. The seiðmenn threw back his head and laughed, then kept his mouth open to catch the rain. “My gods provide,” he bellowed. “Give me strength. Give me sustenance. Give me you.”
“I think that means your god doesn’t like you very much,” Jack said, kicking a ball of mud at the seiðmenn; it splattered roughly against his bare chest, a chest every inch of which was covered either in Nazi symbols or seiðer runes. The seiðmenn held out his hammer in his outstretched hand, and lightning struck the ground beneath Jack’s feet. “That your god’s forsaken you. That you’re losing your religion, and maybe your other eye, if you don’t surrender now.”
“I would rather forsake my gods, than surrender to a Jude like you.”
“Any particular god you prefer, when I’m sprinkling your ashes?”
The seiðmenn didn’t respond, only slashed his hammer at Jack. The hammer’s face was a raised square, tapering to a larger base, like a pyramid with its top lopped off, and the edges were sharp enough to slice through Jack’s sleave, and break his skin. “First blood,” Jack said.
“Hardly,” the seiðmenn said, staring at his hammer with a religious adoration, “Magni has bathed in blood of the Juden, and will quaf yours in time.”
Jack knelt down, and picked up a jagged, soft-ball sized stone. He feinted with the rock, leading the seiðmenn to swing wide with the hammer in response. Jack stepped into his swing, blocking the blow at the seiðmenn’s wrist, then brought the rock down in the middle of his forearm. The arm tensed, but still he held the weapon. Jack took hold of his wrist and twisted, nearly tearing it out of its socket, then struck his forearm again with the stone, causing it to snap loud enough to be heard over the rain. The seiðmenn dropped the hammer, yelping as his arm went limp beneath the break.
The seiðmenn lunged at Jack, hitting him in the chin with his shoulder, and Jack stumbled backwards. The German leapt for the hammer, hefting it in his opposite arm as he rolled into a crouch. Jack loosed his stone, and it knocked the seiðmenn onto his back.
Jack pounced, landing knees-first in the German’s chest, following quickly with a punch to the seiðmenn’s jaw. He seized the hammer at the grip, and tore it from the German, throwing it behind him.
The German screamed, landing a haymaker with his left hand that knocked Jack off him. He clambered to his feet, scanning desperately in the dark for the hammer. “You’re going to have to finish this man to man,” Jack said, squaring towards him.
The German howled, swinging wide like the swipe of a bear. Jack ducked beneath the blow, and seized the seiðmenn and lifted him at the waist. The seiðmenn made a fist, but Jack shook him like a rag doll, and he couldn’t get enough leverage to put any real strength into a punch. Jack squeezed until he felt the German’s back dislocate, and dropped him into the dirt.
In the mud, the seiðmenn spied his hammer, and started to crawl towards it. Jack stomped on his forearm, dropped his knee into the German’s face and then delivered several more punches into the German’s head. His breathe bubbled up through the mud, and Jack stood up, letting him pull his head out of the soil with a gasp. Jack lifted the hammer, and hung it off his belt. Then he looked to the seiðmenn, his blood mixing with the mud and said, “Master race my Jewish ass.”