Part 4

Robert was able to see the large fire on top of the barrow all the way from the castle. Surrounded by laughing and dancing celebrants, he made his way towards the sacred grove, his arm held tightly by the young woman sent to escort him to the celebration.  The others were dressed in white lightweight flowing robes with nothing underneath, while his robe was made of a royal purple and he was, thankfully, permitted to wear his own clothing under it. 

The whole community was there, some at the foot of the sacred barrow and some already at the summit, dancing and singing around a huge, hollow ring of fire. He searched around him, trying to catch a glimpse of Mickey, but his partner was nowhere to be seen.

He noticed that a few of the islanders, wearing robes with hoods, walked and moved slower than the rest of the festive revelers. When a breeze blew the hood from the face of one of those people, Robert was surprised to see that the man was much older than any other members of the sect that he had seen on the island so far. One of the women, small and shriveled inside a robe, passed nearby and with a start Robert thought that she looked like an ancient version of Fianna, who had been one of the two women with whom he had spent his first night on the island. His mind shouted out a warning, but Robert tried to dismiss the idea that it was the same person. The ancient woman was most likely a close relative to the young girl whose vibrant and pulsating body he had become so intimately acquainted with during that long night

Robert saw two of the other guests both dressed, as he was, in purple; they were made all the more obvious because the white robes of the faithful surrounding them. He didn’t see Chuse and suspected that whatever honor Beltane promised him at the festival was being carried out down inside the barrow, perhaps in the same vicinity as Mickey.

Damn it Robert thought, if Beltane has a dour end planned for Chuse, he hoped that the drug lord would be able to use all the natural cunning that had kept him victorious over all the other murderous drug cartels.  Robert was out numbered, outgunned and alone.  His first priority was to help his partner.  If he happened to stumble across Chuse and was able to help him then fine, if not he would be on his own. 

If Mickey was still inside the earthwork, Robert hoped to hell that he would get outside it fast. Robert knew that it would be a complicated matter if he had to go in after him. He was prepared to do it, but still he hoped that Mickey would show himself soon.

As they started to climb the gently sloping side of the barrow, his escort left him for a moment to grab one of the many large jugs that were being passed from person to person in the crowd. The containers looked to be filled with wine and each person stopped walking for the time it took to take a long swig.

The young woman drank deeply and then laughing, passed it to Robert. He took the container and mimed a long swallow as the woman peered at him to make sure he took some of the wine. Another white robed young man then lifted the jug out of his hands and swigged from it himself. Robert wiped his mouth and smiled as if he hadn’t a care in the world before continuing up the hill.

He couldn’t understand much of what was being sung and said around him, but every once in a while he heard people say that today was unusual, for the altar was on the top of the barrow instead of within its depths. Others were pointing to a large wooden frame that stood high over the top of the barrow, straddling the fire and loudly wondering what its purpose was.

All the members of The Path were singing and dancing and, as the seconds rushed by, they all seemed to be working themselves up to a frenzy, grabbing for the containers of wine and drinking, and then singing even louder and dancing with more and more abandon around the large fire.

As he neared the summit, he saw Beltane and four women all standing beside the altar. They were dressed in white robes, like the other faithful, but Beltane had a golden wreath as a headdress and he held a large golden knife in his clenched hands.

Robert searched their faces for a hint as to what would be happening. Beltane’s eyes were wide and animated, his lips were moving very quickly as if he were crazed with prayer.  Three of the women at the altar didn’t look happy or festive, unlike the other members of the religion. The fourth one kept her face hidden in the hood of her robe.

While the rest of the community danced, drank and sang around the fire, the priestesses looked as if the end of the world was nigh. They seemed afraid, as if something was wrong. As he stared into their faces he was suddenly astounded to see that one of the women looked like an old and aged Kerri! This was too much of a coincidence, two young women both now looking as if they had gained a half-century over night?

Robert couldn’t permit himself to dwell on that bit of information because the large fire that had been burning was being doused, and the members of the sect all began intoning a great swelling chant.

The plumes of black and white smoke from the dying fire flowed heavenward on the gentle breeze as the last of the setting sun’s light cast its golden rays upon the group.  Robert could just make out a rope looped over the top of the wooden frame, one end disappeared into an opening down into the barrow and the other was in the hands of some guards.  He heard Beltane shout an order over the sounds of the chanting and the guards hauled on the rope.

Robert pulled his eyes away from the activity in front of the altar long enough to check the placement of the men that Beltane was using as his peace officers. He had taken the chance that no security anywhere would recognize one of the latest streamlined micro pen guns, and he had brought it with him for just such a circumstance as this. He pulled it out of his pocket, holding it down by his side and looked back towards the rope, which was now the focal point of the crowd

From out of the tendrils of white smoke, the form of a man became visible as he was lifted through the hole in the ground and up above the ring of the dying fire.

The man was naked and his skin glowed with the last light from the embers of the fire that burned beneath him. The long and slender body showed a perfect male musculature. His hair blazed a golden red. The splendor of the image was highlighted by the chains that held his body high and which elongated the extended graceful line of leg, to hip, to the arms outstretched above him.

The smoke of the fire dissipated as it touched the body. The beauty of the sight held the throng in awe for a moment as every person in the crowd held his breath. No one moved.

Robert found himself caught by the exquisiteness of the moment. Time seemed to stand still. The last golden rays of the sun burned upon the body that was held up like a gift to the heavens. Unwilling to look away, Robert was mesmerized until the flawless deity opened his eyes and, with a fast glance over the area, caught Robert’s gaze and held it with his own.

Robert awoke from the dream with a start.

Mickey! 

After his initial shock at seeing his partner pinned against the sky, Robert went into battle mode, pushing all emotion away so that it would not interfere with his objectivity.

As the last of the light left the sky, the rope holding Mickey was slowly lowered. Most of the brethren surrounding Robert looked at him to see how he was reacting to his servant’s situation. He made a show of laughing and blurted out loudly “Serves the filthy bugger right!” as the people around him, drugged or drunk out of their minds, staggered and applauded.

His escort no longer at his side, and the interest in him no longer a factor, Robert nonchalantly made his way to stand in front of the altar.

The priestesses began chanting and knelt beside the stones while Beltane, his face a mask of fury, positioned himself behind the altar and stood with his arms outstretched facing his congregation. The crowd slowly fell silent and Robert noted that they were almost enraptured as their leader began to speak to them.

“Today is the Beginning,” Beltane intoned, “the Beginning of the second era of The Path. I am no longer the most beloved of the gods of the island.” Beltane’s fury exploded. “And it is because of you!”

There were gasps from the crowd and murmurs of “No Lord Beltane!"

He lifted his face to the rising moon and shouted out, his voice angry and harsh, “Because you have not shown the fitting respect for me and for the gods, there shall be changes!” As he spoke, the gently wafting breeze began to gain in strength.

Cautiously, Robert eased closer to where Mickey would soon touch down.

“The gifts of youth and health that the gods bestow on you have been taken for granted, as are the terrible tasks I do for the gods. You all know what I am required to do, but before this day, you have been spared seeing it done. Today the horror of the sacrifice shall be shared by all of us. I will not be the only one to witness the gruesomeness of the ritual.”

He lifted his knife and brandished it toward the crowd.  “I am the one who takes on the task of butcher during these celebrations. It is I who struggles and slaves all the year through to find the rich men who keep the gods fed and satiated, while you reap the rewards. But no more!” Beltane bellowed, his voice ringing out over the crowd.

Moving through the crowd, Robert suddenly realized that the bright moonlight was growing dull.  He saw what looked like diaphanous shadows lift from the dark hole in the barrow and spread over the night sky, but when he looked at the other people in the crowd, no one else was taking any notice of the dark forms but him.

The people of The Path were cringing and whimpering at their leader’s tirade. The old woman that Robert thought was Kerri threw herself at Beltane’s knees.

“No Lord, no!” she screamed. “The ritual cannot be changed! It is forbidden, the gods…”

“Gods?” Beltane raged as Kerri clung to his legs, “You all are fools! The demons of this island own you! You gave them possession of your souls in exchange for your lost youth! But I have learned from them and I am not their possession! No! I will choose the sacrifice today according to my desire. And I choose this infidel! He took what was rightfully mine to have and he will be sacrificed – to me!”

A faint rumble radiated from deep within the barrow. Kerri screamed, “You must not anger them, Lord! Please!”

He grabbed Kerri by the hair, “Hag! I am the one who cultivated you, worked with you and denied myself the pleasure of taking you while you were young and desirable, all according to the wants of the demons of Druidean. But no longer will I be denied my due!” He kicked Kerri away and used the dagger to motion the guards to guide Mickey’s descending body to the correct place on the ground.

Robert saw that the guards paid little attention to the blank faced Mickey. He was slumped, letting the ropes hold him up, as if he was too weak to stand on his own, but Robert knew his partner too well to be taken in by his act. Mickey was standing with his legs well balanced, only permitting his knees to go lax. His stance, along with the clear piercing glance that had lighted on Robert as he was high in the air, told Robert that Mickey was fully aware of what was going on around him and was well able and ready to make a move to escape.

Edging between the believers, some of whom were now on their knees making low guttural sounds of fear, Robert inched ever closer to Mickey. As he trained the microgun on Beltane, the earth started to vibrate with a loud subterranean hum. At the sound, one of the other priestesses at the altar threw herself at Beltane. “Forgive us,” she cried, “Have mercy, Lord, and fulfill the will of the gods.”

Beltane roared his anger and pushed her away. “No! My will shall be done this day!” He waved the golden knife at Mickey as the two guards freed Mickey’s chain from the hook that had carried him.

At that moment Kerri rose to her feet and railed at Beltane, “No! He is nothing! He’s an insignificant. Kill him if you want but don’t let his worthless blood sully the ritual. Do as the gods order! They will destroy us if a prosperous man is not fed to them!” Her hands clawed, she lunged at him.

Beltane raised the ceremonial knife and stabbed Kerri.

As crimson stains washed over white robes and her blood spurted outward over Beltane’s hand, defiling the sacred knife, the crowd wailed its horror.

Then, with a speed that only he expected, Robert saw Mickey make his move.

Using the distraction provided by Kerri’s death, Mickey lifted his arms and looped his chains around the neck of one of his guards. Twisting his improvised garrote taut, he broke the man’s neck.  Hearing Beltane’s scream of rage, Mickey shoved the lifeless body at him, knocking them both backward onto the stone altar.

Mickey turned to the other sentry but McCall acted first, firing the micro gun that Mickey had glimpsed in his hand.  The second guard tumbled to the ground.

For an instant it was as though they were in the eye of a hurricane. There was a clear path between him and McCall, but the rest of the congregation was engulfed in a wind of movement. Before he had taken more than two steps, Mickey felt the ground begin to shake under his bare feet. A group of terrified people swarmed around Robert, grabbing and pushing, blindly trying run.

Turning, Mickey saw that Beltane had regained his feet and was now brandishing the knife in front of him. His eyes were glowing with mad fury and he was intent on getting to him.

The priest slashed out with the knife and Mickey tried to duck away, but the shaking ground threw his balance off and the tip of the knife nicked him high up on the shoulder.

Feeling a white-hot anger building inside him, Mickey pivoted away and lashed out with his fist, striking Beltane in the face, while twisting the knife out of his slack hand. He feinted to his left and ripped a bloody furrow in the madman’s chest.  Mickey smiled as he saw fear in the man’s face just before Beltane doubled over.

Mickey’s attention was grabbed as a thunderous roar filled the air.  Just beyond Beltane’s hunched form he saw the earth around the barrow’s hole lift and then vomit outwards while strange, frighteningly solid shapes began to spew from its depths.

“Time to go, McCall!”  Mickey yelled as he began to move away from the thick mass of creatures writhing up from the ground less than ten feet from him.

After a quick glance at the unearthly figures as they overran and embraced the hysterical cult members, McCall called out  “You’re right.  Go toward the castle,” he shouted over the clamor of screams and thunder, “we might be able to find cover there!”

Mickey tried to follow McCall but his bare feet slid in the thick wet mire that was oozing from within the barrow. All around him people were screeching as dark forms reached out to envelop them.

Mickey caught a fleeting glimpse of one shadow as it embraced a young woman. In one second her youth was gone and her skin split open as blood poured from what was left of her mouth and eyes.

Her flesh dissolved and mottled bones fell into a bubbling pool of blood that spread out over the ground.  The shade that had enfolded her bent over and fed handfuls of blood-thickened soil into its gaping mouth.

Mickey backed away rapidly as he saw two spectral beings descend on Beltane. A shriek of indescribable pain surged from the Priest’s mouth, as the knife wound on his chest suddenly ripped open.  The gruesome sight mesmerized Mickey as the demons reached into the Priest’s abdomen and began to eviscerate and consume his still pulsating organs.  Mickey looked into Beltane’s eyes, with soul shuddering horror he realized that the man was still alive.

“Come on, Mickey!  Move!” McCall suddenly grabbed Mickey’s injured shoulder, “Move!”

He could barely hear McCall’s urgent order above the cacophony raging around them but the pain provided the push that he needed to start him moving.

Aware of Mickey following close on his heels, Robert pushed his way through the crowd of demon worshippers, most of who were still confused about what was taking place at the very top of the barrow.  Drunk or drugged, they had no idea of the doom rapidly overtaking them.

As he ran Robert shouted at the confused people around him. “Run!” he yelled into their faces. “Get to the castle. Find shelter!” But every person he tried to help looked through him as if he wasn’t there. He saw that Mickey was also pushing at individuals, trying to get them to flee, but they too acted as if Mickey was invisible.

Finally clear of the group, barely able to see the way in the patchy moonlight, they continued to run for their lives. A wind that stunk of copper and sulfur whipped at their faces as they pushed their way through the deep, bloody mud. It took all of Robert’s willpower and concentration to keep one foot moving in front of the other. 

He glanced next to him at Mickey who was working hard to keep moving. Robert noted that he was covered in mire, partly from the gory mud and partly from the wound in his shoulder that was bleeding freely over his bare chest.

Robert’s heart jumped into his throat as he saw a dark shadow behind them. Looming high on top of the barrow it blotted out the night sky as it grew.  The sound of screaming intensified as the ground heaved and shook under their feet. He staggered once more, but kept moving.

As the storm raged around them, they scrambled down the last few yards of the sloping side of the barrow. Robert lost his footing again and he fell landing heavily, but Mickey took hold of his arm and, without a word, pulled him back to his feet. They headed towards the flickering lights of the castle, constantly sensing the demons hot on their heels.

Buffeted by the thick, foul wind and gasping for breath, they struggled on and, at last, made it through the gates of the castle and into the main entrance hall before the electricity failed completely.  Trembling with fatigue, both men put their shoulder to the solid oak doors and slammed them shut, barring them securely.  The wind pounded against the door as if a giant’s fist was demanding entry, rattling the thick wood on its hinges until Robert was positive that the doors would fly open and the hoards of hell would come pelting through.

Feeling the powerful wind still pushing at the wood, they stood anchored there until they were sure they would hold closed. Then Robert slid down onto the floor, with Mickey following a moment later, their strength coming to a sudden end.  

With only the glow of the decorative torches left in the hallway to light the room, Mickey looked over at McCall, not sure what to say.  He knew that if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes he would never have believed the scenes they had just witnessed.

He felt the cold, rough stones of the floor dig into his buttocks and the backs of his thighs and looked down at his nakedness. “I need to find something to wear,” he yelled, his voice hollow. Weakly he waved the chains still attached to his wrists at McCall.  “We need to find a way to get these off too. If I have to face any more monsters from hell I want my arms free and my ass covered.”

Checking the door as it continued to rattle, McCall nodded and shouted to be heard,  “And you need to put something on that wound on your shoulder. And wash up, you smell like hell…” Robert looked over at Mickey and smiled thinly, “Maybe that’s not such a joke. You think that was what this was all about?”

“You tell me.” Mickey groaned loudly as he lifted himself to stand. The soles of his feet burned.  “I’ve never seen anything like that before and I don’t want to again.”

Still sitting against the door, Robert listened. The roar of the wind and a trace of agonized screams could still be heard beneath the storm, but the volume had started to lessen. “At least the doors are holding. It seems hell’s legion doesn’t know the way to the castle since the racket out there isn’t getting any closer.   Let’s go find something to undo those manacles before anything else happens.”

Mickey saw his friend struggle to get to his feet, but Robert didn’t have the strength to get up on his own. “A hand if you please Mickey,” Robert said with a heavy exhalation, “I seem to have lost my newfound youth.”

Only slightly stronger, he grabbed Robert under the arm and they both groaned as Robert got to his feet. “Don’t worry about it, McCall,” Mickey said his voice almost down at conversational level, “I feel as if my ass was whipped twelve ways to Sunday.”

Mickey watched as the older man smiled at the expression and shrugged off the filthy ragged tatters of what was left of his royal purple robe. “I’m not worried, just a bit sorry to see my youth flee a second time in my life.” Robert took a deep breath, stood up straight and said, “Now, my boy, let’s see what we can do for you.”

Mickey slipped into the first article of clothing he came across and they worked for a time securing all the windows and doors in the main part of the castle. They then selected a few pieces from the medieval decorations that had been used around the castle as weapons.

Later, after he had quickly washed and dressed in his own clothes, Mickey sat in one of the downstairs rooms with McCall. The castle was without electricity and they lit a fire. Thick clouds covered the moon and the night was pitch black so nothing could be seen out of the windows. Blessed silence had fallen on the island after the wind had died down, about a half-hour after they had entered the mansion.

While not happy about venturing back out, they both knew that they had to help anyone who might have survived the slaughter. They unbarred the front doors, only to be driven back by a dense, loathsome fog that had settled over the island. They couldn’t help anyone in that murkiness; not only wouldn’t they be able to find any injured, but with no visibility, either one of them might walk off the cliff before realizing it. So they went back into the room and waited.

Trying not to let his fear show through, Mickey told McCall everything that had happened to him, from the strange time with Kerri in the small cabin, through the siren song of the demons, to his being bathed and tied to the rope and pulled above the barrow

When the first of the bright morning light showed and the fog had cleared, they put on coats and went outside. The morning was calm and for the first time since they had arrived on the island there was a tang of winter in the air. 

At first they walked slowly expecting to see scenes of carnage and the horrible remains of what had happened the night before. Instead there was nothing, absolutely nothing to be seen. The grasses of the green lawns were uniformly lush. They called and listened and looked for wounded and found no one at all. When they got to the barrow itself, all they saw was a natural looking, raised mound of earth covered in healthy green grass. The hole in the top of the barrow that Mickey had been pulled through was sealed. There was no sign of the gold covered gates or tunnel that led into the center. When he examined the soil, Mickey saw no trace of the blood and gore that had clung to him the night before.

Mickey gaped at McCall, his mouth was dry and he felt more than a little disoriented.  “What the hell happened to everything?”

Robert looked thoughtful; “It seems that the ancient evil that inhabits this place has taken its own.”

Mickey studied the empty ground. The sound of the ocean crashing on the rocks of the island was the only thing heard there weren’t even any birds around.  No evidence of the horror of the night before remained to mark the island and there was nothing left of the cult at all.  “No one will ever believe us if we told them what we saw.”

Robert smiled sadly, “Then it’s a good thing that we have no one to report it to.”

“When a whole community vanishes, someone might think it was a little strange.” Mickey frowned. “What do you mean?”

Robert raised one hand and pointed around them at the quiet morning. “There’s no evidence that anything happened. There are no bodies, no blood and The Path always made a point of keeping the rest of the world away from the island. It might be quite some time before anyone on the outside even notices that there’s no trace of the community.  All we need do is to get the limo at the castle, catch the low tide and drive away from this filthy island and forget we’ve ever been here.”

“Just leave?” Mickey said incredulously.

“As you said, no one will ever believe what happened here last night. There’s nothing to prove our story and frankly, it would open us up to all sorts of problems.”

Mickey saw that Robert was making sense. He wouldn’t believe anyone who told him a story like the one they lived through. In fact, Mickey knew that he’d think the teller of the tale was nuts. “But what about Control? He sent us here and he’s going to want to know what we found.”

They were walking around the barrow, circling it for a second time. It looked as if no one had set a foot upon the soil there for decades.  “We can tell him quite honestly that our investigation found that Wally Kohler’s death had nothing to do with Company business. That’s all he cared about, and that’s all we say.”

Mickey shook his head, “There’s going to be an inquiry. Over fifty people disappeared on one night.”

Turning to walk back towards the castle, Robert grabbed Mickey’s arm and led him forward. “As I said, it might be a while before anyone discovers that the people of The Path are missing, and you and I will be long gone by then. I expect that this will all become another nasty story that will be added to the long legend of this damned island. It will fade and, in a few years, no one will believe any community ever existed here.”

They continued to walk side by side through the now clean and salty sea scented area. “This was a bad one McCall.” Mickey said, “I’m sorry I acted toward you like I did. I can’t understand it and I don’t like that I lost control like that.”

“Doesn’t bear thinking about, ” Robert looked out toward the sea, “I acted poorly also. Not only towards the people here but towards you.” He pulled his gloves from his pocket and put them on.

“It’s a terrible thing.” Mickey said as he scanned the island, “All those innocent people here just yesterday, and now they’re all gone.”

“I can’t agree that they were innocent,” Robert said, “It’s possible that whatever was working on this island brought out the worst sides of their personalities. But, Mickey, it looks as though every person here, apart from the guests, knew about the human sacrifices and agreed to them. They covered their malevolent intentions by repeating the tenets of true Wiccians, much as the so-called fundamental religionists spout the teachings of Christ and Muhammad, all the while perverting those ideas to cover their selfish wickedness. They gave themselves heart and soul to the devil. They could have objected, but they didn’t. After all, the demons tried to appeal to you, but you managed to fight it.”

“I don’t know about that.” Mickey said, deep in thought, “I did start to agree when they called.”

“But you fought the lure of your baser part during the first days here, and you’re not the type to go along with these kinds of abominations for long. Blood sacrifice and the butchering of men, even if they are filthy rich, doesn’t go with your personality. I can vouch for that.”

“Could that be what brought Beltane down?” Mickey asked, “He had to be a little crazy to start out with. He agreed to follow the commands of the demons for wealth and youth, and then the island made that negative part of his personality even stronger.” Mickey smiled suddenly, “And then he became delusional and power hungry and double crossed his bosses. And that’s not that unusual.”

“Then the bosses retaliated. Happens every day, really,” Robert agreed and then he shuddered visibly. They were almost back at the castle. “We’ll get our things, wipe the place down to erase our ever having been here and get the hell away.”

“What about the three wealthy men? Won’t they be missed? And what do we tell Control? He’s not going to let go of this, especially when the rest of the world finds out that the place is mysteriously deserted.”

“I venture that since Beltane was planning to use one of the guests for his sacrifice, he took care to erase any trace of the men when he invited them here for the celebration. One of the prerequisites of an invitation to Druidean was to keep your destination a secret. In that way, the guests helped Beltane to cover their visit to the island. Their vanishing will be viewed much the same way that Wally’s disappearance was, that an unscrupulous man planned his escape from the world and was successful.

“And Control?” Mickey asked, knowing from McCall’s even tone that he had worked that out too.

“I suppose, if he insists on the truth, then we tell him the full story,” Robert said softly. “More than any other man on earth, Control understands the truth behind the matter here. In fact he lives his life toeing the line that Beltane crossed.” He stood and turned to take one last look at the island. “When making deals with the devil,” he said succinctly, ”there will be the devil to pay if you don’t pay the devil his due. “

Mickey nodded. “I’ll get the car. Let’s get the hell outta here!”

“I’ll get our things and begin to erase any prints we might have left.” Robert said.

Just as he was walking to the garage Mickey thought of something. “Hey McCall!” he called out.

Robert was just entering the castle doors. He turned round to look toward Mickey. “Yes? What is it?” he called back.

Mickey smiled and touched one finger to his temple in a salute, “Happy Halloween!”

The End

 

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