The stench of blood, shit, and piss was stronger than any human would be able to stand. Gunpowder and wire, hot metal and mould. Rats. Stale rations.
Sometimes a cup of tea, a papery smell and lanolin. Warm socks from home? Letters from their sweethearts?
Or more orders to send good men – no, they were still children in many cases, and Alucard ached for their lost innocence – over the wall of the trench. It was pointless. A waste of life.
And yet here he was, aiding them in this war.
Someone had been screaming in pain for at least half an hour. He sounded like he was stuck in barbed wire. Whoever he was, he was in a ditch or hidden by some other debris, somewhere Alucard would possibly have protection from gunfire. The day was overcast, with the weather reports predicting heavy rain in the afternoon. It would make it too cold for survival and hamper the vision of everyone. If Alucard went up in the rain, his comrades would surely catch on to his inhuman abilities.
He peeped over the edge of the trench, trying to find exactly where the injured soldier was. His helmet, painted up with the Red Cross, went first, then the rest of him. Scanning the muddy battlefield, he could hear the man but couldn't see him.
It wasn't like he could smell him out either. With the amount of blood in the air his heightened senses were a hindrance.
Alucard ducked down again, moved along the trench, and repeated his slow movement upwards so as to not alert anyone on the other side. He could take a bullet, but he really didn't want to in front of the rest of the soldiers. That would mean he'd have to pretend to be dead and make a whole new set of identification papers, plus ensure he wasn't sent back to his original station.
Sure, he could shapeshift. There were good reasons for doing it and also not doing it. Shapeshifting required considerable energy to make a form permanent enough that he didn't need to think about it. It required more blood, at more frequent intervals, and getting blood that wasn't full of decay was hard enough.
So taking a bullet and being put out of commission for who knows how long wasn't an option.
The injured man was closer. At least he sounded closer. His moaning could be echoing off any number of things. The screaming had stopped about five minutes ago, subsiding into little whimpers of pain, muttering that sounded like it was in French but it could have been anything. It was hard to tell when everything else was demanding Alucard's attention.
Finally, he spotted a hand waving a scrap of fabric, a soldier tucked behind a sheet of metal, a leg wrapped in barbed wire as Alucard had theorised.
"I'm going up," said Alucard, coming back down the ladder to fetch his kit. "There's a wounded man. I can reach him."
A soldier opened his mouth to protest, but Alucard shot him a look of "I outrank you" and slipped back through the trench, ducking and weaving his way to his makeshift sickbay. The last one had been imploded by shell shrapnel. This one was supposedly more secure but Alucard knew it wouldn't hold up.
Romania was an inexperienced and undersupplied army, with only one thing their enemies wanted: raw oil.
Alucard grabbed his kit, taking off to where he had seen the injured soldier. A sharp whistle filled the air, and Alucard found himself being shoved to the bottom of the trench, other soldiers piling on him unintentionally as they all ducked for cover. A shell exploded a few metres away from the lip of the trench, showering them in dirt and rocks. Someone had knocked his helmet off by mistake, and another had their fingers tightly wrapped in the shorn curls of his hair.
"Anyone injured?" called Alucard.
The soldiers started to roll away, shaking their heads. A few bruises from throwing themselves to the ground but nothing more. It was hard to tell who was who, covered in muck as they were. The shortest soldier, Mihai, muttered something disapprovingly and plonked Alucard's helmet on, doing up the straps firmly.
"We cannot afford to lose you, doctor," Mihai said.
He brushed some of the dirt off Alucard. It was futile. There was so much dirt that it would never come out of his uniform. The gesture was affectionate rather than practical. It touched Alucard that these soldiers would protect who they thought was the most vulnerable for no other reason than a very human ability to bond with each other regardless of creed, rank, or social status.
In the trench, they all bled the same.
"You will not lose me," said Alucard.
"Your promise is in good faith, but it doesn't mean it will protect you against bullets," said another soldier.
He had such a grim expression that Alucard thought he was looking at Trevor for a moment, bright, tired blue eyes staring back at him in defiance.
"You will not lose me," Alucard repeated.
There was a man to save from a ditch.
Alucard retraced his steps to the ladder closest to the injured man. Slinging his kit over his shoulders so he had his hands free, Alucard crept up.
No signs of snipers. The man had stopped making noise, which meant he was unconscious or dead. Neither of them were very pleasant options, and Alucard didn't fancy having to pull a dead body through the debris.
Now that he was out of the trench, he could see that his injured soldier was about a hundred metres away. Time to crawl. Just because he couldn't see any gunners on the other side of the battlefield, it didn't mean that they weren't there.
The muck was thick, with a sharp tang of ammonia and blood, and it was freezing cold. It hadn't started to snow yet, but Alucard could taste the oncoming storm. The ground cracked every now and then as he put an elbow through a pane of frost.
A bullet whizzed past him. In another time, Alucard would have caught it, held it for a moment to feel the warmth in his fingers, and thrown it back. He was a medic now. He had a sword – guns were scarce in the Romanian army – the gold pommel tarnished by his time in the trenches, a medical kit, and an oath.
Alucard flattened himself all the way down so that only his pack was sticking out.
Mud went up his sleeves, and his entire front was covered in the same. He had a spare uniform back in his small medical bunker. It wasn't much comfort now when he could feel it squelching around his arms. At least it was his jacket that was bearing the brunt of the mud.
No more bullets came. It mustn't have been for him. He started to crawl again, the man only fifty meters away now.
He paused behind a scrap of steel, eight centimetres thick and painted a dull green. Who knew what it was off but Alucard was thankful for it. That awful whistling noise was back, a shell, landing far too close to be comfortable. He heard something ping off the steel he was hiding behind, most likely rubble from the explosion.
When it seemed like it was safe, Alucard kept crawling. He'd given up on stopping the mud from getting inside his clothes, and instead hoped that his gloves had kept the worst off his hands.
A few more bullets zipped past and Alucard heard the awful thud of someone keeping watch falling into the trench, his keen hearing narrowing in on the last rattling breath of a dying man he was too far away to save.
Alucard had made his choice. It was out here, in a rotting field of death, not in the relative safety of his medical bunker.
He gritted his teeth, felt his fangs extend momentarily and then shrink as he felt that surge of anger, an indignant rage at how awful and pointless this all was, at the waste of life on both sides, at the sheer pettiness of this, and how he could stop it all if only he–
That was the same dark path that called his his father with saccarine promises of peace, a peace achieved by destroying everything else so only he was left with his pain and grief. It wouldn't change anything about Alucard's mother.
Alucard nearly bumped into the soldier, lost in his thoughts, operating like a puppet that someone else was controlling. His non-human instincts were different, didn't consider this battlefield as anything more than a hindrance while his human senses were screaming for cover. Screaming to leave. That he was a fool.
"Hello, can you hear me?" asked Alucard, dragging himself so he was almost side by side to the injured man.
The man replied in German. It took a moment for Alucard to realise he had said, "Don't kill me."
Alucard hadn't noticed it before, but the uniform wasn't Romanian. Too much muck had been covering it before.
He licked his lips, glancing back to the safety of the trench, wondering how much effort it would take to carry the soldier there. Just because he was German, it didn't mean he didn't have a duty to help him.
"I won't. You're going to be safe with me," said Alucard, in what he hoped was a reassuring manner.
The effect was slightly spoilt by something exploding nearby. The soldier flinched at the noise and then hissed in pain.
Looking him over, Alucard assessed the damage. No bullet wounds as far as he could tell, but he could smell blood leaking from somewhere. Alucard shifted his weight so that he was crouched safely, and leant over the soldier to see if there was anything wrong on the other side.
Ah, yes. A large stake of wood was pinning this man to the ground by his left forearm. It had gone straight through the flesh just above the wrist. At the moment, the wood was stopping him from bleeding out. Staying low, Alucard crept to the soldier's left side.
"What's your name?" asked Alucard.
He slipped a hand underneath the soldier's arm, feeling how deep the wood had penetrated the ground. It didn't feel like too much. Digging one gloved finger into the dirt, the stake itself was only a few inches into the earth.
The reply was cut off with a scream as Alucard swiftly and cleanly pulled the wood out of the ground, cradling the injured arm as best he could to reduce the amount of pressure on it.
"Sorry," said Alucard.
He folded the arm over the man's chest so that the wood wasn't pressing into the injury.
"I won't do that again. Now, what's your name?"
There was also a thick mess of wire on his leg, probably from an earlier attempt to crawl to safety and being taken out by shrapnel instead.
"You did well, Peter. I am going to cut you out of this wire, now."
Alucard slipped off his medic's kit and found his wire cutters securely in their exterior pocket. His gloves protected his hands from more than just mud, stopping the wire from biting into his skin.
With every inch of care that he'd used to crawl to Peter, Alucard now used it on snipping away the wire. It pinged as the tension was released, Alucard's hearing picking up on the quiet noises it made. Some of it came away bloody where it had torn through Peter's uniform.
Peter whimpered every now and then, trying to stay as still as he could. Considering the damage, it was likely the whole hand would have to be amputated, and some of the lower arm with it.
"Keep talking to me, Peter. I have to carry you back to the trench in a moment and it would be easier if you were conscious," said Alucard.
"What is your name?" asked Peter.
"Andrei," said Alucard.
Andrei Lupu was one of many of his identities. Son of a boilermaker and a seamstress, born in a small village that nobody had ever heard of.
"That's a good name."
"This might hurt a bit but I need you to lift your leg for me," said Alucard.
Peter obliged, grunting with the effort. Alucard helped by supporting it with one hand and pulling the wire out from underneath it with the other. He tossed it as far away as possible.
"You can put it back down now. Do you think you could move back to the trench? It's not very far away."
In fact, now that he was here and looking around, Alucard noticed he was much closer to the German trench than the Romanian one.
Why hadn't they come to collect their man? He was so close.
"Do your boys have a doctor?" asked Alucard.
Peter shook his head, "Died two days ago. Bunker collapsed on him."
Alucard took in a deep breath, and bowed his head. This was all such a waste, such an awful, terrible waste.
"Unfortunately we have two options, neither of them very good for you," said Alucard. "Number one: you go back to your own trench. Maybe you'll survive long enough to get to a field hospital. It's not looking good considering your injuries. If you survive, you'll go home."
He let Peter mull that over for a moment, ducked against the sheet metal when another shell fell nearby, and sat up again.
"Two: you come back with me, I can treat you, send you to one of our hospitals once you're stabilised, but..."
"But I'll be a Prisoner of War," said Peter, following the logical train of thought that Alucard's suggestion proposed. "And who knows how long I'll be stuck in a camp."
They sat in silence for so long that Alucard half feared that Peter had died. The man's chest was still rising and falling, and he didn't move, staring at the cloudy sky. While Alucard waited, he made a sling that wrapped around the wood so that it was sticking out from the fabric. Whatever the choice, the man should at least have a decent chance to make it home.
Alucard didn't rush him. This was an important decision.
"I want to live," said Peter. "Take me to your trench, please."
The please was so sweet and young sounding that Alucard knew that this man was barely eighteen, possibly not even that, fighting for his country. It was always hard to tell by looking at them, since everyone looked tired and old and covered in dirt and sweat, but their mannerisms and speech would always give them away at some point.
"Do you think you can crawl with one hand?"
Peter rolled over to his belly, raising himself up so that his arm wasn't touching the ground. Alucard secured the man's helmet, and collected Peter's rifle from where it had fallen. It wouldn't be good to let Peter walk into the trench with a weapon but it was a two handed weapon, and Alucard felt uneasy about strapping it to his own pack since he was a field medic. He brushed as much dirt off the Red Cross emblazoned on his pack and hoped that it, along with his helmet and armband, would be enough signage that he was a medic, not a soldier.
Crawling on all fours was significantly more dangerous than on his belly, but Peter had no choice. Standing up was suicidal.
Alucard waved his armband from above the alcove they had been sheltered in, trying to make it as clear as possible that he was transporting a patient.
No bullets, which was a start. The battlefield seemed to have quietened on both sides, the Romanians afraid they might hit their doctor, and the Germans seemingly paying attention to the Geneva Convention.
"Let's go," said Alucard.
He took the lead, trying to move as swiftly as possible. He didn't like this eerie silence. Neither did Peter, because he pressed close to Alucard, keeping pace with the adrenaline of actually moving towards safety.
"Come on, doctor," came a soft call from his trench. "Hurry up."
They were only a few metres away from the Romanian trench when Alucard heard a click from across the battlefield.
Unleashing his vampiric strength, Alucard pushed Peter ahead, hoping that the physical shock of falling into a trench wouldn't kill him. The next moment, he felt bullets entering his body, tearing through flesh and blood. He collapsed, trying to fall into the trench after Peter, feeling a hand take his, and heave him in.
Chaos erupted around him, the gun in the other trench still firing away, someone yelping in pain, but Alucard couldn't figure out who it was. He couldn't see for the blood that was pouring from a wound in his head, and he fell limp.
Someone wiped the blood away, trying to assess the damage, but Alucard knew he had taken at least one bullet to the head. The blood came back, blinding him again. In human terms, he was dead. Or soon to be dead.
It would take him a moment to recover, push the bullets out, save Peter.
It would blow his cover.
"Doctor, no," whispered someone, and Alucard felt himself being lifted into someone's arms, cradled gently. "You fool. You terrible fool."
Fuck it, he could always make a new one.
Alucard stopped playing dead, drawing magic from within to pop the bullets back out of his body, sealing up the wounds as if they had never existed.
"Get my patient to the bunker," he said, untangling himself from the arms of the young man who was weeping over him.
It was Mihai. Alucard touched Mihai's face, patting it gently.
"I told you I wouldn't die."