The candlelight flickered unevenly in the darkness, pushed and pulled by the warm night breeze that wafted fitfully through the open windows. The rough wooden walls of the cabin's interior were dotted with shifting shadows that alternately held their breath, then suddenly began to dance, a procession of broken silhouettes.
The twenty-odd members of the congregation waited in rapt silence, all eyes on the tall dark man at the front of the room. Their glassy stares belied the intensity etched in their faces; their bodies were rigid, but trembling in expectation. An air of familiar suspense charged the silence as they waited for Eugene Latham to make his choice.
For several long moments Latham scanned his flock, studying each one in turn, fixing his probing, calculating eyes on man and woman, adult and child alike. His dark eyes seemed to absorb the flickering light of the candles scattered around the room, drawing it deep inside, stoking the fire already burning within. Each person pinned by his stare flinched, not so much from fear as from hope, and held hisor her breath until at last Latham's gaze moved on.
At last Latham focused on a young woman who sat in the deeper shadows at the back of the room. Her parents, next to her, were as mesmerized as the rest of the group, but even in the uncertain light, Eleanor Wilson's handsome face betrayed feelings very different from those of her fellow congregants. There was no hopeful expectation in her countenance, only an unease bordering on fear.
With his eyes locked on the girl, Latham twitched the fingers of one dangling hand. In response, two large black candles on either side of him flared suddenly and brightly in their stands, their flames burning hotter, reaching higher, and for a moment every face in the room was illuminated by the shocking orange glow. Then, just as suddenly, the flames collapsed, reduced to sputtering wisps of bluish fire. The lesser candles did the same, and the cabin was quickly plunged into an eerie near-darkness. The congregation exhaled a collective sigh of disappointment mingled with relief: the choice had been made. Following their leader's gaze, they turned as one to see whom he had chosen, glancing at the young girl's nervous face for a brief moment before once again turning their stares to the front of the room.
Eugene Latham surveyed the darkened faces before him, accepting their silent approval, slowly raising his arms and extending his hands. He bestowed a gracious smile on thegathering, then, in a soft low voice that pierced the hypnotic silence, whispered, "The ritual is yours."
Outside the old one-room cabin, twenty-one-year-old Walter Sikes crouched below an open window, confused and angry. It was hard to accept what he had just seen and heard. When he had surreptitiously followed the Wilsons out of Fisher's Junction and up into the mountains, only an hour ago, he had been totally unprepared for what he was to find. He only knew that something strange was going on up here in the woods, something that was causing his fiancée to act increasingly troubled of late. After witnessing Latham's performance, Walter understood why Ellie was disturbed, and he knew in his heart that she wasn't here of her own volition.
The last few minutes had been the most puzzling. It was obvious to Walter that Latham had been building up to something, but he had no idea what it could be. He was hard pressed to think of anything that could be more shocking than the ceremony he had already witnessed. But when the candles had dimmed and the "ritual" began, he soon realized that the worst was yet to come.
Under Latham's approving eye, the congregation began to fragment into smaller groups of twos and threes. Before long most of them had shed their robes and the ritual had begun in earnest. But though the others yielded, Eleanor Wilson sat quietly in her chair, visiblyshaking, stubbornly resisting her parents' coaxing to join in.
Latham left his position at the front of the room and waded into the congregation, his eyes fixed unswervingly on the frightened young woman. At each step, Eleanor's eyes grew wider, her skin paler. Walter did not see his fiancée rise to her feet at Latham's unspoken command, so distracted was he by the shocking scene unfolding before him. By the time he looked at Eleanor's chair again, it was empty.
Panicked, his caution forgotten, Walter stood up and stared boldly through the window, searching anxiously for Eleanor. A few precious seconds later he spotted Latham half-leading, half-dragging her through the lurid darkness toward the two large candles at the front of the room. A large curtain hung there, an ancient-looking tapestry as black as a starless night, edged in gilt and covered with intricate glittering designs. Before Walter could vault through the open window, they had disappeared behind it.
Inside the cabin, Walter's senses were bombarded by the sickening sweet smell of incense mingled with burning candles. All around him naked bodies were writhing and coupling, looking obscene and hellish in the quavering candlelight. He faltered momentarily, then fought back the nausea that rose in his throat, and bounded across the floor, carelessly making his way among the membersof the congregation, who were too frenzied to notice the intrusion.
By the time he reached the front of the room, his pulse was racing, and he could feel his blood pounding, throbbing simultaneously in his temples, his arms, and his thighs, propelling him toward the object of his dread. When he ripped aside the heavy black curtain a second later, his heart seized, and the blood that had been coursing through his veins jerked to a stop, as if every drop in his body had suddenly frozen.
He had been expecting the worst, but even that hadn't prepared him for the surge of emotions he felt when his fears were confirmed. Eleanor was lying spread-eagled on an old four-poster bed, her unconscious features etched with pain and revulsion. Latham was climbing onto the bed, mumbling the words of his private ritual. He was shockingly naked beneath a long black cape marked with the same mysterious design as the tapestry.
Impulsively Walter grabbed one of the heavy brass lamp stands and charged. Latham spun around, eyes blazing with a preternatural fury that stopped the younger man in his tracks. For a frozen instant the two men faced each other, Walter brandishing the lamp stand overhead, Latham staring, his eyes boring deep into Walter's mind, assessing, intimidating ... Then Latham smiled, smugly. For a fleeting moment the lamp stand wavered in mid-air as the young man faltered.When Latham turned back to the prone figure on the bed, Walter's paralysis shattered under the force of his anger, and he swung the lamp stand as hard as he could. The heavy brass base crashed into the side of Eugene Latham's head, and his body thudded to the floor.
For a moment Walter just stood over the body, gripping the lamp stand in a white-knuckled hand, shocked and satisfied by what he had done. Then he let the weapon crash to the floor, hastily draped Eleanor over his shoulder, and fled out a back door and into the night.
He careened awkwardly down the hill with his heavy load, struggling to maintain his speed and balance, dodging right and left as one tree after another loomed up in his path. He expected at any moment to hear the sounds of running feet or angry voices behind him, but didn't dare take the time to look back. All the way down the hill the only noises he heard were the heavy thud-thud of his own boots on hard ground and the noisy exhalation of each ragged breath.
Several long minutes later Walter stumbled out of the woods onto the deserted back road where he'd left his car. He hurriedly slid Eleanor's limp body onto the front seat, scanned the trees behind him for any signs of pursuit, then jumped behind the wheel and headed down the mountain at breakneck speed.
He didn't even slow down when he got backto town, though he was worried sick about Ellie. He still didn't know if she was unconscious, or in a trance, or merely sleeping, but as long as her breathing was regular, he didn't dare take the time to find out. After what he'd just done, neither of them would be safe in Fisher's Junction. So he just kept on driving.
An hour later they reached the northern edge of the Ozark Mountains. The road twisted and turned through one hill after another, but the inclines weren't as steep as they had been, and the inky shadows along the roadside were no longer as impenetrable or forbidding as before. Since there was still no sign of pursuit, Walter decided that Latham was still unconscious--or dead.
A few miles back Eleanor had begun to stir from time to time, and Walter felt a much-needed relief that she was merely sleeping now. That, and the feeling of distance, allowed him finally to begin to relax. Before long he inclined his head languidly toward the open window, welcoming the incessant rush of the cool night air, something so simple and familiar that it was innately reassuring. The grim lines in his face softened as he gave in to the feeling, and for a moment he could almost imagine there were distant voices in the wind telling him none of it had ever happened, that all would be well. As he approached the next hill, he was almost smiling as he let up on the gas pedal, steered the car into yet another sharp curve--
and then jammed his foot down hard on thehard on the brake and held it there long after the car had skidded to a screeching stop. In an instant his fledgling smile vanished.
The road ahead was completely blocked by tons of earth and rock. Walter had seen landslides before--they were common enough in these mountains--but never had he seen anything like this.
This landslide was alive.
The tired young man blinked hard, convinced that his mind was playing tricks on him, giving back a measure of revenge for the strain of the last few hours. But when he opened his eyes, nothing had changed. The car's headlights revealed a solid, animated mass at least twenty feet high, stretching from one side of the road to the other. Long dark muddy arms protruded from the wall in a hundred places, clawing viciously at the air, as if dozens of people had been buried alive and were trying desperately to dig their way out. Only these arms weren't flesh and blood --they were earth and stone.
Walter's eyes grew wide in shock, and as his beleaguered mind pulled back, the nightmare worsened. The dark surface of the wall began to bulge and bubble and crack all around the flailing arms. Walter squeezed his eyes shut and held them closed for as long as he could, willing the hallucination to disappear. But when he looked once more, the wall stared back at him: it was teeming with flat dark faces that looked as if they had been carved inthe dirt and then magically given life. Wide unblinking eyes of darkest ebony glared fiercely at the car, and mouths like slits opened and closed, screeching and snarling, their sounds incomprehensible, but their intentions clear. Walter turned to Eleanor, desperately needing someone to confirm or deny what was happening, but she was still sound asleep. He turned back to the windshield--
Just as Eugene Latham materialized in front of the headlights.
Walter reacted instantly. He threw the car into reverse and stomped on the accelerator. Immediately the unearthly noise outside the car doubled, and when he looked behind him a split-second later, there was the nightmare's twin: another writhing mass of earth and rock stretched across both lanes of the road behind the car.
They were trapped.
Gripped by a growing panic, Walter turned his attention back to Latham. The black-caped figure was about fifty feet away, calmly walking into the glare of the headlights, motioning for Walter to step out of the car.
Walter glanced over at Eleanor. She was stirring fitfully, her face troubled, as if the spectre of Latham and his grisly creations had penetrated her unconscious defenses, insinuating themselves into her slumber. An anguished look came over Walter's face as he realized that he had to choose between leaving her alone in the car and letting Lathamcome any closer. When he looked out at Latham again, all he could think about was what almost happened back in the cabin, and he knew he couldn't let him get anywhere near Ellie again. So he got out of the car.
For a long minute the two men stared at each other, saying nothing.
Latham slowed to a stop as Walter emerged. For a long minute the two men stared at each other, saying nothing.
Walter swallowed hard, then did the same.
Latham moved forward again.
Walter glanced back uncertainly at Ellie, then walked slowly to the front of the car. He hesitated briefly, then stepped into the headlights' beams.
With an unnerving suddenness, everything went still. The maddening, screeching cacophony that had filled the air only a split second before abruptly vanished, cut off in mid-note as the rock walls froze. The enemies faced each other across an eerily silent stretch of road, Walter a dark backlit form, his lanky body taut with fearful anger, Latham a commanding, imposing presence in the bright light, his face a garish white mask streaked on one side with dark, encrusted blood.
The black-clad figure moved a few feet closer and called out, in a voice that seemed to frost the warm night air, "I believe you have something that belongs to me."
Walter's hands clenched into tight, angry fists. He held his ground and answered withan uneasy courage, "I don't know where you came from or what you are, Latham, but I'm warning you to leave us alone."
Latham laughed, then came closer. "Your devotion to the woman is touching," he said sarcastically, "but foolhardy. For, you see, I have chosen her." He took another step toward Walter, then added, "You were foolish to steal her like that, very foolish."
Walter walked forward. His reply was defiant: "I guess you'll just have to choose someone else."
"No," Latham stated flatly, "somehow I don't think so." He smiled knowingly, looking past Walter to the car.
The young man glanced over his shoulder. Eleanor stood by the open car door, her face troubled and confused. Her eyes reflected an entirely different emotion, something too foreign for Walter to understand. He called her name softly, then started to go to her, but Eleanor held up her hand, signaling for him to stop. Taken aback by the gesture, Walter stopped, and then began to wonder if he'd made a mistake. He'd never even considered that she might have been with Latham of her own choice.
Encouraged by the exchange he had just witnessed, Latham's smile deepened. Keeping Eleanor's eyes locked in his, he closed the distance between them a little more, then slowly extended his hand to her. She responded by taking a tentative step forward."Come back, Eleanor," Latham purred in a soft, controlled voice. "We belong together, you and I. You know that, don't you?"
"Eleanor, no!" Walter pleaded.
She ignored him. Her eyes remained focused on Latham and she nodded slowly, almost imperceptibly. Like a sleepwalker, she edged her way along the side of the car until she was only a few yards away from Walter.
Again he whispered her name, but to no avail. Giving no sign that she even knew he was there, Eleanor Wilson stood by the front of the car, her body tensed, staring past Walter at the dark figure beyond. The muscles around her mouth twitched subtly, and her brow alternately furrowed and relaxed, as if she were struggling with something elusive, something subliminal that danced and teased at the edges of her awareness.
Latham stepped closer, pressing his advantage. He spoke again, his voice deeper, even more alluring. "I have lived a very long time--longer than you might think, Eleanor--and wherever I have been, I was searching ... searching for someone like you. Someone worthy of standing beside me. If you come back with me now, my search is over."
Latham paused, but Eleanor did not respond.
"There have been others along the way, it is true," he continued in a confidential tone, "but none of them had your potential. You have power you aren't even aware of, Eleanor,great power. I can show you how to cultivate it. Together you and I will do great things." He held out his hands to her and smiled encouragingly, then his voice fell to a whisper. "Don't turn your back on your gift, Eleanor. Come home with me now."
At the mention of her power, Eleanor had visibly flinched, then begun to shake her head slowly from side to side. For several moments a look of consternation lingered on her face, before giving way to an expression of uneasy resolve. She stepped back, and the longer Latham talked, the more Eleanor retreated. By the time Latham had finished, she stood beside the open car door.
Once more Walter spoke her name softly, and for the first time since she had stepped out of the car, Eleanor's eyes met his. She didn't say anything, but he could see that she had made up her mind once and for all; his faith had not been misplaced. Feeling like he'd just beaten the devil, Walter sprinted to the car, praying that now Latham would admit defeat. But as he reached Ellie's side, Latham's voice rang out.
"Wait!" The word boomed like a peal of thunder, echoing off the dark silent hills, surrounding them with its power.
Startled, Walter and Eleanor turned around. Latham was ominously close now, and Walter's first thought was that he was somehow going to strike them dead on the spot. His dark face had grown even darker, hisexpression more dangerous, and his body seemed to pulse with barely controlled fury.
"Do you know what you're throwing away?" he screamed at Eleanor. "I am no ordinary man! I have knowledge and power that most men would kill for! I can give you more than you ever dreamed of ..." A perverse smile came to his lips, and he pointed dramatically at the stone creatures once again stirring in the landslide. " ... or I can give you living, breathing nightmares--nightmares that will haunt you for the rest of your days. Think again! Before your choice is final!"
Eleanor looked at her fiancé. Tears coursed down her cheeks, an infinite sadness filled her face, but she managed to smile. Then her smile faded, and with barely a glance at her tempter, she answered Latham in a voice that was as soft as a whisper, but steely in its firmness. "Go to hell," she hissed, and got into the car.
Instantly, the creatures in the landslides roared to life. Dark, powerful arms reached out to the couple, hungry to enfold them, to crush them to the cold dead earth. The flat twisted faces glared and shrieked, until the air was filled with the din of their unearthly cries.
Eugene Latham was the most frightening sight of all. He stood in the middle of the road, glaring at the car, his face a mask of hate, his fist raised high in the air. When he spoke, his voice was calmly malevolent, and piercing, abroad sharp sword that cut easily through the deafening clamor of his creations.
He looked at his adversary first. "Walter Sikes," he intoned, "you have stolen the flesh of my flesh ..."
Then he turned to his chosen. "Eleanor Wilson, you have withheld your flesh from mine ..."
He raised both fists, like an angry man in prayer, and pronounced sentence: "Therefore, the firstborn child of your misbegotten union will commit unspeakable sins of the flesh. When the time has come, you will both understand. You have chosen unwisely, and now you will regret that choice for the rest of your lives!"
As Walter and Eleanor stared in horrified disbelief, Eugene Latham disappeared into thin air, along with his creations. Eleanor gasped, then burst into fresh tears, and Walter swallowed hard, then hurried around to the other side of the car and slid in. For a moment the two of them just looked at each other, too unnerved to speak. Then Walter started the car and headed cautiously down the road. By the time they were clear of the Ozarks, he had decided against St. Louis, and continued driving due east instead. He didn't know where they were going, or what they would do when they got there, but he figured sooner or later something would come to him.