Return of the Deathshead By Teel James Glenn Copyright2010 by Teel James Glenn
The Sands of Death
The column of lorries moved through the narrow defile and raised a miniature sandstorm as it did. There were thirty rag tag vehicles, old trucks that were moving at a snail's pace, sometimes with the help of the soldiers they should have been carrying. They were a mixed group of allies, Englishmen from the Eastern Task Force, (which had been redesignated British First Army), Americans from the U.S. 1st Armored Division and Free French.
"This is not a good place to be, old man," Major Burton David said to his companion in the command car, an old blue American Cadillac convertible.
"Do you mean Africa, the war or in the bloody army, Burtie?" Lieutenant Milton Jones.
"Any three of them," the major said, "but right now I meant in this bloody seat- I think a camel ride would have been smoother."
They had been on the road for two days out of Medenine moving through the foothills of Tunisia toward the Libyan boarder town of Onalut in an arid wasteland called Shaitan Al-Tannur- the Devil's Furnace.
They were to re-supply a Commonwealth detachment that had been caught in a conflict in eastern Tunisia, with splinters of Rommel and von Arnim's armored divisions who also had pinned down the mainly inexperienced French and U.S. Corps in the Kasserine Pass to the west. Now the column was moving through a narrow wadi which their guide, Rashid al-Asid had advised.
"Camels are not so bad, my English friend," the Berber seated in the passenger seat beside the drive said. He was turned partway around so that his smiling bearded face framed by his black headscarf. He was a Tuat Berber from the west and a shurifa, a noble. It was his car they were riding in and one of his tribesmen serving as driver. "But perhaps I should have had the shock absorbers repaired for this car, eh?"
"I'd say for certain, Rashid," Burton said, " but I don't really feel this ravine is the safest path; perhaps we should have gone around?" He scanned the sharp edged cliffs in either side of the defile, squinting against the already fierce North African sun. The deep shadows were already black scares and he could not help but think that they would be the perfect place to conceal an ambushing force.
"You should have no fears, major, I have had my men scout the way, major," Rashid said, "they are sure this is the easiest way for us to get the supplies through the mountains. Or are you superstitious?"
"How so?" the Major asked.
"These are wadi and hills are said to be haunted by the spirits of the Djinn, many tribesmen avoid them."
"I'd trust his fellows, Burtie," the lieutenant said, "Arabs know these hills."
"We are Berbers, Lieutenant, "the turbaned man said with a frozen smile, "But every bit as competent to guide you through this harsh land, I can assure you." He turned his piercing eyes to the terrain ahead and so missed the look of reprimand that the major flashed to the junior officer.
"I have not been in Tunisia long," Major David said. "I came in from the European theatre just after the New Year; but I have come to admire and trust your people and find their history fascinating."
"We are indeed a quaint and fascinating people," the Berber said without turning around. "Like other North African tribes, we have shifted from Berber to Arab speech because it is the language of trade and for many it is the reason also that they have adopted the religion of those Arab conquers who came so long ago. But we also speak our native language, Tuat, thus keep alive many Berber customs. We are a clannish sort."
"And all the more reason we Allies appreciate the wisdom of your decision to side with us against the Germans, your highness."
"Ultimately, however," the Berber continued, "How are our lives made different by each of those who have passed through our land? Will it mean more or less that English or German rules over us? We Tuat are mostly farmers and herders with camels, donkeys, goats, sheep and cattle. Not sophisticated by your European standards but with rich history and deep beliefs."
"Surely you can not say that the Gerries are preferable to us, old man," Lieutenant Jones said, "They are bally beastly fellows; they treat your people like slaves."
"And you British treat us like children who need to be guided in the ever more complicated fields of world commerce and technology." the Berber turned his head slightly so that his smile was visible but not his eyes. "Even now you doubt my knowledge of the desert that has birthed me, major yet you admit you have been here only a short time."
"I do not doubt your desert skill, highness," the British officer said quickly, "it is just that I am familiar with German military techniques and just such a ravine as this would be perfect for their attacks."
The turbaned man's smile widened. "I am sure the German's studied Hannibal, Napoleon and Alexander as I did at Cambridge," he said, "You see my father, was a far seeing leader and thought it best I receive a European classical education in addition to the traditional one to prepare me for the future. The world will be very different after this war, Major David; I think we can agree on that; the world map will be redrawn."
"Yes, indeed," the officer said. He tried not to show his discomfort with the way the conversation was going but he shot a look to his subordinate a look that made it clear they would be having a private 'talk' about how the man had offended the Berber.
"Many subject peoples, like the Sikhs and Australians will have greater autonomy; India may indeed be the mistress of her own ways as well."
"Yes," The major said, "The Empire will be forever changed. As an Englishman- albeit of Irish descent-and therefore understanding of the concept of occupation-I will be sad in some ways, but I acknowledge that the world is an ever-changing place. We will be proud to stand beside many of our former colonies as I am to with the Americans. And your people."
The Berber laughed. "You would do well in tribal councils with your oratory skill, major," he said, "It is a shame you were not with us earlier; I sense a true tribal heart beneath your formal British uniform."
Up ahead a lone rider on a magnificent white mount that had been riding point to be sure the road was passable came back around a sharp turn in the ravine. He waved his rifle above his head with two short pumps of his arm and the circled the barrel. Rashid made a grunting sound and waved back.
"What is it, your highness?" The lieutenant asked. 'Trouble?"
"You asked a while ago," the Berber answered, "The difference between you British and the Germans as overlords, lieutenant. I think the easiest way to answer that is to say what the man on fire who jumped from the bridge into the water would say 'It seemed like a good idea at the time." With that he turned completely in the seat and pointed a revolver at the two soldiers.
"What the-" the lieutenant began but his words were drowned out by the sound of gunfire as the German troops opened fire on the column. The sound was deafening as it echoed off the rock walls of the defile.
The junior British officer reached for his sidearm but the Berber was faster and placed a bullet between his eyes. His body fell backward over the back door.
"Do not be rash, Major David," Rashid said as he shifted his aim to the officer. "I would not kill you if I do not have to."
"Nothing good has ever come of treachery, Rashid," Burton said. He was stuck, half risen as he watched the withering fire from the walls of the wadi. He watched unable to do anything as the carefully placed sharpshooters, or the Berber passengers killed all his men in moments. It was over almost before he could grasp the horror of it. When he turned his eyes back to fix them on Rashid's they were pinpoints of fire.
"You will pay for this, Rashid," he said. "And you will come to know that the Germans are no more to be trusted than you have proven to be. Didn't what they did to their Russian 'allies' teach you anything?"
The Berber laughed a cold laugh. "I taught me not to trust them any more than I trust you. I will get a much from them as I can for my people; and from your forces until I have enough power and wealth to unite the four tribes of Berbers so we will be strong enough to repel all of you 'civilized' races."
In a few minutes the echoes had died along with the troops and only Major David of the column was alive. Then, like ghosts the German force materialized from their hidden roosts Their uniforms were powdered with the yellow clay of the mountainsides and it seemed as if the dead had come to feed on the column.
"You did well, Rashid Al-Asad," A German captain said. He wore a khaki desert uniform but had the insignia of the SS at his collar. He was tall and spare with a shaven head and a blonde spade beard. His eyes were pale blue. He had a dueling scar on his left cheek that reached almost to the corner of his mouth that gave him the aspect of a grinning skull.
He stopped at the boot of the car and looked up at the English officer "But what have you here? A souvenir?"
"He is a prisoner for your collection, Herr Hauptman Totenkopfe," the Berber said. "I think your Reich may find his information useful." He holstered his pistol. . "Do not look so glum, major, a German prison camp will not be so terrible and it would be a shame to destroy a mind who seems capable of grasping the future as yours does."
"You will get nothing from me but my name and rank, sir," Major David said. "And this act of criminality will not go unnoted."
"Jawhol," The German said. "I am sure of both facts." He turned to look to the Berber. "I am afraid Prince that I have no time to properly inquire of this officer and should he make such a complaint through the Red Cross channels your usefulness to the Reich would be lost."
The German pulled a Lugar automatic pistol and before either of the others could speak protest fired twice into the body of the British officer, blasting him over the back of the coupe.
"A shame, Hauptman," the Berber said when the German stepped into the car. "You would have enjoyed his conversation for the rest of the ride; he was quite well educated and had some refreshingly progressive ideas."
The German snorted and lit a cigarette. "I doubt he had much worth hearing,; my experience with the English, although not always in the best circumstances, has proven quite a bore." He raised his hand and made a motion that started the column moving again leaving behind only death.
The Place of the Skull
"The Angel of Death!" The sound of flapping wings filled Burton David's world. He thought, "She's calling for me; I had always hoped for a Valkyrie to carry me away from the field of battle to Valhalla." The childhood stories of the Old Norse gods had fascinated him and he had just purchased, a new Mythology book by Edith Hamilton so the image of the warrior women on their winged horses was fresh in his mind.
"Instead I die like a dog in the dirt of this hell, so far from Viking fields of ice and snow. Alone."
The sound of wings persisted and there was low clicking sound accompanying it then a sudden sharp pain in his left leg.
"Bloody hell!" he screamed and abruptly he knew he was not dead. He opened his eyes to see the skittering form of a vulture jumping back from him.
The vulture stood its ground a few yards way; its head tilted to the side like a confused dog and watched the officer. Then the smell of death assailed the Brit's nostrils.
Major David suddenly remembered the cowardly attack and moved his head to look around him. He could see the bodied of his men strewn along the sides of the dusty track with other vultures already flocking over them. He felt his bile rise and had to turn away from the sight which brought his winged attacker back into view.
"You picked the wrong meal, dolly," Burton said to the bird. "I'll wait for a smashing blonde on a horse!" He pushed himself up on his arms and discovered his left side was afire with pain.
He looked down at his tunic and saw two holes in it. One had gouged along bloody path along his left side but the other was directly over the heart.
"I should be dead," he thought.
He rolled to his side and reached in his tunic to feel gingerly around the hole and his fingers contacted the cold metal form of a flask. He pulled it out and saw there was a clean hole in it on one side and the reverse side was deformed out where the silver-plated steel of the flask had stopped the bullet.
Burton looked at it with a dull understanding that he had escaped death by the hand of providence and he laughed. It was a dry, croaking sound, barely human to his ears but it startled his avian watcher who fluttered away.
He shook it to discover there was nothing left, the alcohol having leaked or evaporated in the heat of the day. "I'll have to wait for my mead in the halls of the dead." He thought. His head was spinning. He forced himself to his hands and knees and then staggered to his feet. He looked around and realized he couldn't force himself to walk back along the way he had come, not past the bodies of his men.
He looked over at the body of Lieutenant Jones.
"Milti," he said in a hoarse whisper. "I'll find a way to make them pay." He looked up at the line of dead. "I'll make them pay for all of this!" He yelled. The croaked voice echoed off the walls of the wadi and the startled vultures added their cries to his.
Then he turned and limped forward, following the tracks of the convoy not sure at all what he would do if and when he caught up to them.
The British major followed the tracks in the wadi until the setting sun made it impossible. With the light went the heat and the temperature dropped to almost freezing. He huddled against the side of the ravine, scooping out a small depression to press his body into it for warmth. His side was aching him but he soon forgot it as chills wracked his body. Even his thirst was forgotten as his teeth chattered.
He tried to rest, but the skittering of insects and the wracking cold denied him any sleep. When the sun topped the ridge of rock is was a relief, but only for half an hour, then the slicing rays of the scorching sun promised a miserable day.
Burton pushed himself to his feet and brushed the powdery earth from him. His left side was more painful and he was sure it had infected already.
'I'll find both of you buggers," he said aloud in a barely whispered croak, "and I'll do you good!" He forced himself to move on, knowing that if he stopped he might not be able to start up again.
The wadi faded away, the side of the ravine, flattening out to join the gently rolling landscape that stretched to the horizon. It was all sun parched, rocky land that was deadlier than the German bullets. He could feel it and the sun drawing the life from him minute by minute.
"I'll get you," he murmured, but he had no conviction in the statement. He knew he was dying.
He moved on, a living corpse, his pale skin cooking as he staggered forward into the furnace heat of the day. Somehow he stayed on his feet though his tongue swelled and his eyes were slitted against the sun. The throb in his side was almost comforting as it spike with each footfall. It told him he was still alive, soon becoming his only indication of reality.
The rocky land gave way to dunes and all danced before his eyes, heat ghosts of themselves. He began to see figures in the dancing heat, old friends, enemies, loves. He fancied he saw a Valkyrie even, her hair golden and white wings spread wide to welcome him.
But the friends were rocks, the enemies, stunted bushes and the loves pure hope. The Valkyrie he wasn't so sure about.
He had no idea how long he walked or if he were following any trail at all after a time. There was only the heat and the desert and the dust.
"I'm sorry, chaps," he though to the image of the column's dead. "I couldn't get the job done."
Then he dropped to his knees, then his hands and knees and tried to cry but there was not enough water for tears so he sobbed in dry silence for a while.
As he stared at his own shadow beneath him he became conscious of a breeze moving across his back, a different wind from the hot, dry wind that had scoured his skin all day. It was a moist breeze.
He lifted his head and the breeze rubbed across his face like the warm kiss of a lover. Or the wind from a Valkyrie's wing.
He blinked and shook his head for the face of death loomed before him.
In front of him, shimmering in the heat waves was a shape; a stark white domed shape. It was a single great rock pocked with caves. There were two large ones and a line of boulders in front of it that gave it nothing so much as the aspect of a skull.
He kept opening and closing his eyes in stunned confusion, but it was not for the death image that stared back at him but for the image of life that swayed in the warm wind that washed over him.
It was a woman in golden robes and she held in her hands an amphora.
"Now that's what I'm talking about, ya bloody pigeon from hell," he croaked. "Now I'm ready to die." And he fell forward on his face in the sand.
The Dream of Life
After the nightmare of the wadi Burton fell into a dream.
When he woke he was under a blue cloth awning in the cooling shade and with a damp cloth pressed against his cracked lips.
"Do not try to speak," a soft voice that was like harp music was as healing as the liquid. "You may hurt your throat if you do."
He shifted his eyes from the awning and was suddenly not sure if he had died and gone to Valhalla; the woman who bent over him was the loveliest he had ever seen.
Here eyes were golden pools with flecks of brown swirling in their depths and he felt as if they looked right through him. Her skin was the color of a copper coin and looked as soft as a thought. And her smile was brighter than the sun that had burned him yet a cool as the cloth that moistened his lips.
She saw his gaze had shifted to her and the question in his glance and her smile, somehow, impossibly, became warmer. "My name is Lubanah," she said, "You are at the Janna El Gimgima- the Hidden Place of the Skull. It is an oasis."
He did try to speak then but she saw the effort and placed a finger on his lips. He could taste scented oils on her hand and smelled the exotic odors that spoke of the East, secret places and far away times.
"No, rest." She ordered in a firm voice. "There will be time to tell me what you wish. Sleep. When you wake then we will discourse."
Her assurance was balm and he closed his eyes willingly and slept with ease for the first time in days.
Burton woke next to the sound of singing from outside the lean-to in which he lay. It was in French and he wondered for a moment if it might be for his own benefit.
Beside me in the dark
A whispered word of
A warm touch in the chill
The scent of fragrant
And proof at last
Of gods' design
Of marching two by two
So hold me close inside
As I am holding you...
He pushed himself to his elbows and noticed that his side had been bandaged and though it hurt it was not debilitating. He tested himself further and sat up.
He winced. He was weak; but he was alive.
"I never expected to be." He thought.
He could see the oasis of the Skull and he was amazed. It was a shallow bowl of land with a blue pool of water that appeared to be trickling from the 'teeth' of the skull shaped sandstone formation. There were palm trees and tough grasses that edged the water and he could see what looked to be a small garden in the shadow of the boulders.
The girl in the golden robes was kneeling among the rows of carefully tended barely shoots. She had pushed back her head covering and the hair that showed was not the sable black he would have expected from a native girl, but a golden red color that was almost the color of her copper skin.
She sensed his movement and looked up from her gardening, wiping her cheek with the back of her right hand for an itch or to blot sweat and in the process leaving smudge of brown earth on her cheek. The gesture, so casual and human made him smile.
She saw his smile and returned it. She rose and shook out her skirts. "You are awake, wayfarer," she said. "I thought you would sleep another day through."
"Another day?" His voice sounded strange to him but it was his and uninjured. As if he had not walked through death's door and pulled it closed behind him.
"You have slept for two days since you woke last" she said. She walked around the pool, her long skirts brushing the clover and grasses that ringed the water.
"Two days? How long have I been here?"
"For five days," she said. She stood outside the shadow of the awning now and her beauty up close was every bit as stunning as his fever dream had painted him. "For a time I was not sure you would survive."
"Maybe I shouldn't have," he said. The hideous image of his dead men obscured the woman's pleasant one and for a moment he felt dizzy.
"Do not say that," she said. She moved in to kneel beside him, concern on her face as he settled back on his elbows. "Life is precious, a gift of Allah; you must never doubt its value."
He regained his equilibrium in a few breaths and found himself captured by her golden eyes again. "I thank you for the gift you have given me; a second chance." he said. "Miss-?"
"I am Major Burton David of His Majesty's Eleventh Hussars." He said. "But please call me Burton."
"Burton." She rolled the word around as if it was a strange taste but her smile said she did not fine it unpleasant.
"Where are the rest of your people?" He asked, "I would like to thank them all." His position, alone among strange tribesmen was, despite her radiant presence, beginning to press on his mind. Rashid's men or the German's could easily learn of a lone British officer and he would be defenseless.
"I am Lubanah Jinn Yah of the Jahi peoples. I am all there is now; my people are gone." There was a deep sadness in her tone, but it was not a fresh wound and she lost none of her smile.
"You are alone out here?" he asked.
"I have my memories," she said, "and there are animals to tend. And sometimes," she added, "I have a visitor."
"I hope they don't all drop in the way I did," he said. He saw the bowl of water by his pillow she had moistened the cloth with so many times to keep him alive. He reached in with a finger and wet the tip then reached over to wipe the smudge off her cheek. When she realized what he was doing she giggled and wiped her cheek off herself. "You are to take care of me now?" she said.
"I think it will be a bit before I can do that," he said. He rested he head back exhausted from his effort to be social.
"You will rest again," she said, "but I think we will talk again soon."
He did rest, but a normal nap that lasted only a short time. When he woke she had a meal of tea and dates for the two of them to eat. They talked then, a little.
He told her of his home in Whapping and his time at Sandhurst. And the friends he had lost in the four years of the war. She was a good listener and he was ready for rest again before he realized she had not revealed anything about herself or her circumstance. Her manner puzzled him as did her age- at times she seemed worldly and older and at times the most callow of youth. Her features were not help for her skin and smile was young but her eyes he eyes of age.
He napped on and off for the day and slept normally tht night. All the while his slumber was haunted by the faces of his men, most prominent was the sightless of eyes of Milton accusing him for surviving, his death lips drawn back in a death's-head grin that transformed the face of the English officer into the horrid features of Totenkopfe who laughed at him.
The next day Burton was able to sit upright, his back against a rock while the exotic woman went about her daily routine, feeding the goats and sheep she had and working in her garden. She sang and hummed and he found watching her endlessly fascinating.
He was able to eat a full meal of barley soup and coarse bread for dinner.
"I have no wine to offer you," she said as he sipped some herbal tea, "The traders who sometimes stop are all Islamic and do not traffic in it."
"Quite alright," he said. "I've drunk more than my share of Madera in my life." He tried to draw her out about herself and how she came to be at the oasis but she was skillful at evasion.
By the time the shadows were longer than the beams of light at the end of the day he was already tired and ready for sleep.
"Sleep, Burton," she said to him as he lay down in the lean-to she set up for him. "Tomorrow you will be strong enough to walk a bit, I think."
He felt a bit sad at that for he knew that when he was strong enough he would have to leave the little pocket of peace he had found with her.
As she left the tent she froze in her step; there was a sudden sound from the gathering gloom followed by the gutteral tones of Arabic speech.
The golden haired girl spun to look at the British officer, her eyes wide with fear. "Stay in the lean to," she whispered, "and do not come out; and regardless of what you see or what happens do not speak!" Before he could respond she was across the oasis. He huddled back into the shadows of the awning, terrified because he knew he was in no shape to fight off any Arab or Berber raiders that might decide to sell him to the Germans for a bounty.
As he watched from hiding he saw two men in desert robes lead camels into the oasis, long antique rifles held in their free hands. They moved toward Lubanah with no suspicion or sign of tension as with an old friend.
Then she stepped up to greet the first of the men Burton was sure his eyes were failing him for she seemed to have undergone a metamorphosis. He posture was stooped over and her golden robes were suddenly tattered and dusty rags.
She conversed with the tribesmen and then the three of them moved back around the waterhole toward the overhang in the side of the hill where she had her hut and animal compound.
That was when the British officer received a second shock. He rubbed his eyes sure that he was having another mirage; his bronze skinned savior's face was no longer girlish. Instead the flesh of her neck hung loose and her eyes and cheeks were sunken. The color and texture of her flesh was like old parchment.
Even her voice was no longer the melodious chirp it had been, now it was a shrill scratching sound chattering in Arabic with the traders. They halted two meters from the lean-to and the tribesmen brought objects out of their saddlebags and laid them on a red cloth spread out on the ground before the hut.
The three haggled while the men ate dates and figs that the old woman brought out for them. Twice one of the Arabs cast a glance at the lean-to and Burton held his breath but the man never evidenced any surprise if he saw the Brit.
The trio's negotiations went on for over an hour then the men accepted a handful of coins and a bag of barely from the woman and rose. They remounted their camels, and rode off over the ridge with their way lit only by the light of the full moon.
The bent over woman watched them leave and then scurried toward the lean-to. As she passed through a pool of shadow her posture changed and she was abruptly upright and once more young.
"They were from a caravan that passes wide of this oasis and so wish to rejoin their brethren before moon fall."
The officer stared at her with confused horror reflected in his eyes. "You—you're some sort of witch!"
Her once more beautiful face creased with concern. "What do you mean?" she asked.
"I saw you," he insisted, "you became an old woman."
She shook her head as if he were a child talking of unicorns. "You are over tired- the strain of being hidden for so long."
"No I'm not," he said. His voice was shrill. "You changed your look in the blink of an eye!"
She stood, the moon painting he side of her face with a cool blue light and frowned. "I do not want you to be upset, Burton," she said. "I wish us to be friends." Her voice was once more musical in tone, but with a minor chord.
Despite his upset he found her saying his name oddly comforting.
"But you do upset me," he said. "You-you have been lying to me; friends do not lie to each other." That seemed to make her frown more pronounced. 'Like why only those two came in here; no caravan would pass up an oasis."
She stared at him, her lips pursed and then sighed.
"You are right," she said. "I have not told you all." She sat down on the carpet that comprised the floor of the lean-to.
"The reason that only two came to this place was that they are imams-"
"Yes," she said, "There is an age old custom- an agreement between my people and the tribes of this region for only holey men to enter this sanctuary."
"First let me tell you of my people the Jahi. In the beginning of the world the supreme one created three worlds; the world of angels, of man and of Jinn. And it is of the Jinn that Shaitan descends."
The officer felt a chill go up his spine yet he could not take his eyes of her face.
"The three worlds lived in interaction so much so that the King of the Jews Sulayman-"
"Yes," she continued, "He- who was a master of all arts of magick compelled the Djinn into his service giving them dominion over part of his realm. In his court, the Djinn stood behind the learned humans, who in turn, sat behind the prophets. The Queen of Sheba the great king's wife, was born of the marriage between a Djinn and a human. There were many jealous of her power over him and so wicked sorcerers contrived to make Solomon fall out of love with her, they told him that she was insane, and that her feet resembled those of a donkey." Lubanah looked sad as she recounted the tale her eyes turning away from Burton's. "She was driven out and went to live with her tribe the Jahi. In time the Djinn faded from much of the earth retreating to the shadowed places where man would not tread."
She looked up to lock eyes directly with Burton, her golden pupils awhirl with light. "One such place was Janna Al Gimgima."
"I am Lubanah Jinn Yah of the Jahi,' she said, "Who once ruled the Kindgom of the Jews beside my Husband Sulayman."
His head swam with the insanity of it; the utter absurdity of it. He was seated beside a genie who had been the Queen of Sheba. It was all too much, with a cry of mental anguish the officer fell back utter confusion and stunned paralysis.
"Burton," she said in a soothing voice, "You must not hate me; the Djinn are not evil; I am not evil."
He looked into her golden eyes and found it hard to hate her. She had saved his life but had it been an act of kindness, evil or mere chance? He had already seen her change, warp her reality into the shape of the old woman; was it her real shape? Could he believe anything about her? Or anything she said?
But he could not hate her.
"Lubanah," he whispered when he could catch his breath again. He spoke her name as if it were a prayer. "I am grateful for the kindness you have shown me, but you must know that this is so much for me to absorb."
She nodded. "I have been alone for so long it is not easy for me to be open with anyone; and I was no more prepared for your arrival than you were to come to me."
The two of them sat staring into each other's eyes for along time, the darkness of the night no impediment to their search.
"I must know I can trust you," he said at last. It seemed as if he could see all the way into the past in the swirling gold of her eyes, as if they were lit from within.
"I have not lied to you, Burton," she said. "I know I have not told you all there is to tell, but I was afraid."
"Afraid you would turn away from me;" she said as if she had to force the words out of her lips with great effort. "Many men fear the Djinn."
"I do not fear you, Lubanah," he said, "Any more than I could hate you."
"That is good, Burton."
"But I would need to know what is real and what is not."
"Some say all life in an illusion," she said. Then she smiled like a coy young girl. "But I know some of what you ask; yes, this is my true appearance."
The Djinn stood and let the golden robes slip from her shoulders and revealed her complete form to him. He gasped.
In her nudity her beauty was more than he any vision he could ever imagine. Her breasts were perfectly formed, her hips womanly yet her long legs coltish. She shook her head to free her hair from the head wrap and the golden halo of the loose hair seemed to glow. It was when she stepped from the discarded robes that he saw why she was different for where he would have expected to see perfectly formed feet he saw that she had cloven hooves. Yet he felt no revulsion as he would have expected; it meant no more than a hammer toe might have on some other woman. It did nothing to diminish her beauty in his eyes.
She saw that and smiled again.
"I have been alone for so very long," she said. She flowed toward him like liquid fire and when she reached out to touch his chin and tip his head up to look into her eyes his skin felt fevered.
"My name Lubanah means Dream," she said. And then they were lost in the reality of each other and Major Burton David didn't give a damn about the rest of the world at all...
The night was a dream for Burton, a sensual excursion that washed away every sexual and romantic experience he had ever had. And Lubanah was alternately a shy and giggling child-woman and a voracious sexual predator.
Each gave themselves to the other completely and it was if love had never been made until that moment. When they slept it was in the arms of satisfaction and completion.
Burton rose to the sound of Lubanah singing again and for a moment wondered if it had all been a dream. Then he looked down at the golden robes spread out on the sleeping mat beside him and he knew it was as real as anything could ever be.
She heard him move on the bead and turned from where she was making a tea for him and smiled like sunshine.
"Your sleep was a peaceful one, Amoura?" she asked. He knew it was the Arabic word for 'my love."
"The peaceful of the righteous," he said with an answering smile. He held out a hand for her and she stepped back to him. He noted that she still tried to hide her hooves by folded her legs behind her as she sat.
"I feel—different," he said as he let her eyes capture him again. "Among other things my side doesn't hurt quite so much." He tentatively stood testing his wobbly legs and found he felt not only refreshed but stronger.
He held her hand and pulled her to her feet with vigor.
"I feel better than I have in years." He said. He pulled her out into the morning sunlight, the warmth of the desert sun feeling comforting on his pale skin.
She looked down at the pool of water. "I have given you some of my life force," she said, "it is a true sharing when one of my—lineage- partners with a man."
This made him stop and look at her with a puzzled look. "You-you said partnered?" She looked at him with the same uncertainty she had the night before.
"Is this not right?" she asked.
"It is perfect," he said and swept her up into his arms.
She giggled and kicked her hooves as he spun her around and carried her, faux protesting, to the edge of the pool.
"You wouldn't," she squealed.
"Oh yes I would!" and then he threw her into the cool water and dove in after her.
The two swam and played like school children for much of the morning, coming to the
bank of the pool to make love again before the heat of the noonday sun forced them into the shelter of the lean-to to rest.
Thus a pattern developed for the two, with nights of passion and days of play with the officer helping her with her simple chores of tending her goats and sheep and digging in her garden. Each day he grew stronger and the life he had known before became more distant.
Yet sometimes, in the depths of the night, nightmare images of those that had died a Dunkirk and the fields of France and more sharply those of his column in the wadi of the furnace. He saw Milton Jones face, still startled in death and beginning to bloat when he left him unburied for the scavenger birds to feed on him. The sightless eyeholes seemed to stare directly at him and a voice from the grave cried "Avenge me!"
Burton tossed in his sleep as the horrific images raced at him and Lubanah held him tightly, which woke him.
"You are not happy," she whispered as if it were the most horrible thing in the world that he should be unhappy.
"I can't make the world go away, Amoura," he said, "it always comes back upon me. Those men who died out there call out to me every day; I am here—happy- with you and they are bones being picked clean by scavengers. It makes me feel like a monster."
Her sunny smile eclipsed. "I knew you would become bored with me."
Now he frowned. "No," He said, "I could never become bored with you; but out there, in the world I was fighting for something against a great evil. I-I feel guilty being here with you so protected and so happy when other chaps out there dying at Gerrie's hands like my boys in the wadi."
His pain, as he expressed it and crystallized it to words was palpable and she reacted as if his skin were afire, pulling away from him with a sob.
"No," he said, " seeing her reaction, "It is not you or us. I—have a responsibility to my country. To the world. And most of all to those men who died."
She nodded then and let him fold her into his arms again. When they made love again it had an almost frantic quality, as if its value had been increased by the possibility that their time together was finite.
When next he woke Burton it was because he heard the guttural tones of a male voice. "The belt buckle was found near here, this is the only place he could have come to survive this hell," the voice said. "I will search, Frauline and you will stand aside." There was a sound of a slap and a whimper.
The British officer instinctively started to rush out, but checked himself and shrunk back into the shadows of the lean-to and snatched up his uniform.
"If I am to be shot it will be as a gentleman," he thought "not as a naked spy!" He pulled on his tunic- Lubanah had mended it and washed it so he felt a proper officer as he donned it- and stood waiting for the command to surrender. He had no choice- no weapon and if he fought it could mean gunfire and she might be hurt.
Above all he had to assure that she was not hurt.
He prepared his story-"No he girl did not know I was here, I slipped in during the night and have been hiding."
The hanging cloth that blocked one side of the lean-to from the morning sun was pulled roughly aside and two German troopers stepped into the space.
They looked straight at Burton and barely reacted when they did.
"They must only see a dark shape," he thought, "They are blinded by the sun."
Could he somehow escape their discovery?
Then the taller of the soldiers pointed at him with his rifle and laughed. The second trooper squinted into the shade of the awning and added his laughter to his fellow's. "Der esel est Totenkopfe!"
'Nein- Totenkopfe est schweigsam esel!"
Major David waited for them to open fire on him or order him out but both men, still laughing turned and walked back out of the lean-to and called to their fellows.
The Englishman dropped to the floor, stunned and crawled to the edge of the shadow to peer out into the bowl of the oasis.
Lubanah, in her guise as an old woman, was standing with the German captain that had ambushed his column and several other soldiers. There was a bruise on her cheek and blood trickling from a split lip. It made the Englishman's blood boil but there were troopers coming out of her little hut and several others swarming around the perimeter of the oasis. He knew he would never make it across the open space before they cut him down.
"I told you, sir," disguised Djinn said; "I have been alone save for some traders from a caravan who stopped by a week ago."
Burton ground his teeth in frustration and once more considered racing after the forever grinning Gestapo man but he knew that Lubanah might also be cut down in any gunplay. The SS man took a report from an underling and then snapped an order in angular German before he turned to the woman.
"You might be telling the truth." He said, "yet this belt buckle was found less than a mile from here on the track. It is from an English officer's uniform."
"I do not know how it got there, sir," she said, her voice weak and cracking with age. "But you are welcome to leave some men about to watch for him; he might very well try to take what little I have and I would not be able to defend myself."
The officer seemed to regard her for moment as if to respond then gave a short sharp laugh that was as cold as the sun was hot. He ordered his men back to their vehicles at the end of the area.
"We have better things to do than guard old hags, mother," he said, "I suspect you would be able to stare any Englander down with no problem." This made the other Germans laugh until he got into the staff car with them. "Go!" he ordered.
The trucks roared off back toward the direction Burton assumed the wadi of death was located.
The old/young woman watched them go and then walked over toward the lean-to. "We had best be careful," she said into the shadows, "that leader may leave someone to watch the oasis. More importantly, they may mark this on their maps."
The British officer stayed on the ground but moved to look up into her eyes. It was a disconcerting experience for they were the same, sparkling eyes he had been looking into for days while making love but they were housed in and aging shell.
"They looked right at me," he hissed, " and they did not take me."
"Of course," she said, " why would they take you as you are?" There was a ghost of a smile on her wrinkled lips.
Burton suddenly felt as if something was terribly wrong and his face reflected it. "You may go to the water," she said, "the Germans will not be able to see you; I promise."
The officer rose and moved swiftly to the edge of the pool with a faint apprehension that something was indeed amiss. He stopped at the edge of the pool, looking to the edge of oasis for signs of the Gerries but it was his own reflection in the water that drew his eye. He stared at it with disbelief. He knew then why the enemy soldiers had not taken him prisoner.
Staring back at him from the water was the image of a long ears, long faced mule!
Changes and Purpose
The Englishman made a frightened sound and spun to look at the Djinn. "What have you done to me?" he asked.
"I have done nothing, Amoura," she said, tottering out to him still in her elderly guise. "I have merely cloaked you in the image of an animal so that those men would not take you from me."
He looked down and saw, that to his own eyes his hands and arms, his chest and legs were as they had been. Normal, but when he looked into the pool of water the face that stared back was the jackass' puzzled snout.
"You have, as I said," she soothed him, "taken as part of who you are part of me. So I was able to influence your image in the eyes of those evil men. It is a simple illusion." He reached up to tough the trickle of blood on her lip.
"So now that you have met those butchers I hope you see what I mean, about them. Bloody Nazis!" he spat, his panic subsiding though he continued to look at his equine image in the pool.
"Yes," she spat, "I sensed the evil of most of them; hard cruel evil that lives only to destroy and dominate. That one who was their leader, he was the worst. There was a darkness within him that spoke from the depths of all cruelty."
"Then you know why I have to fight them, Luganah." His voice caught but he forced himself to speak, "Why I have to leave; can't you see that the need to avenge my men, to stop those swine it will never let me have peace here with you."
She stepped up to him and pressed her cheek against his. In the pool is seemed the old woman was nuzzling the mule as an owner might affectionately touch a pet. The Englishman felt a sensual shiver up his spine at her touch.
"I know," she said reluctantly. "But not today. Please, not today; you are not healed enough- the desert would kill you before you even reached them."
"Alright," he said feeling his heart race with both anticipation and dread, "not today; but when I am strong enough I will leave I will find a way to destroy those buggers and any maps they made so you will be safe here; I promise you."
He had no idea if he could keep his promise to her anymore than the ones he had made his mates for justice, but he knew he had to try.
The next day their activities, eating, tending the animals, even lovemaking, were all done beneath a shadow of the ending to come; it was as if a snake had crawled into their little garden and neither wanted to acknowledge it.
Several times during the day he looked down at the hoof prints Lubanah left behind and paused. He knew that all of his upbringing told him that they were the footprints of a devil but she was anything but. He knew it, deep in his soul he knew she was not evil, but he also knew that he could not stay there with her. The voices of his men, their screams of pain as they died and the chattering sound of the German machine guns echoed in his mind.
The two lovers ate a silent diner and then spent a long night in desperate passion as if hoping to create enough light with their love to dispel the darkness the Nazis had brought to the oasis.
Burton's sleep that night was a troubled one, the first truly disturbed sleep since he had come to Lubanah.
He kept seeing the hideous smiling face of Totenkopfe and the leering, smug face or Rashid Al-Asid. And the dead face of Jones.
When he woke she was staring at him with her face fixed in a scowl.
"I can not help you in your search for vengeance," she whispered to him; "I chose the way of love long ago- it is why I could not live in the world of man."
"I know, Amoura," he said, "I know you are only a creature of love and caring. But I am a man and the devil still works through me; this need for justice."
"Justice or vengeance?" She asked him.
"With men like Totenkopfe it is the same."
"Then there is a way I can help you." She rose from beside him and went into her small hut, reemerging in a few moments with a carved wooden box the size and shape of a woman's jewel box.
"This is a thing that can not be explained," she said as she place the box before him, "except to say that this can be worn only by those who have need and who are willing to pay the price it demands."
"Price?" he asked. He placed a trembling hand on the lid and opened the box.
Inside was a strange parchment colored object that resembled nothing so much as the upper portion of a human skull. It was formed into a mask with the two canines extended to give it a more horrific aspect.
"What is this?" he asked.
"A thing of shadows," she said, "Of neither the world of man or Djinn and yet that moves through both."
He found he could not take his eyes from it and moved his fingers over the rough surface of the mask. It was warm like a thing alive, rough textured so that he could see that it had been the flesh of some animal.
He knew somehow what he must do. He picked it up with both hands and brought it to his face.
"If you do this, Burton," she said, "everything will change. There can be no denying the Skullmask once it has been donned."
"You know I do not want this," he said. "But I must."
"You do not?" she asked. "Then why are you leaving me?"
"I explained that," he said, "I have to stop men like that Totenkopfe and that lying swine Rashid."
She turned completely away from him. "I know," she whispered," You told me. I know, I saw them- but- but my loneliness will be supreme when you have gone."
He could hear that she was close to sobbing and tried to comfort her by touching her on the shoulder. She pulled away from him.
He placed the mask on his face and it seemed to adhere to his skin as if it were his own. "Wronged one!" the voices seemed to come from all around him and yet he knew they were from within him; from within the mask. "We are the Children of the Mask. We were wronged and we found our just vengeance. We will aid you to find yours."
Burton felt the power of the souls who had worn the mask, and more he felt that ethereal energy coursing through his limbs. His side felt healing and when he put his hand on the wound there was little more than a scar left.
"We will give you the skills and the strength to find vengeance," the voices said, "and for a time you will give us the peace of that vengeance."
He stood and looked out across the oasis and the desert beyond.
She saw his look and rose as well.
"I will make you a package of food and fill a skin of water for you to take, after we have a meal together." she said to him.
They sat in subdued quiet for breakfast in the dark of the night. She could not bring herself to look him directly in the eyes.
"I will get the package together," she said rising too quickly and went to her food stores. He watched he go and was struck by a pang of loneliness and for the first time began to doubt if he should leave. Would one man make a difference in the scheme of things? Could he really make any difference?
"We will make a difference" t he voices chided him, "You can not think that way. Every Tommy makes a difference. If we don't all fight we all lose and we would not achieve our vengeance."
When she came back with a pack he was dressed in his tunic, boots trousers and hat. He had no weapon but he knew it would not matter. Now he was a weapon.
"There is a fresh skin of water by the fence," she said as she handed him the pack. "And a cloth to use to make a shelter when the heat of the day becomes too much." The sun was not fully up and he had elected to move out in the dark to get as far as he could before the broiling orb made travel impossible.
"Thank you,' he said. He tried to say more but the words stuck in his throat. He took the pack, donned it and walked to the fence to take the skin. He looked back but she had turned away so he could not see her face. Her shoulders were gently rising and falling and he knew she was crying.
"I will come back to you," he called to her. "I swear by my love for you, I will."
"Vengeance first," the voice shouted in his head, "Vengeance, only vengeance!"
The Trail of Vengeance
He turned away from the sight of the woman he loved and walked off down the trail as the false dawn pinked the eastern sky.
He had resolved to follow the German column in hopes that he could, if not inflict casualties on them in some way, find a way to reveal their position to allied aircraft. A fire or some act of sabotage. It was all vague but vital that he find a way to exact his revenge.
The voices of the mask advised him, calling him on forward.
"Justice is vengeance," the voices said, "we will help you find it."
He made better progress than he thought he would, his stride powerful and steady. He never faltered or felt tired. His side no longer hurt at all. The voices made moving on the rough ground easy, telling him where to step, how to and after a time he simply stopped trying to make decisions and just let them guide him.
He found the shadows in the glaring light of the sun with their council with the pack and water skin on his back soon becoming too heavy so he took a small amount of the food, hid the rest and proceeded with only the water.
The Gerries were easy to follow, their tracked vehicles carving large enough ruts that the desert had not erased them. He moved until the heat of the noonday sun made it unbearable. That was when the cloth that Lubanah had set out for him came in handy. It was bright gold on one side and dark on the other—he would use it to wrap himself at night.
He rested, sipped water captured from the pool, somehow still cool, and thought about all he had left behind.
"No, laddie buck," he chided himself, "Keep eyes forward on Totenkopfe and his ilk. When they are dealt with you'll come back to her."
He began to doubt his own will to keep any promise; he seemed to be making so many to the universe that he had no idea how he was going to keep.
"We will not let you fail, wronged one," the voices told him. "You will not be as we—Children of the Mask who died in its service."
In the afternoon he started off again at a trot and ran until darkness made safe passage impossible. He found a small space between two boulders to dig into to make a warm space. With the darkness came the cold and he once more blessed Lubanah's foresight in providing him the cloth.
The voices were silent while he slept, but he saw visions in his dreams of other lives, other times and when he woke, oddly refreshed, in the morning he knew they were not fancies of his mind but memories of lives he had never lived. Lives that all ended in dark, violent death at the moment their vengeance was achieved.
"We Children of the Mask are those who died in the service of Justice," they spoke to him, "But we are not all who have worn the mask."
He considered their words as he drank the last of his water-he had used so much in his hard run the first day-and left the water skin behind. As he stood and brushed off the clinging soil he watched scorpions scurry back to the cool of the shadows and thought, "even they seem to know I am different now; a thing to be feared more than they."
The skullmasked man followed the tracks of the German convoy the second day across he scorched land with the same trot he had the day before, but the lack of water soon slowed him.
In the afternoon he realized he had been running in the wadi where his own column had been ambushed. The Huns were retracing the path his own men had followed.
"I will make sure," he whispered to himself, "that they will follow the same path to Hell!"
At that moment he came in sight of a single German half-tracked vehicle. Something, perhaps mechanical difficulties, had delayed them to allow him to catch up.
Burton threw himself into the shadow of the wadi wall before any of the troopers saw him.
"The ones you seek," the voices whispered, "Our vengeance begins!"
"These Gerries are the small fish," the masked man thought, "but they will give me the means to hook the big one."
He allowed the shadows to lengthen while he watched the soldiers.
There were four of them and his first surmise had been accurate, they were repairing their lorrie. Two were working under the bonnet while the others sat in the shade of a large boulder and criticized.
"Tommy or Gerrie," Burton thought, "soldiers are soldiers."
The skullmasked man moved along the shadows of the wadi like a ghost with skills given him by the voices within.
An Apache voice within him gave him patience and allowed him to know when their eyes were blinded by the glare of the sun. He moved to within two meters of the resting soldiers unseen but could get no closer without revealing himself.
The resting German's were drinking from what looked to be beer bottles- the watery native beer- and one of them stood, stretched and with a mumbled joke to the others headed behind a boulder to relive himself.
Burton was on him swiftly and silently using the skill in Chinese martial arts that one of the 'Children of the Mask' passed on to his muscles.
The man had a broom handle Mauser in a shoulder holster and long bayonet in a boot sheath. Burton took both and moved closer to the edge of the boulder to sight on his prey. One soldier lounged with his beer less than two meters away from him, one was bent over the bonnet of the lorrie and one was in the cab yelling back and forth to the one on the engine.
"Now, wronged one!" the voices called.
Burton sprang from the shadow of the boulder with snake quick speed. Before the lounging soldier to cry out He was on him and slashed his throat as the man realized the silhouette moving toward him so quickly was not his friend.
The driver in the truck saw the movement and yelled, "Totenkopfe!" and tried to get his door open to draw a gun from his own holster.
Burton, with knowledge of a frontiersman from the America's threw the unbalanced dagger so that it buried itself in his chest almost to the hilt.
The mechanic began to pull out from the under the engine cover and called over his shoulder, "Herr Hauptman Totenkopfe?"
He turned to see the hideous apparition of the Skullmask and was rendered speechless. Burton sent him to his ancestors with a single well-placed blow to his throat. Suddenly the English officer was the only living thing standing in the wadi. His pulse raced, his eyes wide with shock.
"I killed them with no thought; with almost no effort." He thought with horror. "What have I become?"
"A warrior from hell," the voices said, "An acolyte of justice. A messenger of vengeance."
"But am I still human," he thought. "And is there any better fate in store for me then for them?"
Return of the Deathshead
It was after dark when Burton reached the camped German column.
A full moon pained the landscape in deep blue shadows and made it easy for the masked man to spot the Germans posted guards on the top of the ravine walls. They were over confident and Burton could clearly see them outlined in the moonlight.
The German commander had been over confident in setting his camp as well. At the head of the column two tanks that had been parked side by side to effectively block the north end of the wadi with his trucks in a line behind and his fuel tankers at the south end, a little away from the tent that had been set up in a vague nod toward safety.
The troopers were sitting around campfires in between with casual security in their guards and the isolation of the place. This made the soldiers feel as if they could not be attacked as long as they held the sides of the wadi. They could not imagine that a lone man, charged with a supernatural force of retribution stalked them and was more dangerous than a score of desert scavengers who might tumble on them.
Burton took note of the fact that they were less than a quarter mile from where his own column had been ambushed.
He crouched in the shadow of a boulder and surveyed the tactical situation, sitting in war council with a score of minds, some of who had fought in military campaigns centuries before.
'They' formed a plan from the top of the ravine based on the layout of the convoy itself. He moved first to the tanker trucks at the rear that held the fuel to get the lorries through the badlands.
The masked avenger was carrying satchel charges that he had secured at the half-track he had looted during the day. He slipped like a shadow's shadow from tanker to tanker and wired them in sequence to explode.
Still unseen by the guards he climbed the wall of the ravine and made his way around to the north end of the column to repeat the sabotage on the two tanks where he rigged an explosive charge to the tank treads. He had to kill one guard to accomplish it, but remained undiscovered by the wider group.
He could have just destroyed the tanker trucks and thus trap many of the Germans and crippled their advance but there was too much of a chance that Totenkopfe might escape; he could not allow that. He owed Milton at least that much.
"We will find vengeance with the German," the voices said, "We will find justice for you fallen comrade."
But they had not counted on Burton overcoming the guards. He had already The skullmasked Englishman was able to overcome two more guards, clubbing on with his fist and using a rock to crack the skull of another along the wall of the wadi so that he would have a clear escape route if things worked out as he intended.
He took the submachine gun from one but knew that if he had to use it he was likely to be overcome by numbers.
He made his way down the wall of the ravine feeling the comforting weight of the submachine gun in his hands.
He had no trouble locating the German captain; his tent was elaborate and setup near the rear of the convoy, within sight of the fuel tankers.
"He doesn't trust his own men to stay alert," Burton thought, "and he's right; I was able to slip in and do my work while they dreamed about their own superiority."
Burton was surprised to see the coupe of the traitorous Rashid parked nearby the officer's tent, the Berber's own desert tent erected just steps away.
"Providence again presents me with a gift," The Englishman thought. With the thought of a 'gift' he had a flash of Lubanah but he forced the pleasant image from his mind so that he could concentrate on the devil's work ahead of him.
"Vengeance is near!"
Once more he made short work of the two guards outside the tent with the skill of an assassin it seemed as if his reflexes were hyper active. The men seemed to move in slow motion as he spun to kick them with his hooves.
"Gott en Himmel!" One of the guards managed, his face fixed in an expression of horror at the sight of the Officer, managed a hissed exclamation before he went to meet his maker.
"What was he staring at?" Burton thought. But again put the thought aside to burst into the Hauptman's tent.
Inside, the Berber and the German were seated at a table having a light supper with two other officers and all made a move toward sidearms that were at the ends of the table. "Don't, gentlemen," Burton said. "I wouldn't want to upset your digestions so early in the meal."
The tribesman's eyes went wide and he made a strange gesture as if blessing himself. "Allah protect me," he murmured. "A Djinn!"
"Es en Totenkopfe!" A junior officer exclaimed when he beheld the apparition who stood pointing the automatic at them.
"I wanted to see your face, Captain," Burton said. "When your command is destroyed around you."
"Don't wait," the voices commanded, "Vengeance now!"
"Gott!" The German exclaimed as recognition passed across his features, "Der Englander!" His angular face split into a defiant sneer. "You should be dead; I do not miss."
"Come now," Burton said, "Surely you are used to the dead coming back to exact revenge on you, are you not?" He knew he shouldn't enjoy himself so much, but he also knew he could only kill the monsters once so a bit of drama to send them off might go a ways to send comfort to he departed men.
The German drew himself up and his smile flashed across his features. "I am not accustomed to circus freaks disrupting my meals. I assume you killed my incompetent guards?"
"Circus freak?" Burton said. "More like an emissary from Hell come for you."
"Do not worry, Herr Englander Totenkopfe," the German said, " "you will join the rest of your mongrel horde up the ravine soon."
The German stood. "Please, if you wanted to kill us you would have; you want to interrogate us or take us to your menagerie."
"Strike now!" the voices pleaded. "Justice for them now!"
"No," The Englishman thought to the Children of the Mask," I will see the fear on his face first; the realization that he is going to hell to face retribution for all his crimes."
At that moment the first of the charges Burton had planted by the tanks exploded. The cries of the soldiers roused from their lethargy were swallowed by the second eruption of the fuel on the tanks.
Totenkopfe's eyes went wide.
"That's right, Captain," Burton said, "Your column is going to die, lorrie by lorrie and there's nothing you can do about it."
Confusion showed on the German's face. Beyond Totenkopfe a full-length gilded mirror reflected back the masked man so Burton to could see himself in it.
He was a vision from hell indeed, his half skull face beneath his service cap make him looked lo him like the resurrection of every Tommy that had ever died.
The second set of charge at the tanker trucks erupted then, the violence of the explosion shaking the ground and lighting the sky as if it were noon. The glow of it passed through the material of the tent like a spotlight and cast the whole interior in the color of molton brass.
The German junior officer used the Englishman's distraction to leap for his gun on the table. Rashid did the same and both men fired at the strange apparition at almost the same time.
Burton's fighting instinct took over as the triggers were squeezed and he dropped to the ground, inhuman reflexes saving him from immediate destruction.
Rahid's bullet tore across his right side but the Englishman fired a burst from the submachine gun that stitched across the Berber's chest and face. The junior officer dove for behind an overturned chair. The German fired again but his gun jammed. He worked to clear it but the Luger's were notorious for jams and he had to work the complex hammer to clear it. Burton snapped the machine gun's lead spray to fire a burst through the man's head.
Burton was on his feet and charging by then, screaming his rage and anger louder than the spitting burst of his gun.
He almost cut the German in half with the automatic but jumped the table in a single leap anyway.
Totenkopfe stood unmoving while all this transpired until Burton snapped his attention to the SS man.
"You gun is empty, Englander" the German said. "He reached over to a dressing stand and pulled his ceremonial sabre from a hanging scabbard. "So now I will show you how the master race disposes of mongrel monstrosities." He advanced on the masked man with a mechanical precision that spoke of great certainty of his promise.
Burton threw the submachine gun aside and snatched the dress sabre from the back of the dead officer's chair. He rose and pulled the blade up in a guard position.
"We will guide your hand," the voices called, "Our skill-"
"No," he called in his mind. "He will die by my hand alone or I will die here with my chaps."
Then the German was on him with powerful slashing strokes of his blade and there was no time for thought, only action.
The German was a skilled fencer, his Heidelberg scar well earned, but he fought with a mechanical, almost academic style. Burton had studied the blade at Sandhurst and enjoyed competition, but his soul was on fire with need to avenge the fallen so he fought with passion.
An old instructor had told the Englishman "fight with a cool head but with a blazing heart" and he channeled that instructor now as he accepted the cold blade of the Nazi. The German slashed and hacked but the masked man's blade never faltered and was always in the path of the German's.
Outside the night continued to erupt with volcanic explosions as fuel tank after fuel tank ruptured and spilled it's flaming river of hell to pout toward the next truck and it as well. The soldier screamed, they ran in futile attempt to avoid the incendiary death.
Totenkopfe's leer was a frozen mask every bit the skull face of hi opponent with the zealot's eyes of a proponent of the master race shining in his eyes.
Burton's eyes were almost hazed over, the lids almost closed as he let his muscles answer the attack and let the energy of his flaming thirst for vengeance energize his arm. Yet the Tueteon's blade could not push past the steel net that Burton wove.
The German did not press hard, counting on his men to arrive and finish the interloper. Burton could see in his eyes that he planned a long and painful end for the skullmaked killer.
"Release us, Wronged One," the voices called to Burton in a pleading tone, "let us find our vengeance in his flesh."
"No!" Burton yelled aloud with such vehemence that Totenkopfe flinched, "His heart is mine!" He drove forward with the force of all the death that the German had caused and for the first time saw uncertainty in the Nazi's eyes.
The captain tried to cover that uncertainty with a wider sneer but the force of Burton's attack quickly washed it away.
The explosions outside continued to rock the tent and now flaming debris rained down upon the roof setting the tent on fire. The Englishman saw the concern in the German's eyes change to fear.
It was at that a moment that Burton's blade slipped past the point of Totenkopfe's and drove deep into his body.
"Gott!" the German cried.
"You have no right to call on him, you bloody swine!" Burton hissed. "I'm sending you to your master in Hades!"
The German dropped to the ground still transfixed by the gory blade He fell over on his side, his face locked in a rictus grin.
Burton stepped forward and stomped the sneering SS man's skull to obliterate his features forever.
Abruptly, as if mufflers had been removed from his ears Burton became aware of the shouting and screams in the German camp. A section of the burning tent dropped to the floor beside him and he knew had to leave.
"Run, Wronged One, flee or you will join us!"
Burton didn't wait for another explosion. He raced from the tent as fast as his legs could carry him. He just made it up the bank of the wadi before the last of the fuel tankers exploded and lit the night as bright as day.
He realized that his time in the tent had been barely five minutes but in that brief time Hell had truly been unleashed in the dry riverbed. The petrol poured through the dry riverbed like the Styxx and engulfed the confused soldiers, igniting the fuel tanks of the remaining lorries and killing everything it touched.
Burton knew he should have stayed to watch, if only to remind himself that these were the enemy and deserved it. All he could think of, however, was that when dawn came there would be no way to distinguish between the charred corpses of his own men up the wadi and the Gerries. It was the most eloquent statement anyone could ever make about war. And that was all he needed to realize what he had to do next.
He turned and started to walk back toward the oasis.
Nightmare and the Dream
"Do not be angry with me, Burton," the once queen of Sheba said to him when he stood before her two days later. "I did not know that so much of-of my Djinn self would transfer to you." She met him at the edge of the oasis and he could see that, even after four days, she had been crying.
"I know, Amoura," he said to her. Despite hit otherwordly strength he was dehydrated and exhausted, having pushed himself harder to return to her than he had in leaving. As he spoke the mask that had adhered to his face the entire trip back from the night of hell whispered, "We have given you your vengeance and you have given us a moment's peace; now other's need our voices." Then the mask fell from his face to sit in the sand at his feet.
"The hand of Fate has given me my vengeance ," Burton said to her, "and allowed me to return to you,. I do not know if you have given enough of your Djinn self to allow me to live as long as you," he said as he accepted her into his arms, "All I know is that I don't want to live longer than you or anywhere away from you."
Their kiss was epic; once more the Queen had found her King.
In the sand the mask was suddenly nowhere to be seen.
The Skullmask was dead; long live the Skullmask.