|The Night Children|
|Author||Alexander Gordon Smith|
It is December 1944 and Europe is still gripped by war. In the densely forested mountains of Belgium one of the conflict's most brutal battles is raging. Cut off from the front, a ragtag group of young British and American soldiers finds itself being hunted by a patrol of elite German Special Forces, including a newly commissioned officer called Kreuz—a teenage boy who will grow up to become Warden Cross (the fearsome prison director who will one day rule Furnace Penitentiary, the terrifying underground prison specially built for teen offenders). As both sides fight for their lives in the unforgiving terrain, however, they start to realize that there are worse things hiding in the snow than soldiers. There are creatures out there with gas masks and piggy eyes (ancestors of Furnace prison's "wheezers")—demonic entities that cannot be killed by guns and grenades, monsters who do not care what uniforms their victims are wearing so long as they bleed, and so long as they scream . . .
Plot Summary Edit
The novella begins with a search party: Coporal Donnie Brixton, alongside with his men Eddie Argento, Mike Levy, and Henry Grady search for Sergeant Cudden and his men who have seemingly vanished in the forest two days earlier. Cudden's original mission had been to ambush a small German logging village before they all disappeared.
During their trek, the men come across a figure in the woods that upon investigation turns out to be a fallen Allied parachute. Before they can deduct whose parachute it is, a stranger from the Royal British Air Force ambushes them at gunpoint and demanding the men to state their business. Satisfied with their answers, the strangers reveals their identity to be Joan Forbes, a female pilot of the Royal Air Force. Joan explains that she had been an escort pilot heading to Heilbronn for a follow up raid, but had been shot down by a German antiaircraft gun and forced to crash in the middle of the Ardennes. She figured to head south to where the Allied forces would be, and set up her parachute decoy and hid until she found Donnie and his men.
Donnie fills her in on what they were trying to accomplish. Despite the order to go north to find Cudden, Joan advises the men not to go, with the claim that something horrifying would await them and that the men they were looking for were likely already dead. Mike doesn't trust Joan, sure that she's secretly a German spy, but Donnie dismisses his theory. With nowhere else to go, Joan reluctantly joins the group to head up north once more.
Joan is horribly proven right about what she saw. In the middle of a clearing are Sergeant Cudden and his men - horribly mutilated with their faces nailed onto logs and posed like dolls. Drawn in frozen blood around each man is a symbol: three circles set in a triangle, with three dots in the middle of them and three lines connecting them together, along with the phrase "Sie sind alle gerettet." ("They are all saved.") Donnie takes charge, giving out orders to secure the area, signal for help, and look for tracks of whoever (or whatever) did this. Before they can get far into their work, a creature much like a grotesque rat with a child's face appears and attacks. The group collectively bail and retreat as far as they can, only to run into a group of Nazis and knocked out.
Donnie, Mike, and Henry are tied up and captured by the Nazis, Eddie and Joan are nowhere to be seen. The Germans interrogate Donnie about what the three of them were doing in the woods. Their first lieutenant, Kreuz, personally accuses the American of being assassins who had been sent out to slaughter two of their men. Donnie denies all of this, accusing in turn that the Nazis were the ones who had killed Cudden and his men, butchering them into dolls. As Kreuz threatens to kill him, Eddie appears from the woods, bluffing that he had the Nazis surrounded by backup. The Nazis surrender (though Eddie's forced to fire at Kreuz to get him to drop his gun), while Joan frees Donnie, Mike, and Henry of their bonds. It's in that moment that Eddie is snatched away by a creature and into the woods.
Immediately ambushed by a berserker, everyone starts running and firing at the monster, which gets the better of one of the Nazis and devours him. While everyone else manages to retreat to relative safety, Kreuz begins accusing Joan of bringing the monster, convinced everything is her fault. Donnie overtakes Kreuz and bounds and gags him so he wouldn't run off (or run his mouth off) for himself. The rest of the Nazis manage to catch up, holding a momentary truce in order to get away from any more of the monsters, and the group begin to trek further into forest as far as they can.
Close to dawn, the group sets up a small camp to get warm and rest from their exhaustion. The three other Nazis introduce themselves: Stefan Holst, Andreas Becker, and Gyorgy Markus. Stefan explains that they had been originally stationed closer to town, but thanks to Kreuz, ended up getting lost in the woods. Kreuz had wanted a chance to kill off some Americans, but ended up getting chased by the creatures. Upon the mention of the creatures, Gyorgy, who is feverish and injured, explains that the creatures were "Night Children". He tells an old Hungarian tale about children who were stolen from families as babies who became angry vengeful monsters who grew up alone in the forests at night. These monsters were incredibly sad beings who still laughed like children, with liquid darkness in their veins, and were sometimes referred to as "the children of Kázán". Though spooked by Gyorgy's story, there is a unanimous vote to stay in place and rest until dawn.
Donnie is woken up in the middle of the night by a voice calling his name. It's Eddies voice, pleaing for Donnie to come help him. Going alone, Donnie cautiously looks for Eddie's body and finds him, hung from a tree with his neck snapped, with a wheezer holding him up from the bottom. Donnie locks eyes with Eddie's corpse, which has black blood leaking out of it wounds. Eddie impossibly smiles and says "I'm saved," and opens his eyes. Donnie runs off screaming.
Back at the camp, Donnie wakes everyone else up and urges them to get moving after relaying what he just saw. Mike and Henry immediately turn on the Nazis, accusing them of setting up a trap. Stefan in turn accuses the Americans of doing the same thing, as Andreas, Joan, and Donnie try to break up the argument. The argument is interrupted by Kreuz, who worked his way out of his gag, screaming that Gyorgy had been taken. Donnie, Joan, and Stefan take off after the monster while Andreas looks for Gyorgy, while Henry and Mike keep an eye on Kreuz. They make a plan to run back to Cudden's body was in the clearing, as their packs with explosives still remained, deciding to take out the monsters in one hit.
They reach the German camp first along the way, taking a second to grab their bags and quickly eat before going out again. Donnie offers fod to Kreuz, and asks about how Kreuz ended up on the front. Kreuz explains that he was trying to fill the positions of his father's shoes, who had died in the last World War and so was able to get his uncle to bring him into the ranks. Kreuz pleas for a gun from Donnie, swearing that he wanted to die fighting rather than cower. Donnie doesn't trust him just yet, leaving Kreuz alone for a second to regroup with everyone else. However, Kreuz is targeted by a wheezer, screaming as the wheezer attempts to drag him away. Joan and Stefan manage to shoot the wheezer down without hurting Kreuz. Donnie decides to free Kreuz from his bonds again, and reluctantly gives the boy a gun.
Back at the original clearing with Cudden's body, the group plants their explosives hidden all along the bodies and trees in the immediate area. They use the wheezer's corpse as a decoy to lure the monsters back in. With a little bit of waiting, the monsters arrive once more to check out the decoy, but the detonator for the bombs doesn't go off right. Joan grabs the grenade in Donnie's pocket, running out into the clearing in order to toss the grenade in. She succeeds in doing so, and lights up the entire clearing with explosives.
The creatures get blown to hell in the explosion, but Joan gets caught into the blast herself and is mortally wounded. Donnie has enough time to catch up to her, and she makes him promise to deliver a letter she had written to her fiance, William Sawyer, who lived back in London. She also asks of him not to tell them what happened to her out in the forest, before dying.
Donnie carries Joan's body away, wanting to bring her at least out of the forest where all the monsters lurked and catches up with everybody else. According to Henry, one of the monsters was still alive, and had to get it gunned down quickly before it recovered. The Americans agree to head back to camp, Stefan deciding to come with them as well. Then Kreuz shoots Mike in the head.
Kreuz guns down Stefan and Henry just as quickly, while Donnie legs it away from the forest while still holding on to Joan. Kreuz taunts Donnie, swearing to kill him. Before Kreuz can make do on his word, a horrifying presence fills the woods, dark and petrifying. A being filled with darkness confronts Kreuz, Furnace himself, offering Cross a gift of power, and converts him with the nectar. Kreuz walks off with Furnace, while Donnie collapses to the ground.
After a few hours creeping into nightfall, Donnie gets up once more. Though too weak to take Joan with him, he takes her letter to fulfil her dying wish, and attempts to run back to camp.
The story ends with Donnie's discharge letter as followed:
To: Colonel Robert F. Sink, 506th
From: Captain Daniel Reynosa
Subject: Corporal Donald M. Brixton
Corporal Brixton was found three miles north of Bertogne on 20 December, alone, wounded and severely dehydrated. He was brought back to operations, treated for his wounds, and thoroughly debriefed. His report, which is included in this letter, detailed that he discovered Sergeant Bill Cudden and his squad deep inside the forest, their exact position unknown. The men had been killed and mutilated. Corporal Brixton insists that those responsible for the attack were “monsters,” or “night children,” commanded by a man by the name of Kázán, or Furnace. He also names a German officer called Kreuz, or Cross, who may now be involved. His account is inconsistent and delusional. Our medic believes that Corporal Brixton is suffering from severe shock, and needs to be immediately removed from frontline action for medical treatment. Brixton, who exhibits periods of manic behavior and paranoia, has requested transport back to England to fulfill a personal matter, then shipment to Indiana, where he is to undergo full psychiatric screening. I hereby recommend that he be given an honorable discharge in light of his courage in the line of duty, and a Purple Heart for his injuries.
We currently have no resources to search for Sergeant Cudden’s and Corporal Brixton’s squads, and regretfully must assume that all men have been killed in action. The events behind their disappearance remain unknown.