The Day after Armageddon
The battle to end all battles had just ended. The war to end all wars would be finished soon enough. The Egyptian Expeditionary Force, led by General Edmund Allenby, had won its final triumph over the Ottoman army just the day before. For now, the bulk of the Australian Mounted Division had set up camp south of Acre and was at rest.
However, one of their number, Lance-Corporal Johnny Thunder, sat awake in his tent, unable to sleep. The excitement of the day still resonated in his mind. Even now, as he closed his eyes, he could still hear the sounds of gunfire, cannon blasts, thundering hooves and barked orders from the day before. However, on this night, all was still outside…barring the sudden sound of footsteps.
Someone's head, wearing a pith helmet, peeked in from outside. Johnny turned around to meet the stranger. The moonlight shone off the figure's monocle. Even in the dark, Johnny recognized the figure now; he was none other than Major Samuel E. Dexter of the 54th, nicknamed "Major Sinister" by some of the corpsmen. Johnny wasn't sure what he wanted, but whatever it was, it couldn't be good.
"You there. Boy, come with me."
Johnny paused for a few moments, before slowly, furtively, exiting the tent. As he came out, he saw that Major Sinister wasn't alone; he had a small crew – two men – of rather nasty-looking guys with him.
"What do you want…sir?" Johnny nervously asked.
Sinister turned to him and flashed him a wide, yellow-toothed smile. "Come with us. We need another set of hands."
The smile twisted itself into a smug grin. "You'll see. I'll pay you well for it. Can you ride?"
Major Sinister nodded. "Good. That's good. Get your horse. We're going to ride a short while."
"You'll see. We leave now."
Johnny scrambled to pick up what few belongings he had, including his standard-issue revolver, a Webley Mk. VI, and his Lee-Enfield rifle, and dashed towards the horse pens, hot on the heels of Major Sinister and the other two. The vast horse pen came into view as the four came down the knoll. It was guarded by two sentries, who were sleeping soundly at this point – a chargeable offense.
Major Sinister leant in close to one of them. "Good evening, soldier."
Both awoke with a start. The nearer one stood bolt upright and swung his arm up in a salute. "E-evening! Sir."
The major looked from left to right, as though ensuring nobody else was watching the scene, then turned back to the sentry. "Now, soldier, nobody needs to know about this, right?"
Sinister scowled. "If you want things to remain this way, I'd advise you lend my friends a couple of horses. We'll be back before first light."
"Tell you what. I'll throw this in." At this, Major Sinister pulled something shiny out of an inner pocket, and flipped it to the sentry. It was a gold sovereign. Another one followed the first, this time sent flying to the other guard.
Soon after, the four were riding forth into the endless desert beyond, Johnny still unsure about what lay ahead.
It was now nearly a full hour since they had headed out from the camp site, and dune had followed dune, rock after rock. The night sky was no brighter than it was before. If anything, it formed an even darker curtain over the desert. The twilight hour was approaching. Johnny looked forth towards the horizon.
Till now, none of his new companions had spoken a word on where they were headed, only that he would be rewarded. That didn't reassure him much. From what he'd seen, it didn't seem like whatever the major was planning was exactly approved by higher HQ. He just hoped that whatever was waiting for him at the end of the journey, it was worth all this trouble.
Suddenly, the all-too-familiar krack of a gunshot echoed through the silence of the night. Immediately, all four riders headed straight into a nearby formation. Bullets thudded against the stones, sending dust and shards everywhere. Major Sinister turned to Johnny.
"You. Boy. Find out who's shooting."
Johnny leaned out of the outcropping, but couldn't make out much.
The major barked, "I said LOOK!"
A rough hand suddenly grabbed him from behind and pushed his entire head into the open. Then he saw it; a small gang of Ottoman stragglers, likely cut off from the rest of the troops. Just as abruptly, Johnny was dragged back in. He looked up at the Major, whose face showed no patience or warmth.
"T-turks, sir. Three to four of them."
Major Sinister's frown deepened. He muttered to himself, "Mahmood said nothing about Turks…well, no matter. Cunningham, Jones. I believe we have some Turks to take care of."
The two toughs nodded, and proceeded to load and cock their rifles. Major Sinister turned to Johnny, indicating for him to do the same.
"How's your shooting, boy?"
The major spat a breath of disgust. "Good enough!…Just take care of them."
Johnny grabbed his Lee-Enfield from the horse's saddle, and loaded a clip of four into it. Peeking out from the rocks, he tried to aim at the shadowy shapes behind the dune. Shot after shot, volley after volley flew back and forth, until the last of them twisted in agony before collapsing behind the dune. The major sprung into action even before the corpse struck the sand.
"That's it, boys! Let's take a look, shall we?"
Before Johnny could react, the others dashed to their horses and rode towards the site of the ambush, leaving him to catch up. When he arrived, he found Major Sinister bending over one of the bodies, emptying its pockets. He was muttering to himself again.
"Mm…definitely Turks. Mahmood said nothing about this…"
Without another word, he mounted his horse once again, and the four continued on their trek. So far, Johnny had merely faced mystery after mystery. Hopefully there'd be answers at the end of this all.
The Last Home of the Crusaders
At long last, the end came into sight; a massive ruin atop a hill. It was terrifying and magnificent all at once. The moon shone behind it, and light peeked out from the gaps between the stones. The imposing castle stared into the valley below, challenging all comers as it had done in the centuries before. So this was what was promised, then. Curiosity piqued, Johnny followed the rest to the ruins at a gentle canter.
When they reached the side door – the "sally-port", that's what the major had called it, all four dismounted. Major Sinister led the way, holding up a small lantern to illuminate the rooms ahead. The rough-hewn stones, weathered by the centuries, seemed eerie. Their footsteps echoed up and down the ancient hallways, seeming to sound from everywhere. There was nothing in this old fortress except stones and spirits. Johnny shuddered.
Major Sinister spoke, his voice breaking the stillness. "Ah, you're probably wondering where and what this place is, boy. It's the last home of the Crusaders – Christian knights, some 700 years back. And my friend Mahmood tells me there's some ancient treasures deep in this castle's bowels…you'll meet him soon enough…"
Sure enough, in a room far ahead, Johnny saw another flickering light by a window. The silhouette of a man, wearing a cloth around his head, waited in front of it. Sinister stopped before the doorway, and held up a hand – a silent communication, as it was. The figure returned the same gesture, and both men took a step towards each other.
"Mahmood. Good to see you're on time."
Mahmood crossed his arms defiantly. "And you are late, effendi."
"Well, that doesn't matter now. Do you have the goods?"
The robed man turned around, producing a large, heavy sack. He dragged it in front of his feet, and let the flap fall forward. He dropped to one knee and opened the sack up, revealing the treasure within: ancient swords, shields, helms and emblems, and even what seemed to look like a crown. Mediaeval coins spilled out the front, and their reflections danced as the flames of the torch. Johnny stood entranced by the treasure before his eyes.
Major Sinister, though, was staring full-bolt at Mahmood. Almost faster than anyone could register, Sinister's revolver had appeared in his hand. "Good, Mahmood. That'll be all."
Shock, confusion, then anger all formed on the Arab's face. "What-why…what is this?"
"Simply enough, it's a betrayal. You told me that there wouldn't be any Turks tonight. We ran into a patrol's worth on the way here."
Mahmood pled for his life. "Please, effendi, I can't predict the movements of all their troops-"
Major Sinister now twisted his mouth into that same terrible smirk. "Sorry, Mahmood, but I simply can't accept that."
"We had a deal! We'd split this four ways-"
"I've found a new partner. So long."
The pistol fired twice. One bullet struck home at Mahmood's heart. The other made a third, unblinking, eye, right in the centre of his forehead. The body tilted over, as though not quite realising it was dead yet, then collapsed on the ground. It lay still in a pool of its own blood, which had splattered over the sack's contents. Johnny's gaze met Mahmood's dead eyes. He'd fired his fair number of shots at enemies before, but he'd never seen one this close. He felt nauseous and dizzy, wanting to look at anything – anything – else, but his eyes simply wouldn't let him.
It seemed an eternity before he heard: "You, boy! Don't look so stunned. Here, help me with the relics."
Major Sinister and the two other goons were bending over the sack, pulling out as many blood-stained artefacts as their greedy arms could grab. The major had looked up from his dirty work to stare at Johnny. Johnny looked back, slowly moving his gaze from Mahmood to Sinister. The other two were still helping themselves, pulling out rusted swords and bent helmets.
Finally, Johnny spoke. "I respectfully refuse. Sir."
Sinister stood up, pulling himself up to his full height – at 6'1", he towered over Johnny – and spoke venom through his lips. "What?"
"I said, I respectfully refuse, sir. I won't partake in this...looting, sir."
Johnny suddenly felt the wrong end of a revolver under his chin. Sinister leant in so close that Johnny could smell his rancid breath.
"You do realise what just happened to our friend Mahmood, don't you, boy?"
Johnny didn't flinch. "Yes, sir."
Sinister paced from left to right, keeping the gun squarely under Johnny's chin. "You're brave, I'll give you that. But brave and stupid men die young."
"You'll need to account for me tomorrow morning, sir."
One of the thugs spoke up. "He's got a point, sir. If he don't show up, we'd all be up Queer Street."
Sinister snapped, "I know that, Cunningham! But we can't run the risk of this chap telling everyone and his brother what happened here, can we?"
Cunningham rose to his feet. "Well, guv, it'd still be your word 'gainst his. Right?"
"Right you are, Cunningham." Sinister turned back to Johnny. "Well, boy, if you won't cooperate I can't make you. But mark my words – if you think you're going to become a bloody hero by telling everyone about tonight's escapade, you couldn't be more wrong. You see, there's no room in this world for blind fools who think that way. You're finished the instant we get back, boy. Truss him up, Jones, and put him in one corner."
The stubble-bearing thug approached him, with a length of twine stretched between his two hands. Johnny sprung towards the man, laying into his breadbasket with the strongest punch he could muster. Jones didn't seem to react, and clubbed him over the head. The room spun around and around until Johnny found his cheek pressed against the cold, rough floor. He looked up at the sneering figure of Sam Sinister, chuckling merrily to himself.
Johnny stared at Sinister, eyes filled with hate. It wasn't just Major Sinister he hated; it was all men like these, who'd started out as schoolyard bullies and never grown up. And the worst part was that they'd win. They always did. He would still report the whole business to his CO, but even now he knew that it wouldn't come to anything. After all, who was he, some orphan child from Toowoomba, against not just a major, but the son of some bigwig? Lying on the floor of a dead castle, Johnny saw the world for what it was, there and then.
Even when forced at gunpoint to ride back with the other three, Johnny could only think about what would come. It was sad, but hardly disappointing. Of course Sinister and his gang had an alibi. The trial was twisted from accusing Sinister of looting to Johnny himself being insubordinate and perjuring (or as was explained to him, lying in court). Just like that, he got drummed out of the BEF, left to face the unfair, cruel world all by himself.