01 Feb The Tale of Robert Elm
The lights of the Seattle skyline suddenly ignite as the city comes alive with the sounds and sights of night. In a run-down bar, a lone man sits beneath the hum of a fluorescent overhead light as he holds his whiskey in shaky hands.
The man is an enigma. He appears at The Spade habitually at 10 PM and leaves just before dawn, ordering the same refreshment each time – a tall glass of Irish whiskey. Never speaking words far from “The usual…” or the occasional grunt or whisper, he is a shadow to everyone. To the passerby, this man is just a nobody. He is merely a bum who went down on his luck and turned to the bottle like many before him. To those who know, however, the man’s name is Robert Elm, and he has a story to tell.
The night was fraught with frigid rain and sleet. The typically lively Spade was deserted, except for Robert. He sat in his usual spot. Back left table, facing the wall, hunched over with his beverage in total silence say for the hum of the light and the drumming of the bartender’s fingers on the metal cash register.
Over the years that Elm had drifted in as the sun dipped below the horizon, the bartender had grown curious of his motives. Though he told his customers the same old “lost his job… wants to unwind” excuse, in his heart, he knew there was something off kilter about the whiskey-loving shadow. Tonight would be different; the bartender bit his lip, took a deep breath, and approached his loyal customer.
The barkeep placed his hand on the table and inquired in the friendliest of tones, “How ya’ doin’?” Robert jolted upright as if he had heard a gunshot. He slowly lifted his head and peered deep into the bartender’s face with his wide gray eyes. He possessed an unsettling and powerful stare that pierced the air in a way the bartender had never seen before.
His mouth slowly slid open as he grumbled, “Fine… and you?” The bartender was stunned. He had expected the old geezer’s usual response of a few quiet mumbles but was greeted by a question that was startlingly normal.
“I’m… I’m just fine…” the bartender said. “So, Mister… I’ve been meanin’ to ask ya…” Elm’s slowly graying eyebrows perked with anticipation. “Why do you come here all the time?”
The drunkard chuckled and asked in return, “Why do you care what an old man like me does with his time?”
“Because,” the bartender said with a look of confusion, “you have come to my bar at the same time of the night every night for the past twelve years and I am just now hearing you speak… I think that’s reason enough for me to ask.” The old man burst into laughter that lasted nearly a full minute.
Finally, his outburst died off and he asked, “You wanted to know… Why I wasn’t talking?”
“Yes!” yelled the bartender. “It’s been a riddle I’ve been trying to figure out for years!”
Robert sat his drink on the table and said, “Well, well, new friend… honestly… I was waiting for you to ask me that question, and now that we have that elephant out of the room, have a seat across from me.” The bartender obliged, took a seat across from his new acquaintance and, with a look of sheer amazement on his face, he asked:
“So, let me get this straight. You never said a word to anyone in this bar for twelve years because you were waiting for someone to come to you?”
“Yep…” the shade replied as the bartender gave a short laugh and continued.
“Well, sir, what have you been waiting for so long to tell someone?”
Robert Elm looked the bartender square in the eye and said, “My story of course.” The bartender gave a quizzical expression as the drinker went on, never breaking his gaze. “The story of why I ended up here, the story of how I narrowly escaped death itself, and since, well… Since I don’t see anyone else here, you, sir, are going to be the first one in a long time to hear my tale. You’re in for a treat!” The old man cracked a crooked smile.
“Well, let’s hear it then!” the bartender said and Robert chuckled again.
“That’s the spirit, kid! Grab a drink and get comfortable, you’re in for a quite a tale!”
And so, Robert Elm began his story.
“It all began back in November 1962. I was living in a small town in rural Iowa. Back then everybody knew everyone else like family; it was a safe place, that’s why my family settled down there back when the area was a barren patch of farmland. Through the entirety of my teenage years, I was chasing a girl named Elizabeth. I can practically see her now. As time went by, our relationship grew. After high school, we bought her uncle’s house on 4th street and slowly learned to live together as a soon to be married pair. This was a struggle, to say the least. Back when I was a younger man I had a fiery temper that seemed to grow as we became closer to one another.
I remember one specific instance when I heard she had wrecked my dad’s Ford. I… I hit her across the face with a trashcan lid… I had never regretted anything more in my life, it wasn’t even her fault. Every morning for the next month I would come downstairs to see the pale, red bruise on her face and immediately get too choked up to speak. It was a wonder she kept me around. One night everything fell apart. I can’t even remember why, but she left me on the side of the road and told me to, ‘Find your own way home, you sack o’ crap!’ I remember my heart sinking as she pulled away, and I began to wander the side of the empty country road.
I’m unsure of how I got so sidetracked, but after about an hour of hysterical rambling I had ended up halfway into one of the cornfields bordering the only road in and out of town. There I was, sobbing profusely, lashing out at the corn stalks with my fists, and wailing ‘Elizabeth!’ and ‘I’m sorry!’ at the top of my lungs with only the birds and the occasional scarecrow bearing witness. I hobbled aimlessly for what felt like hours, screaming and crying over what I had put my beloved fiancée through until I decided to sit down in a barren patch about fifteen feet across to catch my breath and form an apology for my eventual homecoming.
After inspecting the area for any signs of danger, I laid my head down in the soft dirt to rest my eyes. Several hours of blissful tear-free sleep passed before I was pulled awake by rustling in the stalks. My heart skipped a beat and a chill ran down my spine, I bolted upright. Before me, a massive shape garbed in a shimmering black cloak slid out from the rows of crops. It moved towards me slowly, as if it were floating across the ground, though its feet were clearly visible and it appeared to be human. It had pale wrinkled hands that hung at its sides as it drifted closer. It drooped its hooded head and spoke squarely into my face in a dry monotone.
“Good evening, traveler.”
Stunned I got up from the dirt and asked, “Who are you?”
He answered, “Just a man on his way to a meeting.”
I looked at him, bewildered. “Why are you here?” I asked.
He looked up and said, “I enjoy taking the scenic routes, so much more peaceful than the hustle and bustle of the roadsides. Now, what I am wondering is who you are and why are you here.” As I look back I am surprised at how eager I was to reveal so much of myself to a total stranger.
“My name is Robert,” I said sheepishly. “My girlfriend dumped me out here ‘cause we got in a fight and I hit her and she cried and… And…” The tears were welling in my eyes again.
“Say no more, friend,” the man interrupted as he waved his hand. “I offer you a proposition, you may come with me, attend my meeting, my friends and I shall cheer you up, and we will take you back to your home in the morning. How does that sound?”
A smile slowly formed on my face as I thanked the hooded figure. I reached out to shake his hand for his patronage, but he quickly recoiled claiming there was no need to thank him.
Together we made our way through the remainder of the field and into the forest that formed an insulated border between patches of farm land. As we walked, I had more time to examine my new friend’s figure. He was a titan of a man, to say the least. With hands that could easily cover my own twice over. Blending into the trees themselves, he towered over me at what I assume to be well over seven feet.
He moved with surprising agility for someone of his size, darting through the branches and over roots at a speed a tad slower than a jog. I had to walk nearly twice as fast to keep up. His robes still shimmered as they did in the corn field, though the moon was no longer visible. Oddly, no matter how fast the man moved, his hood never failed to conceal his face. Growing bored of silence, I struck up conversation.
“So… What’s your name?” I asked
The man glanced down and told me, “You may call me Lombard; it is one of my many monikers.”
“Okay, Lombard, who are these friends of yours and what is this meeting and… and where are we going?”
“Just a meeting, friend, held here in the woods with some close acquaintances of mine. You needn’t worry about it, Robert. Think of it as more of a party; it will take your mind off of your troubles.”
It was at this moment I realized what I was doing the exact opposite of what society had taught me. I was found lying in field and decided to walk off with some strange hooded man to go and meet his friends in the woods. Heartbreak can drive people to do some crazy things…
It wasn’t long before we saw a light in the distance. As we grew nearer, the lights turned out to be a ring of torches lining a circular clearing containing rows of chairs and tables. An altar draped with red cloth sat in the middle of it all. At each of the tables sat groups of people dressed similarly to Lombard, some of them had their faces exposed and hoods down.
“We have arrived!” said Lombard with glee. “Sit down amongst the others and help yourself to some food and drink, the festivities will begin soon!”
I made my way to one of the less talkative groups and grabbed a free seat. As I recall, it was the only seat that wasn’t taken. Next to me sat an old couple and a younger man with his hood up. When I asked each of them why they were here, I got… a less than ideal response. The couple started cackling as if they had just heard the greatest joke of their lives and the hooded man just grunted something I couldn’t make out. Seeing no entertainment in the people around me, I decided to try the food. There were the occasional bits of bread surrounded by meats of all shapes and sizes.
Having eaten a filling meal in town a few hours before this all began I was not exactly starving, so I decided to give the wine a try, which was in goblets sitting in front of each chair. I took a small sip and my mind took a kick in the pants. My vision became blurred with color and I began to choke on my own tongue. The old woman told me that it stops hurting after the third glass and burst into sickening laughter. After about five minutes, the effects of the drink finally subsided and I silently poured the rest onto the ground… I didn’t think any of them would notice. Suddenly, a bell rang out and the diners stood up from their chairs in unison and approached the center of the clearing. Lombard made his way over as he walked me towards the center.
“How did you enjoy the refreshments? The guests?” he asked.
I held my tongue about my unpleasant experience at the table and said, “Everything was great! I’ve calmed down quite a bit now! What’s next?”
“Excellent, my friend! I’m sure you will patch things up with that girl after tonight and I’m glad to have been of assistance to you, but now we have business to attend to.”
We found ourselves standing in the center of a circle of the hooded guests, all of them with hoods up and hands folded in front of them. Lombard instructed me to sit in the center of the ring. When I objected, he told me this was just a formality in order for the group to accept my presence amongst them for the night. I knelt as I was told and Lombard took his place at the crimson altar.
As I glanced around me, all of the robed people seemed to be emanating a strange droning sound that rose and fell as the minutes passed. I looked up at my mountainous guide who had turned to face the center of the circle, and to my amazement, had drawn back his hood to reveal a sight I would never forget. On Lombard’s long, broad shoulders sat the head of a goat, jet black save for a stripe of white between its pale green eyes and spiraling ivory colored horns that curled backward behind his ears. The thing that stood in front of me lifted his hands into the air and the droning immediately ceased.
Lombard’s head reeled backward as he shouted into the night, “Ladies and gentlemen of the Black Circle! I present to you: The Pale!”
The crowd roared with cheers and jubilation.
“On this night, we shall end the torment! And bring about a new era of peace for our order!”
The younger man I sat next to earlier approached the orator.
“My lordship,” he whispered as he bowed on one knee, “I witnessed him earlier, he has not accepted the purifier. We cannot continue until he has.” He then retreated back to his place and resumed the stance.
“Is that so?” said Lombard, quizzically. “Well then! I am sorry to delay, my children, but the sacrament must wait!”
The circle answered the statement with boos and howls of disapproval. A large member drew a curved blade from his robes and approached me. I attempted to stand but was pulled down to my knees by an unseen force.
“For the love of Sekra! I’ve waited my whole life for this moment!” the man shouted as he flipped the knife in his hand.
“Stop, you fool! You will undo everything!” Lombard roared as he latched on to the man’s arms.
The last memory I have of that night was of the gargantuan, tree-like form of Lombard grappling with the hooded man until they both crashed to the ground in front of me. In the tangle of limbs, the handle of the man’s knife struck me squarely between the eyes and I lost consciousness.
I awoke in a small, sparsely furnished room with white walls and dark brown hardwood floor. Based on what I saw around me, I was able to estimate that the building was built in the late 19th century. I attempted to pull my head from the pillow but was met with a crippling pain in my forehead where the knife handle had struck me at the ceremony in the woods. My legs were sore and felt as though they were filled with cement. It made me shiver that I could not figure out what prevented me from standing at the ceremony. Muffled speech resonated from outside my room as the door opened. A goat-headed Lombard strolled into the room and closed the door behind him.
“Good morning, my guest!” he bellowed. “I assume you enjoyed your nap.”
“Yeah, I did…” I answered, “Right after that friend of yours almost broke my nose!”
“You needn’t worry about him, my friend. His foolish actions have cost him his place in the order,” he said with a reassuring tone.
Lombard sat down on the bed next to me, and I instinctively wrenched my legs backward.
“Calm thyself, friend. I am indeed human and this is just a mask, nothing more.”
“What about everything else!? The mumbo jumbo you guys were talking about, the goat head, the ‘Black Circle’!? I want answers. Now.”
“Ah, you have a right to be frightened. All will be explained to you. Let me start from the beginning…” He readjusted himself on the bed to face me. “In the late 1800’s, two cousins founded a town not far from here. It was a small farming community, very prosperous, a thriving community until the fever hit. Many died, including the mayor’s daughter. In a last ditch effort, the community banded together and stood united against the disease. They burned the village to the ground and moved into the mayor’s farmhouse, the house you are sitting in right now. The plan was a success. With all the medical personnel gathered in one area, it was much easier to treat the sick, and soon the fever was eradicated. Out of habit, the community stayed in this house as a single family to this day, of which I am the patriarch.
“The goat headdress symbolizes the single species of beast that provided us with food and drink during the dark times and for your information, it’s permanently adhered to my head. We dubbed ourselves the Black Circle in name of the black table in the dining hall we would gather around to tell stories of hope to inspire one another. The event you were the center of was known as a Neophyte’s Sacrament; we give the newcomer a small dose of a hallucinogenic and provoke you to reveal your true feelings to us in order to tell if we can trust you. I was strongly opposed to the Sacrament, but I was pressured by the others and had no choice. The words we used were simply to disguise our discussion due to the Circle’s lack of trust. As for the actions of Alabaster… I sincerely apologize.” Lombard pulled up his massive form and spoke directly to me, “Here I am, Valentine Ambrose Lombard the Second, with nothing to hide, at your service.”
Needless to say, I was awestruck at the volume of information that was imparted onto me.
Before I could respond, Lombard asked, “Any questions?”
I shook my head just as a woman wearing simple brown robes came into the room, dropped to one knee, and said flatly, “You are needed in the infirmary, my lord.”
Lombard turned to her and stated, “I will be there as soon as I can, Alice. Did Stephan have a run in with the thresher again?”
“No,” she laughed with a smile, eyes still trained on the floor, “Pier was picking on Silvia again; she snapped and let him have it with her little fists! I have them both down there waiting for you.”
The leader gave a hearty laugh. “That Pier! Almost as mischievous as I was when I was a little boy!” He turned to me, “I will be back to speak with you later, friend, but now I must deal with this matter first. Get some rest.”
Both the leader and the woman walked out of the room and shut the door on their way out, leaving only silence in their wake. My head felt heavy and I decided to take my new friend’s advice and rest my eyes.
I awoke in what looked like early morning to see Lombard sitting at the desk at the edge of my room.
“Morning, friend!” he said joyfully. “Come! Sit! Have something to eat!” He stood up from the chair to reveal a platter of sausage and bread with a glass of juice next to it. I was able to pull myself up from the bed. My legs were sore and my knees locked up but I hobbled my way to the desk and sat down. I began to sample the meal.
“Gather your strength… you will need it for later. I have gotten it approved with The Circle… I shall give you a tour of the house and the grounds around three today. So, try and get those legs working by then.”
Lombard gave a quick wave of his hand as he left the room like wind blowing through the woods. I had finished my odd-tasting dish after a few minutes. I sat for the remainder of the time stretching out my tired legs while looking out of the window. The full day of bed rest and the struggle against whatever held me to the ground had left them aching and weakened. An expanse of farmland spread out in front of me, ending at a dense forest, the single dirt road lined with torches leading up to the house. I assumed that somewhere in the woods there was the picnic table and the altar, and beyond that, the cornfield where I had met my guide and somewhere beyond that was Elizabeth. Home. I sighed.
I jumped with surprise as Lombard broke the silence in the room. Time had passed faster than I had expected.
“Come… Follow me, friend.”
I made uneasy strides out into a foyer with a painting of another goat-headed man, a massive chandelier lighting the room below and the rows of rooms lining the walls.
“Here is the second floor, used for boarding for our members; the room you are staying in is the guest room. It is not used very often. It overlooks the entrance room, which we will visit later.”
“Is that you in the painting?” I asked.
“Ha! No, that is the founder of The Circle, my great grandfather, Ambrose Garrett Lombard. What a great man! I wish I could have known him in person.”
“So, he started the whole goat head thing?” I laughed rhetorically.
We made our way downstairs, wandering through the entrance room and the living room and the sitting room. Listening to Lombard’s tales of him reading stories to the children by the fireside in the winter and of the old man who was a master of the old grand piano sitting in the living room. I asked him about the double doors at the end of the entrance room only to receive a response that I should not go in there as I do not have high enough clearance to enter yet. We walked outside and we explored the grounds.
From the outside the house was massive. It was clearly some kind of old farmhouse. We made a left turn around the house to find three buildings off in the distance. I asked Lombard what they were for. He said one of them was the chapel, now dilapidated and unused, a small building used for a school, and a smaller concrete building used for storage. I shrugged plainly and we moved on.
I took that moment to ask, “Well, sir, what exactly is your job here?”
Lombard stopped mid-walk to contemplate my question. “I am the headmaster of the order, friend. I am many things… Judge, principal, father, doctor. Lots of things, friend.”
We walked back up to my room and Lombard instructed me that now that I know where I am I can move about the property at will, but only during the day, at night I was confined to my room. Seeing as the sun was descending below the horizon, I went off to bed.
I spent the next few days wandering the grounds while getting my bearings with the area and get a sense of location. After speaking with some of the other followers of Lombard, I noticed a constant theme. They never broke eye contact and they spoke in a very calm manner. Regardless of age, they would find a clever way to avoid any of my questions, specifically ones involving Lombard, the concrete building, or what happens in the grand hall. Seeing that I would never find anything out from the members, I decided to go answer hunting myself. Making my way out to the structure, which was about a football field’s length from the house I decided to carefully inspect it. The building had no windows and a single iron door secured with a large padlock. I was going to investigate it further, but before I could find a way to open the lock, the sun began to set and I reluctantly returned to the house.
A couple of weeks of fruitless investigation passed until I was finally returned to my full healthy state. Feeling my strength returning, I began my morning with a quick workout. Lombard entered mid push-up.
“So… I see you are back on your feet again…” he said dryly.
“Yep, feelin’ pretty good,” I returned.
Lombard paced back and forth, “I imagine you will want to go home soon…” he sighed.
I stood up and looked at the tree-like figure, “Yeah, I suppose… I miss Elizabeth quite a bit, and I want to make amends.”
“Good, good…” Lombard paused. “Robert, if you could stay just one more week… We feel like you have become a member of the family around here and… We wish to perform a departure ritual this Sunday… Just to say goodbye… You have been one of the kindest outsiders we have encountered in a long time.”
I walked up to the goat-headed giant, looked him in the eye like he had done to me so many times before, and smiled. “I would be honored, friend.”
That night, just before sundown, Lombard drifted once more into my room. He spoke in a much more serious tone than before, and his posture created an imposing aura about him. “Robert, we are having a ritual in preparation for your departure. I require that you. Do. Not. Disrupt it. Please stay in this room until my return. It is just a kind of rehearsal; I don’t want to ruin any surprises.” I quickly nodded in agreement, trying to ignore the sudden change in the headmaster’s attitude as he sped out of the room.
I had not been truly honest with my host during my stay in the house. For every act of hospitality, he offered there was an event or element that would cause a pang of distrust in my mind. One moment, Lombard would provide me with food and I would see him teaching the children like a loving relative, but the next I would notice the concrete shack or remember what had happened in the woods weeks ago. The loving kindness of the members juxtaposed with their unnervingly smooth speech and piercing stares. Every impulse in my mind told me to run, but I knew I would never make it far before I was captured – or worse. This mysterious decree had brought my curiosity to its breaking point, and that night I made my decision. As soon as the house fell silent I removed my heavy work boots, slid the door open, and stepped into the dark abyss.
I had been climbing trees in my neighborhood park since childhood, and the challenge of scaling the banquet hall’s walls came easily to me. After making my way down the stairs, through the foyer and out of the door without so much as a sound, I was impressed with my sneaking abilities. I ran around to the side of the hall and began my ascension. The climb was easy enough; several chunks were missing from the old bricks, creating excellent handholds. It wasn’t long before I found myself on the roof. From the inside, I could hear the same droning sound that I had heard my night in the woods. I desperately searched for a way inside when I came upon a small hatch that led to a ladder that dropped off in a kind of storage attic. Hunkering in next to some old boxes I was able to hear and see the events unfolding below me with startling clarity. A crooked grin grew across my face as I anticipated the truth.
The droning of the hooded worshippers hushed, and the mammoth Lombard took the stage next to an eerily familiar altar. He raised his hands like the night we first met as he spoke with gusto.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the Black Circle! I gather you once again to bring praise to Sekra! And to celebrate the presence of The Pale, whose life shall meet its beautiful end on the eve of this coming Sunday!” The crowd roared with approval. “My friends, I sincerely apologize for the…” Lombard growled under his breath, “Interruption… a few weeks ago.”
The audience erupted into a shower of boos and shouting. “Now, now, my children! I have planned a… rehearsal of sorts, to show you all how we shall deal with the wretched Pale and drive this scourge from our beautiful order. I present to you, the man who is to blame for the delay, Brother Alabaster!” Each member howled with joy as they pulled a blindfolded man, naked save for a loincloth, with numerous strange tattoos adorning his chiseled torso, into the room and onto the altar. I felt my dinner rise in my throat.
Three men in red cloaks fastened the man’s arms and legs to the altar as Lombard reached into a chest behind him. Alabaster was sobbing with fear and his pleads for help became incoherent screams as his limbs were restrained until one of the men in red wrapped a piece of cloth over his mouth to silence him. Lombard spun around at lightning speed and raised a shimmering dagger above his head.
“Here and now! We give an offering to you, Almighty Sekra! An offering of flesh and blood!” Alabaster was writhing now, the altar glistening with sweat, and blood welling at the corners of his mouth as he struggled to cry out. The crowd lurched forward with anticipation, licking their lips with bloodlust in their eyes.
“Now! For the glory of the Mother, he gives his life.” Lombard pulled away the cloth and Alabaster let out a scream so loud I could have heard it from my room.
“Help m-!” The gag was pulled back and he was struck across the face. They pulled the cloth back again and he cried, “For the glory of the Mother I give my life!”
Without hesitation, Lombard drove the blade into the man’s abdomen as he resumed screaming with pain and fear. The headmaster made a long cut up the stomach. I could hear bones cracking and flesh ripping as the man moaned in agony. Liquid scarlet spattered the headmaster’s hands as it spouted from the gaping wound. Lombard tossed the bloodied knife aside. He then plunged his hands into Alabaster’s twitching body and wrenched his arms upward several times until what appeared to be a liver was ripped away. I nearly vomited. Lombard held the dripping organ above his head and shouted, “For the glory of Sekra!” He plunged the hunk of flesh into his mouth like a wild beast. The crowd cheered with jubilation at the unholy sight. The corpse was unbound and dragged off into a side room. I was frozen, unblinking, as my past feelings for my seemingly kind friend shattered. Before I could process what was going on I heard Lombard address the members. “No one is to speak of this to our guest. And regarding the Pale, I’m going to see how our friend is doing,” he said with a chuckle as the cloaked men and women overflowed with laughter.
I was back on the roof before Lombard could leave the stage.
With my heart thundering, I bolted back to the roof as fast as lightning and hurled myself from the roof. Using my prior climbing skills I tucked my legs in and rolled across the grass. I only sustained few minor bruises. I ran around the side of the house, up the stairs, and back into my room just as I heard the great hall open. I heard Lombard’s thundering footsteps as he climbed the stair and approached the door. The door opened and the giant’s eyes met mine.
“Good to see your evening was a relaxing one, friend.”
I shrugged and said, “I’ve had better. I had a strange nightmare. Really messed with my head… How did your ritual go?” playing dumb with him as best I could.
Lombard nodded, “All was well. The congregation is eagerly awaiting this Sunday’s celebration. Enjoy your rest, friend.” I could still see little bits of hastily wiped away viscera clinging to his mask.
Lombard shut the door as I heard the rest of the worshipers coming into the entrance hall. I sat and pondered my situation. I was trapped in this God-forsaken place for one more week until they had decided to kill me… I had one week to discover what was really going on here and seven short days to plan my escape.
The next morning I woke up early and ran off to the library, thinking that would be a good place to learn some information. The place had a wealth of books, everything from “War and Peace” to “Pat the Bunny”. I wandered the endless shelves until I reached the back corner of the room. All that sat on the last dusty shelf was an old book with a leather cover. Nothing about it caught my eye save for the title: “The Book of Sekra”. Remembering the mysterious name from the horror of last night, I snatched up the scripture and scurried out of the library unnoticed.
I sat at the desk in my room and flung open the ancient volume. Before me sprawled mounds of text in old English. Though it was in English it was still difficult to understand as I trudged through chapters of sacrifice and lore. I found not much beyond useless gibberish about ceremonies (a few of which I recognized) the method in which one is to fasten a goat’s head to their own and a full page print of a slender woman sitting on a throne with what looked like blood spattered around her mouth. Below, it read “Sekra her Holiness”. I returned the book to the library and decided to scour the grounds.
Seeing as there was no way I could budge the padlock on the concrete shack, I instead made my way to the chapel. The door slid open easily enough, and inside was what appeared to be a graveyard of old boxes and furniture. After searching for a few hours I found nothing of interest amongst the stacks of rotting wood. The school house next door yielded similar results. A few desks sat in simple rows with a teacher’s desk with a plaque bearing the name “Master Lombard” and a chalkboard at the front of the room. Nothing else. Feeling defeated I emerged from the building when something caught my eye. In the grass at the door of the concrete building sat a shining padlock. My heart leaped into my throat and I sprinted toward the shack. I reached for the iron handle of the door when it suddenly sprang open. A short stubby man emerged quickly, shutting the door, he noticed me and pushed his back against the door and spoke.
“Oh, no no no no no, boy, don’t go in there. This place is not for the outsiders! Turn back around, boy! Go back to your room, lest I call for the headmaster!”
I sighed and grudgingly returned to the house. Though I was distraught over this defeat, I returned to my bed and met sleep with open arms.
During the following days, I felt my sanity slipping away as I slowly came to grips with my fate. I stayed in bed most of the days, refusing to eat and trying to relive as many happy memories as I could before Sunday’s inevitable bloodletting. Several times during my stay I had seen people running for the woods, but they were almost immediately apprehended by groups of men clad in red cloaks. I feared the same would happen to me, and decided against making a run for it. Eventually pulling myself up on Saturday night, I thought about my situation once more. Clasping my hands together, I contemplated how I could possibly survive. By the time I shut my eyes, I had summoned my last shreds of bravery and constructed a plan with a mental image of the house so I would know my best route out of this place. Shutting my plans away in my head and taking a deep breath, I surrendered to my subconscious.
I rose late on Sunday afternoon. Unfitting for one’s final day on earth, but the inevitability of death weighed on me and kept me in bed. Lombard entered the room around six o’clock.
“Are you ready to leave us, friend? We are making preparations for the ceremony now. When you are ready please approach the painting at the other side of the second floor. Slide the painting to the right and it should reveal a staircase. The staircase leads to my chambers. I need to perform the finishing touches for the farewell.” I quietly nodded as the door closed. For a few moments, I sat and considered my plans. Sitting, sweating, and breathing heavily, I made my decision. I snatched one of the pencils from the desk drawer and slid it into my right boot.
Following the giant’s orders, I climbed the hidden staircase and entered a large circular room. The walls were lined with bookcases with a massive desk resting in the center. On the desk sat piles of papers and a typewriter. Moonlight flooded in from a window above it all. Lombard greeted me with a hearty laugh. He told me to remove all of my clothing except for my pants. I obliged and slowly inched toward him as I began unlacing my work boots. My left sock and boot sat on the floor next to me and I began to work on my right. Glancing behind me, I saw Lombard looming in anticipation. I smirked and slowly slid the pencil from my boot. Without hesitation, I drove the pencil with all of my might into the titan’s stomach. Lombard buckled from the strike and dropped to his knees, I heard blood gurgling in his throat. I snatched the typewriter from the desk, slid it across the desk as hard as I could and smashed it across Lombard’s face. The headmaster collapsed to the ground in a puddle of his own blood. Turning, I was about to make my way out of the room when I heard quiet laughter emanating from behind me. I spun around to see a bloodied Lombard rising from the carpet. His mask was now distorted and blood soaked.
“You, friend… Are smarter than the average fool we drag off to this place!” he croaked.
I gritted my teeth, “I’m leaving this place! I know what happened a week ago! Now tell me what really goes on here!”
Lombard chuckled, “As you wish. What I told you about our history that morning was, in fact, true, though there were a few things I left out to keep you under my thumb. Those two cousins who founded the town are closer to us than you think. One of them was my great grandfather and the other was yours. Medicine was no longer working to drive away the blight and my ancestor, great visionary that he was, decided to turn to… Other means of treatment. He found an old book amongst what he had found sightseeing in the old country; you seem to be familiar with it, which outlined how to give praise to an ancient goddess, Sekra. In exchange for a human life, Sekra would save another. We soon began using her divine will to save the community. However, your great grandfather, blinded to reality by his morals, left the village. Just before the birth of his child, he made a vow to Dialus, the brother and polar opposite of the glorious Sekra, god of morality and justice, that his bloodline would be forever devoted to the eradication of our order. This whole ordeal has been our effort to destroy the one human that can destroy us and end the bloodline once and for all!”
I shook my head at all his story and asked, “So… So, all of this was planned? How much of this is a plan!? How long have you people been trying to do me in!?”
“I shall get to that in a moment, but here is a secret you will truly enjoy… Normally, one of your blood could cause a member of our order with an aura as dark as mine to drop dead at a single touch. I took this into account when dealing with you. I have been nullifying your power with the one thing that will weaken it: human flesh and blood.” I went white at Lombard’s statement. He began to laugh even harder “That’s right, friend! I have personally slipped a bit of human into each of your meals since you got here! You never even knew! Oh, your ancestors would be proud of you!”
Little did he know I hadn’t eaten in days.
I flung my hand out and grasped Lombard’s wrist. Wrenching down I felt a texture similar to squeezing down on raw meat. The giant roared as droplets of liquefied flesh dripped onto the floor. I apparently still had some power. He roared with pain and anger. I continued to twist and yank with my vice-like grip. I felt the crunching and oozing of now-gelatinous bone pulling away from the muscle. Suddenly I jerked with all of my might and gripped onto Lombard’s severed hand as the rest of him fell to the ground in a writhing heap.
Lombard clutched his bloody stub. “I see you wizened up to my trickery, clever man that you are. No matter! You will not leave this place alive! I will see to that!”
I shouted to him, “You will never kill me you monster! As soon as I escape I’m taking Elizabeth and getting as far from town as we can. You will never be able to find us.”
Lombard began his hoarse laughter again. “You will never be safe, friend… Even when you think you are the most protected, we will be there. Watching you. We. Will. Never. Forget. Not even with that girl of yours are you safe! Wait till you hear that tale! Surely you noticed how your emotions distorted when you were close to here! You should know we took the liberty of turning her into a tool of sorts. We altered her mind to force you into awakening the ancient blood in your veins in order to drive you apart and into the arms of the circle! She was one of the most instrumental tools in our plot! She was such a naive girl… What a fool… Pretty too…”
I lost it.
I flung myself at my captor once again and, pressing my boot into his chest, I wrapped my hands around his horns and began to pull. Lombard screamed with pain as I pulled at the mask. I felt each stitch pop as I wrenched upward. The titan began to flail his hand and stab at my body, but every contact with my skin resulted in a feeling akin to the man punching a slab of molten metal. With one last ferocious pull, I felt the final stitch tear and I flung the headdress against the wall in a splatter of blood and teeth.
Lombard’s body flailed and I ran to the door. His disfigured face writhed as he cried into the air, “I swear it, Robert Elm! You will never escape the hand of the Black Circle! You will die by my hand!”
I smirked at my handiwork. “We will see, friend!” I promptly sprinted down the staircase and out of the silent house.
My legs ached from the fight with the giant but I shrugged off the pain and ran across the grass as fast as I could. As I passed by the great hall I could hear shrieks of terror and sorrow. I chuckled at the reaction I had caused.
“I’ll never see that… thing again,” I muttered. I hurried myself to the concrete shack at the edge of the property. I figured now was a good enough time as any to see if I can get in that mysterious building. Halfway through the field, I turned to see hooded men with torches beginning their search for me, I quickened my pace. I was able to reach the unlocked door while the search party went off to investigate the barn and tool shed. Taking advantage of my moment of safety I slowly slid the door open and saw a rather anticlimactic sight. The room was dimly lit by a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. Several barrels stood around the corners and walls. A workbench was fastened to the wall next to another large metal door at the end of the room.
Just as I got to investigating the room I heard footsteps from behind the second door, my heart skipped a beat and I had no choice but to conceal myself in one of the barrels. I slid back the lid and was met with a horrendous stench that caused me to gag uncontrollably. Reluctantly, I climbed into what felt like runny swamp sludge and held my breath. As soon as I did the old man I saw earlier pushed the door open and hobbled into the room holding what looked like a corpse slung over his shoulder. He approached the work bench and flung the body onto the table. To my horror, he began meticulously working at the body with an assortment of knives, cutting and slicing with surgical precision. The entrance to the room opened again and a group of hooded searchers entered and asked the old man if they had seen a man matching my description anywhere. He insisted that he had not and, after scanning the room for a few seconds, the men left as quickly as they came. I waited stiffly in the barrel, holding my breath as best I could, taking in brief sips of air and staying as quiet as possible as not to reveal my location. Suddenly, I heard the old man mutter to himself.
“Oh yes, you will cook up nicely won’t you!” He let out a quiet chuckle. I gagged again, half with sickness and half with shock. I had caught the man’s attention. Deciding it was time for me to make a move, I silently lifted the lid of the barrel and slid my soaked form onto the dark floor. Fear gripping tight, lid in hand, I raced toward the stunned butcher and struck him on the head with the hunk of wood. He dropped to the floor with a dull thud. I snatched the blade from his hand and made a dash for the door but not before looking at myself under the dim light. My stomach turned as I saw an entire body soaked in a heavy coating of blood and chunks of meat. It drizzled and pooled on the floor. It sickened me. Holding back the urge to vomit I nudged the door open, revealing a dark tunnel, far more organic than anything I had seen in quite a while. All was silent except for the drips of blood from my skin and clothes. I quickened my pace as I heard shouting from far behind me. I held my breath, ignored the looming claustrophobia and soldiered on through the darkness.
The near endless tunnel finally opened into a small candlelit room. It was only about twelve feet across with an arching ceiling. I had little time to examine my surroundings, for when I entered the room I saw a hooded worshiper with his back facing me, holding what appeared to be an old hunting rifle. Though at first, my heart raced as I anticipated my own death, I was stunned to realize that he was unaware of my presence. Seizing the moment I lashed out at the crown of his head with my stolen weapon. The man let out a quick yelp, fell to the ground, and lay motionless as blood pooled around his hood. I let the knife rest in his skull and snatched up the firearm.
“Here’s something I can use,” I mumbled to myself as I slung it over my shoulder. On the floor, I noticed a small metal hatch. Seeing nowhere else to go and remembering the search party on my tail I opened it, descending the ladder it revealed. The ladder met the ground in an alcove on the shore of a small pond. Near the ladder, I found plastic tubs filled with things like shoes, backpacks, dog collars, among other things. Remembering the room with the old man and the cult’s cannibalistic tendencies the sight of all these tattered belongings was bittersweet. Grabbing one of the largest packs I saw a pile of metallic objects out of the corner of my eye. Bikes! Taking a deep sigh I picked up the newest looking one and rode off through the woods as fast as the wheels would spin into the night.
After trudging onward through the woods for most of the night and subsisting off of some trail mix I found in the bag I took, I finally arrived in town. Needless to say, my friends and neighbors were amazed by my return; However, I knew I could not stay and chat. Walking up to my house, Elizabeth rushed out to meet me. I didn’t even look at her. I continued inside, gathered my belongings and climbed into my car with Elizabeth chasing me the whole way asking me what was wrong and where I had been. I ignored her. She looked at me with a face of sorrow that I knew was just a mask and when our eyes met I could tell she knew the answers to her questions. I backed out of the drive and made my way to the highway; I never saw that town or Elizabeth again.
Many years passed. I traveled town to town, but every time they found me. They always found me. For years I have been running from them but I doubt I will ever escape their grasp. I have found safe haven in this place for twelve years but I fear that they are now drawing near once again. I’m too old to run anymore my friend… Just too old now…
The bartender stared in astonishment, “So, that is why you have been so solitary?”
“Yes. I have fooled myself into thinking that the more I kept to myself, the safer I would be.”
The bartender stuttered, “And… Your drinking… The sacrifice… The liver thing… Is that why?”
The storyteller let out a hearty laugh, “Ha! Yes! When they do find me and bite into my flesh, I want them to choke on it!”
The barkeep laughed grimly and the old man noticed that the moon was low. He stood and dusted off his pants.
“I’d best be leaving now… The sun will be here soon… It was a relief to finally share this story with someone.”
The bartender smiled. “It was a joy hearing it. Have a good rest of the night, Mr. Elm.” Robert nodded and started for the door. He took the subway home like he had every night coming home from the bar, shaking his hands to keep the cold away. After a short ride, he made his way into his apartment building and climbed the stairs. He took a brief sigh and slowly opened his door. After hanging up his coat and scarf on the coat hanger and taking a seat in an armchair near the door he looked off into the darkness and something caught his eye. It was a gargantuan figure with pale green eyes, watching him from the shadow of the apartment. Slowly the shape plodded forward to reveal a grotesque face and a wicked, mangled grin. Robert Elm sat motionless as he looked up at the being. The things spoke to him in a labored, devilish groan…
“Good evening, friend.”