Chapter 1

Ravens pick and tear at something in the sand, their sickening calls announcing death. They fight, biting and clawing at each other and tearing flesh from a bloody lump laying half buried in the sand. A volley of artillery rounds roars in to land a hundred meters from the birds with a thrump. Startled, they take to the air screaming and reveal the body of a young German soldier. He lies dead on the ground, eyes open in horror, blood dripping from his mouth, body desecrated by the birds and war. The blood leaches into the sand making a dark pool under his mouth. The sand moves under the pool, just a quivering that causes a ripple in the pool of blood.

He’s just one of many dead laying in awkward and gruesome poses and baking in the desert sun. Craters mark where artillery has walked over and destroyed a German mechanized infantry unit. Burning trucks and tanks loft thick black smoke into the sky. Charred corpses hang from trucks and are sprawled on top of tanks with mouths frozen open in horror. Broken, shredded bodies lay butchered on the ground. The artillery has done its job efficiently, but not completely.

The survivors march away from the burning remains and fallen comrades on the battlefield to snake between tall sand dunes and into a desert canyon. Some are wounded, others dazed, and all are scared. The soldiers look around nervously. Death is near and they can feel it. Military discipline is breaking down as the soldiers realize that they’re being hunted.

Silent shadows move along the tops of sand dunes stalking their prey. A group of Bedouin fighters quietly set up an ambush and wait for the Germans where the canyon deepens. The Bedouin leader, Yusif, peers down at the Germans below. His face is weathered but dignified with deep sunbaked wrinkles making him look older than his thirty years. He signals to his men to take aim.

A young German soldier looks up to the tops of the dunes. He sees nothing, but he can feel them and nervously fingers the trigger on his weapon. He looks to his friends marching around him; he can see the fear in their eyes. His lip quivers, and he holds back tears. A bullet cracks the skull of his forehead with a wet thwack, and he falls back dead. The desert calm is shattered by the crack of rifles. The Germans scatter as grenades explode and men fall screaming. It’s chaos; the famous German efficiency has evaporated and broken. Those not wounded run.

The surviving Germans race though the canyon and find themselves in an abandoned archeological camp. The canyon ends in sheer walls; there’s no place to go. Empty tents flutter in a ghostly wind and equipment lays scattered in the sand. Shell-shocked, the Germans look around, unsure what to do. The gunfire intensifies behind them. Several men panic and start to scamper up the canyon walls. The German Captain, Muller, watches the men go; his foot moves to follow, to run again. He stops and looks around at the scared faces gazing at him; many of them are just boys. The tightness in his gut threatens to push the contents out as it intensifies. He looks to the tops of the canyons and the men scrambling up. Muller draws himself up and pushes his fear down, “We stay together,” he commands.

Screams from the ambush behind them are silenced by single rifle shots. Excited shouts in Arabic are drawing near as the hunters close.

Something catches Muller’s eye; a stone archway emerging from the side of the canyon that has been unearthed in the dig. Crude wooden planks hold back the dirt on either side of the archway and a tunnel leads into the ground.

Muller stares at it, his jaw twitching, as the desert wind picks up around him. The howl of the wind sounds like a haunting scream. It’s surreal and sickening and grabs hold of him as he gazes motionless at the archway.

A bullet cracks over his head, snapping him from the moment. He shakes his head to clear his mind and points, “Over there, it looks defensible.”

Muller leads his men through the archway and underground to find an ancient vaulted temple held up by Greek style pillars. Life size statues, half-man, half-animal line the walls. Torches give off an eerie, fluttering light that illuminates elaborate hieroglyphics covering the walls. A large marble statue of a beautiful man stands in the center. His details are exquisite: long flowing hair and a boyish face that seem to be flesh and not stone.

A young British soldier, Radcliff, hides in the shadows clutching a talisman on a chain in his hand. He’s unshaven, dehydrated and his tunic is pock marked with shrapnel holes. He bares his teeth in hatred as the Germans enter the chamber but sinks back to the darkness and out of sight.

Muller looks around the room, turns in a circle assessing his surrounding; there are no exits, just the eerie faces of the statues staring at him under the flickering torchlight.

Radcliff watches silently from the dark his hand stroking the chain around his neck lovingly, his eyes burning with hatred.

Muller can hear the shouts of the approaching Bedouins outside. He quickly moves to the end of the room where there’s a round stone block that looks like a door, “A way in, there has to be a way in,” he frantically feels around the stone block, “Nothing!”

Radcliff quietly moves from the shadows, unnoticed in the darkness, and slips in amongst the Germans. He quickly moves to the marble statue in the center of the room and slips the necklace over its head. Arab voices echo through the room from outside.

Muller gives up on the doorway, “Defensive positions!” he calls.

The men prepare for their last stand; weapons are checked and grenades are readied. As Muller turns away from the stone, there’s a metallic click behind him. He looks over his shoulder to see the stone rolling aside. Muller turns back to gaze down a dark torch-lit tunnel going deeper into the ground. A cold wind blows from inside, and Muller hears an eerie scream that locks him into a trance. Unsure if the scream is a result of the wind or some warning in his mind, he sets his jaw and nods to himself, “Inside! Quickly!”

The Germans rush into the tunnel with Radcliff taking up the rear. The door begins to roll shut after them. Screams and gunfire come from down the dark tunnel, cut off when the stone door slams shut.

Gun ready, Yusif walks into the temple. He follows the Germans’ tracks to the stone door and stops. Camir, an elderly man, steps up behind him, “Several escaped into the desert,” he reports in Arabic.

“Leave them. They’re dead already,” Yusif says clinically as he runs his hand across the stone door. He leans in, pressing his ear against it and listens. He hears a low rumble of a grenade exploding and a blood-curling scream.

Camir pulls the necklace from the statues and holds it out to Yusif. He looks down at a talisman on the chain and then up to the beautiful face of the statue, “So, it begins.”

Heat, noise, and dirt. An American convoy moves through the open desert like an endless line of ants. Jeeps and trucks fight for space with camels and donkeys as they all move along a dirt road. Vendors have set up tents along the roadside, and American troops jump from moving trucks or fall out of line to pick through items looking for souvenirs.

Matty, a young soldier from New York, picks through jewelry boxes on display in a tent. A sly soldier from Chicago, Pilch, comes up behind him, “I knew you was a fairy.”

Matty holds up a gold jewelry box, “What? It’s for Katie.”

Pilch slings his long sniper rifle over his shoulder and takes one of the boxes off the table and looks at the intricate inlaid cloisonn? symbol on its cover. The Vendor smiles at Pilch taking in interest in his wares. He has rotting crooked teeth and flies seem to constantly orbit his face attracted to an unholy smell wafting from his body.

“She’s six months old now, right?” Pilch inquires trying to wave away the smell of the Vendor from his nose.

Matty smiles, “Seven next week.”

Pilch holds the box up to the Vendor, “Hey, how much?”

The Vendor looks at Pilch with a stupid grin and holds up four fingers.

Pilch reaches for his wallet, “Four? You want four dollars?” he smiles at the price, “Okay.”

“Wait a minute!” Matty objects.

“Ahh, he’s got plenty!” he indicates the piles of boxes on the table. Pilch pulls out four one-dollar bills. The Vendor, sensing an overly eager customer, shakes his head ‘no’ and points to a five-dollar bill in Pilchs’ wallet and holds up four fingers.

Pilch holds up a five-dollar bill, “Four of these?”

The vendor stupidly nods his head.

Pilch shakes his head in disgust, “Fuck off!”

Matty pulls out his wallet, “Well, I’ll take one.”

“For twenty bucks?”

Matty hands over the money and takes his box, “Yeah, it’s real gold!” he smiles at Pilch, “She’s gonna love it,” and Matty cradles his box as he heads down the road to catch up with his unit. Pilch looks at the boxes and then to Matty disappearing into the crowd, “Alright, gimmie one.”

The vendor chatters in Arabic and hands over a box while bowing awkwardly. Pilch sticks it in his pack and heads off.

As the Americans disappear into the crowd, the vendor’s stupid smile fades and he speaks in perfect English, “Bloody wankers. I never made this much in London.”