He knew they were coming. He knew it from the sounds of shouting that echoed up the valley from the Hollow, from the crashing, choked roar of bored-out pickup engines coming up the winding dirt roads, from the door somewhere far overhead crashing open. A beam of light spilled down the crooked wooden steps, cracked and moldy from decades of water damage.
Troy began to pray.
Not tonight, please.
“Here we ‘gwan boys!” Atlas’ cracked and rusty voice cawed from the other end of the dark basement. A silhouette appeared atop the steps, cursing as it navigated the treacherous stairway in a hurried panic. Dusty rays of white flashlight swathed across the gloom. Troy could hear boot steps on the wooden floor above them. A dozen or so men, if history had been any indication. Cold chains hit the upper floor with enough impact to shower dust and spiders onto the inhabitants below. They were shouting as well, quick and frantic. The cast-iron covers scraped heavily as they were removed, flooding the cramped basement with a rush of deliciously fresh air. To Troy, it tasted sour and rancid; like a rusty trap, waiting to draw blood.
“Time to earn what’s comin’ to us!”
Beside him he heard ‘Shawn slide upright. He walked forward and grasped the bars of his cage gently, resting his head against the cold iron, watching the men come down the stairs. His hair, once in neat dreadlocks, hung matted and grimy. A patina of bruises and lacerations, healed and fresh, decorated the young man’s slim shoulders.
“I can’t do it T. Not again.”
“Yessuh masters we ready!” Atlas was rocking at the front of his cage as one of the beams illuminated his brawny frame in garish shadows. His bald head glimmered with sweat and his eyes were wide, fawning and servile. Most of his teeth were missing, either fallen or knocked out. He already had most of an erection beneath the tattered jeans that served as his only clothing. Troy gritted his teeth and quelled the rush of heat that ran to his own groin.
He stared at the form in the darkness beyond his cage, hating as silently as possible.
Troy Anderson had learned a world about hate in the last six months.
“Eyes up, ‘Shawn.” He said quietly. “Let’s get this over with. You can do it.”
‘Shawn moaned, a quiet, desperate sound that barely escaped his chapped lips.
“Rise and shine!” The hundred-year old electric lights flared to life as one of the men fumbled with the fuse box set onto the wall beneath the stairs, driving flares of white pain the shape of wire filaments into Troy’s eyes. He staggered backwards, his eyes squinting in the sudden light. Squinting, but not closed.
Overhead a trio of gas generators kicked to life in sputtering rumbles.
Didjer grinned from his position at the fuse box. His fat arms were covered in a forest of grey, wiry hair. A swastika was tattooed on the back of each of his ham-sized hands. A naked woman, inked in a clumsy and uncoordinated hand, spread her legs over his shoulder. A black hat, gone grey from years of sweat held back his mane of greasy hair. An pistol was shoved carelessly into the waistband of his faded Levi’s.
“That’s better ain’t it? Minnie! John-John! Get your ass down here, hurry up!” His thick West Virginia drawl grated in Troy’s ears.
A thin man in overalls staggered down the steps, followed by a haggard woman with a mousey face and a mop of unwashed brown hair.
“Hook ‘em up.” Didjer nodded to the cages. He held a palm to the side of his mouth and shouted up the stairs. “Lower the chains boys!”
Tow chains lowered from the wide squares crudely cut into the floorboards over each of the cages.
“Yessuh hook-uh me up!” Atlas sang gleefully as John-John scrabbled up the ladder set into the side of his cage, grabbing the large tow-hook with two hands. He grunted with effort as he clipped it to the top bar set in a rough arc atop Atlas’s cage.
“Take ‘im up!” He called, jumping down. On the floor above them one of the winches squealed with effort as Atlas’s cage began it’s ponderous journey upwards. The man inside the cage pressed his wide face against the bars, grinning upwards.
Minnie was repeating the process atop ‘Shawn’s cage, her drug-addled grin spread wide as she stared down at the inhabitant.
“You gettin’ excited boy?” She licked her lips eagerly. Troy could see the row of untidy puncture-marks track their way down the inside of each of her elbows. “You gettin’ randy? You like what you see down there?”
She was wearing a skirt, soiled and smeared with grease and suspicious brown stains. ‘Shawn glanced up and recoiled, lips pulled back in revulsion. He spat on the ground, looking away. Minnie cackled in delight, clipping the hook to the bar atop the young man’s cage. She stood and lifted the skirt with one hand, sliding the other between her legs. She wasn’t wearing any underwear. A look of intense concentration crossed her pinched face.
Troy looked away, embarrassed for the woman; a sentiment she clearly didn’t share from the rapid-fire pulsing of the hand not holding her skirt.
“Minnie! Get the fuck offa there, girl!” Didjer hollered. “We got places to be!”
The mousey woman cackled again and leapt to the ground with surprising grace. She licked one finger lewdly, staring at ‘Shawn baldly.
“I’mma come find you when you’re lost in the fog, boy. You an’ me, we’re gonna have us a wild time!”
This time, ‘Shawn spat at her. She laughed. Troy almost called to him as his cage began to rise towards the hole cut into the floorboards, telling him to stay calm, to stay himself, but didn’t. The process was only quickened by rage, but did it honestly matter now? When was it was better to just accept your fate?
“‘Shawn! Keep your wits about you! Breathe!”
“Pull up the younger one!” Didjer called to the crew overhead. John-John was already atop of Troy’s cage, waiting for the chain.
“You ready, boy? Preacher John got a job for you.” The thin man leered down at Troy, but he stayed silent. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. Not like it mattered; he always broke in the end.
Across the basement there was a hoarse scream of rage, rising to a cracked crescendo, followed by a high-pitched surprised shriek.
“Look Didjer! We got us a live one!” Minnie leapt back and pointed delightedly at the inhabitant of the fourth cage, set far into the darkest corner of the basement, hammering his bare fists against the bars of his cell. His toothless mouth stretched open in a howl. He was tall, and in his prime had been powerfully built; his thin frame bunched and shivered as corded muscle flexed in his fit. His jaw was covered with a matted beard, shot with the same grey that marched along his temples. He was covered in scars, trailing along his shoulders and slicing into the ribs that rose pronounced from his chest. He had never spoken, not a single word since Troy had been brought to this hell. He was the oldest one, and the most dangerous. Whoever he had been was now completely gone. You could tell by his eyes; blank and empty even as he threw himself against the iron bars with the sickening sound of sweet dumpling batter being slapped against a cutting board.
It was his eyes that shook Troy the most. He saw his future in those eyes. How many times did it take to turn into a husk like that?
Minnie stood there, cackling her junkie laughter.
“Minnie wouldjer shut the fuck up and hook ‘im?” Didjer growled loudly over the screaming. “We got to go!”
Troy’s cage shuddered and rose in jerky, strained fits. He lost sight of the basement as John-John leapt atop the fourth cage, reaching for the hook.
Four ancient pickup trucks idled hoarsely in front of the holes in the floor, surrounded by a bustling crowd of a dozen or so. Atlas and ‘Shawn’s cages were already buckled into the beds of the two on the left, strapped secure with three or four thick industrial winch-cables. Teams of two were loading the trucks with silver canisters retrieved from a secure vault. Three men, near the truck beside Troy’s cage, stood waiting restlessly, hands fidgeting at their sides. They were all the same brand of dirty redneck; faded jeans, shirts cut off at the shoulders. Hats with logos for energy drink companies. Tattoos of swastikas or the confederate flag decorated their sweaty skin.
Beyond the huge sliding doors the July night was in the throes of a summer storm; wind bent the tall pines, rain hammered the dirt roads, churning the dry West Virginia soil to mud.
“Hook ‘im up!” A man wearing a denim jacket yelled angrily from the passenger seat of one of the trucks, gesturing impatiently to Troy. He clutched a revolver with a scope of some kind fused to the barrel. Despite it being the middle of the night, he was wearing a pair of purple sunglasses. “What the fuck is takin’ so long?”
The three men grunted as they pushed Troy’s cage into place, hurrying to strap it down. Each of them carried a gun. One, a fat, bearded man with sweat stains in his shirt had a automatic rifle slung around his bear-like shoulders. There was a frenetic energy in the air; one of the men cabling Troy dropped his cable twice, swearing in frustration. The men ran to and fro, yelling needless instructions and queries like keyed-up children left unsupervised. One ran to the window the sunglassed-man sat at, wiping a sheen of sweat from his wrinkled forehead.
“Almost there, Deacon.”
“Fuck this.” The sunglasses man hammered the flat of his hand against the outside of the truck door. “Let’s go! Follow us with the crazy one; he won’t take nearly as much prodding. Let’s go let’s go!”
There was a rush of movement and the slamming of car doors. The engines roared in a tremor that vibrated Troy’s legs hard enough to send him careening to the floor in a rush. The trucks screamed into the night.
On either side of the dirt path the trees rose huge into the air, boughs shaking in the keening breeze. The rounded tops of the Shenandoahs flared in a flash of lightning, dull and menacing. Bass-heavy music–Kanye West, unless Troy’s ears deceived him–thrummed from the cabs of the trucks, shaking the frames of the old vehicles with the quakes from the expensive stereo systems. Troy crouched in the corner of his cage, clutching the bars with both hands as the trucks spun wildly around the corners of the switch backed trail, dropping down the valley wall into the place they called the Hollow. He whipped his head around, finding landmarks to track where they were going. The process was quickened by confusion, too. Gunshots roared around them as the honkey-tonk assholes fired their guns out the windows, screeching and whooping in time to the heavy music. Troy clenched his jaw as a wave of unwelcome excitement rose through him. He closed his eyes and began walking through a lecture about the Ottoman Empire he had given at Penn State two years ago.
He stored that one in the second floor library of his Loci House. He imagined the door, carved from black ebony, swinging open at his deftest touch. He strode quickly over the soft purple rug, walking past orderly shelves of past lectures, test questions and thesis proposals from decades of students. The second floor library was his academic storage; he kept his reading for pleasure in the master library, with the floor to ceiling windows.. He remembered laughing at the concept of a Memory Palace when he had first encountered it. A yeat ago it had been a place of light and beauty, with decades of research and random movie quotes.
In the last six months, though, something darker had moved in. He spent no more than thirty seconds in his Loci house now. If he spent more than thirty seconds there, it would find him. And it would escape.
His heartbeat quickened under his skin. He breathed slowly from his nose. He could control this. He must control this. The other pulsed silently at the back of his mind.
Someone must have escaped the Hollow again. The last time the Hounds were summoned, one of the young women had snuck a plastic fork from dinner and had stabbed the man using her, fleeing through the open window. The Hounds had caught her in under an hour. Her body still hung from the gallow tree in the Hollow.
After ten minutes the trucks slid to a muddy stop in a large clearing at the bottom of the valley.
Deacon burst from the passenger seat before the vehicle had come to a stop, staggering and taking deep drinks from a brown bottle he clutched in a death grip.
“Unload’em! Hurry up! Get the–the fuckin’ cover, idjit, come on!”
The reek of sweat and unwashed bodies filled the night as dozens of hands hurriedly unclasped Troy’s cage and heaved it from the truck bed. His world vanished into blackness as a heavy cloth was thrown haphazardly over his cage, stinking of mold and dried sweat. It was a familiar smell; it was the same blanket they used every time. At each of the four corners the fabric tightened and stretched as it was staked out, creating a close-spaced tent centered around the cage.
He gritted his teeth and clenched the bars, knuckles white, struggling to breathe. Through a narrow slit in the fabric he saw flashing pictures of the clearing that froze before his eyes then vanished in the fog that crept through his senses. It was starting already; he could feel his control slipping.
A crowd, agitated and anxious, milling this way and that against the backdrop of a bonfire, sending flickering shadows among the tall skeletal oaks that formed the edge of the Hollow.
Worried talk buzzed through the air. Maybe someone didn’t just escape the house. What the hell was going on?
Corpses, swaying gently in the malformed, gentle breath of the summer storm that raged over the mountains that surrounded them.
And the Church. The Church of the Damned, to Troy. It sat against the end of the clearing like some squat, malevolent thing that perhaps had once had a point or a purpose or a semblance of good. It looked like something out of a Thomas Kinkade painting left forgotten, left to rot; an ugly, single-roomed building with a steep roof with a single tower that thrust pugnaciously upwards, ending in a gaudy, beaten iron cross that one of the Knights had pulled from some family basement somewhere. The once-white paint was peeling from the cheap pine boards, long since warped with age and rain, straining against the ten-a-penny nails that had held them in place when the church was built, forever and an age ago. Most of the windows were just frames clutching their last shreds of glass, looking like so many gaping mouths.
He was dropped with a shuddering jolt. There was a collection of concentrated grunts some feet away and then something hard hit the combined mud and trampled grass. Atlas’ fawning and servile voice was falling over itself to his left, thanking those that were helping him to to the Preacher’s work, and didn’t he know it that the Preacher’s work was the Lord’s work and Atlas was just a servant of God, here to do the bidding of Preacher John.
“Shut the fuck up.” One of the good old boys grunted. A sound like a wooden club hammering against iron rang out and Atlas yelped, much to the amusement of those carrying him. The man fell silent.
Troy could hear a high-pitched keening to his right.
“‘Shawn.” He said urgently. “‘Shawn, can you hear me?”
“I don’t want to do it again, Troy.” The young man was sobbing. His voice broke, cracking with strain. “I can’t.”
A wave of whoops and cat-calls rose from the crowd gathered in the Hollow. Troy cocked an eye to the slit afforded to him from his blanket. It looked like something was emerging from the Church. A group of people, boiling out like ants from a hive.
“‘Shawn, you listen to me.” He licked his dried and chapped lips, wondering desperately what lie he was going to tell this time, what piece of empty motivation he could offer this youngster to comfort him through a process that scared the devil out of Troy himself.
“You remember your momma?”
There was a sound like thrashing from ‘Shawn’s cage somewhere to his left, like the boy had kicked something, or had fallen down. After a second though, the boy replied.
“You remember what she looks like, right? Think about your momma, brother. Remember her face, her laugh, her hair. Trace the details of her house.” Troy closed his eyes and leaned his head against the cold iron of his cage as he spoke. His mother lived in an attic apartment in Georgetown, just off the park on Q street. Her tiny apartment was floored in fresh pine boards that smelled like sap and pine needles when the crushing summer heat waves rolled through D.C; as a boy he used to lay on the floor with the windows open and the fans running, dreaming that he was running through a forest with the breeze at his back…he shook himself roughly. He wasn’t sequestering himself to ride through the evil ahead. He was fighting.
Somewhere in the depths of his mind, laughter burbled maliciously.
“De’Shawn Jackson, you listening to me?”
“I got you.” The cracked fear subsided from the youngster’s voice. “My momma would crack me over the head for being here, let me tell you that. She’d be all like ‘D I tol’ you dat dem friends you got over dere gon’ get you in some shit.’”
Troy laughed in spite of himself, mostly because his own mother had said the same thing time and time again.
But I got right, didn’t I momma? Tenured professor at Penn State, now.
Or at least he was. Before that night on 39, taking a goddamn scenic detour from Charleston, where he had been invited to give a series of lectures about the growth of Middle Eastern culture beneath Sultan Mehmed IV, particularly as they pertained to western influence. That night burned in his memory like a brand; stinking of seared, cooking flesh and vibrant like the white-hot coal bed of a furnace.
The road had been dark and winding, the storm had been like this one; sudden and fierce, squalling rain against the windshield of his ‘03 Prius in heavy streams as he squinted, trying to see through. A Panic At The Disco song hummed through the turned-down radio. An animal flashed through his headlights and he slammed on the brakes, careening into the guardrail with enough force to smack his head against the steering wheel. For a moment everything went dark as the night around him.
Headlights woke him up some time later. A voice, curious at first, knocking at his window. He had rolled it down, already thanking the kind stranger that had stopped to help him out. It was an elderly man with a bristlecone moustache, gone white at the edges, a battered and faded ‘Make America Great Again’ hat pulled securely over his wispy hair.
“Thank you for stopping.” Troy had groaned, rubbing his head. His fingers didn’t come away bloody, so that was at least a blessing. He wondered if his car would start. “I think there was a deer…jumped in front of me and–”
“You ain’t from around here, is you?” The man leaned a forearm against the Prius, rain pattering unheeded against his narrow shoulders. A species of grim amusement flickered in his dark eyes, surrounded by crow’s feet at the corners. Behind him, lighting forked the cloudy skies in a garish flash. The look sent a rush of gooseflesh skittering through Troy’s upper arms; he imagined it was the look a predator gets when it has found its next meal.
“I’m from Charleston.” Troy said, sitting straighter in his seat. Maybe if they thought that someone would come looking…his fingers fumbled for the ignition switch, but the key had fallen in the impact. He heard a car door slam shut ahead of him.
“Charleston, eh? You aint look like you from Charleston.” The old man surveyed the inside of the car, jumped and disorganized from the impact with the guardrail. “Got yourself a little car problem?”
“Whatchoo got there, Eldred?” A voice called out over the storm. A dark figure materialized through the rain, hazy and blurred at the edges.
“Tell you what boy–” A vicious, instinctual shudder ran through Troy at the word. His stomach dropped and his adrenaline spiked. He had read stories of what happened to black folk caught unawares in this part of America. “–why don’t you hop on out and we’ll see about getting you a tow.” The lie was bald and unhidden.
“No thanks.” Troy’s voice had cracked, and he licked his suddenly dry lips. “I think it’ll start, actually. Let me try…” He turned, casting desperately about for the fallen keys. There was a metallic click that Troy now knew was the unique sound that only a shotgun hammer made, and a new, younger voice floated from the open window.
“Well, well well. Looks like we got us a present for the Preacher, Eldred.”
“I think you right, John-boy.”
Troy had turned just in time to see the the business end of a shotgun butt slam the door of his consciousness shut.
He had woken up in the cage.
A scream snapped him back, coming from the Hollow. A woman’s. High-pitched, and full of fear, it was met with a resounding chorus of cheers and whoops from a crowd. No, it wasn’t fear. Terror. Raw and primal. There was a difference, Troy knew. Each of the Hounds knew the difference. Fear was something that you could control, to an extent. Slow your breathing, rationalize and humanize. Terror rose through you like a wave of cold water. Terror funneled you into two choices; fight or flight. Terror acted of its own accord. The woman screamed again. She sounded like she was getting closer; she must be moving through the crowd.
Troy swore in surprise as a gunshot roared out suddenly, cracking across the Hollow.
“Shut the fuck up, y’all!” The familiar voice of the Deacon rasped loudly, slurred and drunken. The man would still be wearing those stupid fucking sunglasses, fingers white and shaking as they grasped the gun and bottle.
Silence fell across the clearing, broken only by the steady drum of the wind and the cawing of ravens sitting in the trees.
Then Troy heard the voice he had been dreading. It was soft and gentle, the way a pillow feels as it’s settled over the breathing mouth of a sleeping infant. It sent a wave of fear through Troy with enough force to send him to his knees as images of the last time he had heard that voice rushed to the surface–smoke, blood, rage and lust burnt into a hazy memory. The laughter that burbled deep in his mind grew stronger. His control was slipping by the minute, and he knew it. Every time he remembered, he took another step closer. The beast.
It was the voice of the devil, it was the man that lead the White Knights, the butcher and cut-throat savage himself. The self-styled Preacher John.
“Where did she go?”
“I don’t…I don’t know.”
“Tell the truth, you lying bitch!” Deacon snarled. He must have taken a bump after getting out of the truck. Drug-fueled, frenetic energy pulsed in his rusty baritone.
The Preacher didn’t raise his voice or alter his gentle tone.
“Deacon, hold your tongue. Barbara?” He said her name coaxingly. Troy could imagine the Preachers’ brown eyes, wide and full of charm and starlight all at once, fixated on hers.
“Barbara listen to me. I can help you. This–” The Preacher chuckled wryly. “–this is all just a misunderstanding, isn’t it? Surely you can see that. Tell me where she went and I’ll have my best men escort her safely back here, you have my word.”
Barbara, whoever that was, barked a laugh that bordered on the wrong side of hysterical.
“You mean you’ll have your thugs corral her like a dog and drag her back here for you to punish.”
“Barbara.” He said, chastising. “I know you’ve only known me a week but surely you can’t think so poorly of me. I’m the leader of a church. I only want the best for you and your friend.”
The serpent in the garden of eden likely lied with the same smooth silky tone.
“If you want the best for us, why don’t you let me go?” There was a hint of a rebuke in the woman’s voice, and the crowd responded before the Preacher could, an unhappy grumble that rolled softly.
“Who is she?” The Preacher’s voice was harder.
There was no answer. There was the sound of iron striking flesh and the woman yelped in pain. The Knights laughed. That would be the butt of Deacon’s pistol, Troy guessed.
“I’ll ask you one more time. Who is she?”
“A re-reporter. From–from D.C.” The woman began to sob softly.
Troy pressed his head against the bars, straining to hear. A reporter? It couldn’t have been another publicity stunt–sometimes the Preacher invited a reporter from a local news association to come and see the ‘Christian Works’ the White Knights were doing for the community. It was a recruiting drive, more than anything else. They wrote some fluff piece about how the Knights were ‘reclaiming the christian spirit of the south’, tacitly ignoring the house with bars over the windows or busy flow of nondescript medical crates being shipped in and out of the valley via rusty pickup trucks. They didn’t ask where Preacher John got the money to fund his food drives. Nobody asked questions about the flood of opioids currently destroying the people living below the poverty line in Fenwick, Richwood and North Bend. To ask questions would be to lay blame. And how could anyone lay blame at Preacher John’s feet, the man who ran the largest ‘Christian’ organization in West Virginia?
Troy had seen enough to piece together what was happening. He saw the arrivals of businessmen in fancy suits, jumping out of helicopters or expensive off-roading cars. He doubted they were meeting Preacher John in the Church for confession. The ‘ceremonies’ that took place in the Hollow weren’t fueled by good deeds.
A gust of cold air behind him as someone slid the tube across the iron floor of his cage. He ignored the rush of nerves and disgusting excitement that accompanied the sight of it. Beyond the black cloth, heavy with the smell of dried semen mixed with the coppery iron scent of faded blood, Preacher John sighed delicately.
“I’m…” The woman’s voice trembled violently. “I’m not going to say.”
There was a pause.
“She’s not going to say.” The smile in the Preacher’s voice was audible. His assemblage laughed on cue.
“Barbara, this is the last time I’m going to ask you. Where did she go?”
“Aye, Preacher John.”
“Take the good woman to the Church. Give her some company. She should loosen up in a few hours.”
Have the good old boys take turns on her for a few hours and see if she breaks.
“Aye. Can I get some volunteers?” Deacon’s voice roared out, met with more drunken whoops and cat calls.
“Deacon, right here!”
“Mikey, Boomer, Trey and…Donnie. Take our guest inside.”
The woman sobbed violently as she was (Troy assumed) dragged away. If she knew what was good for her, she’d talk, and soon.
“What we have here–” The Preacher’s voice rose smoothly from the soft, tightly controlled voice of an interrogator to the grandiose, booming call of a natural public speaker. Beads of sweat formed on Troy’s forehead. It was starting.
“Is a case of sin triumphing over the human spirit. Satan has come into our house, gentlemen. He is here, now. He whispered in the ears of those women, telling them to write down lies about our great organization and shout them from the rooftops.”
There was a general outcry of agreement, interspersed with a handful of ‘amens’ and ‘hallelujahs’.
“And I cannot sit idly by as Satan attempts to tear down this house, this church that God himself built. We will not stand for it!” The crowd roared back in emphatic agreement; they knew what was coming next. Call it mob mentality, call it bloodlust; the anxious, worried energy was changing to something hungrier, something more primal. “We must reach forth with righteous rage and heavenly vengeance and cast out those who would rise up against the word of God!”
Troy reflexively grasped the bars of his cage, focusing on the feeling of cold iron against his hot and sweaty skin.
He had heard the speech before. It was always the same, slightly varied, slightly changed to fit the mood, but essentially the same.
But in the heat of the moment, Preacher John’s words drifted through the gathered crowd like sparks through dry grass. Through the gap in the cloth that covered his cage Troy saw red faces, indignant with rightful fury and drink, clenched fists risen into the air as they roared their approval. Feet stamped in the cold mud.
“Deacon! Bring out the Hounds. We will find this soldier of Satan, we will track her down–” The Preacher was yelling now over the raucous cheers of the Knights. “–and we will bring her back here to face the holy judgement of God and his Angels!”
The Hollow rang with the drunk cheers of the Church of White Knights. Preacher John’s army, Troy thought bleakly.
“McGee!” Deacon cried. “Get hooked up! Get out the way, boys! Deedee! Get your girls!”
A squeal of electronic feedback whined ear-splittingly throughout the Hollow. It was happening too fast. Troy could feel the other panting, deep at the back of his head. A gas generator sputtered to life nearby. Troy closed his eyes and breathed deeply through his nose. His gut was tied into knots of iron nerves and his heart hammered in his broad chest. Fear, sharp as a knife, cut through his every breath.
“You are not an animal. You are not an animal. You are not an animal.”
He whispered the words aloud, repeated it to himself over and over again until the words sounded insane and felt like mush in his mouth.
Maybe you’re not. The beast’s voice growled in the depths of Troy’s brain, amused, unfolding itself through the man’s senses in a cold, black wave.
It began how it always began; three notes played on the raw strings of a banjo that screamed through the old wood-framed speakers wired to one of every dozen trees stretching the length of the valley. The same three notes played over and over again in a hypnotic rise-and-fall pattern.
A fucking banjo. How goddamned appropriate.
A violent shiver rocked through his large frame. His fingers trembled, matched by a sharp, almost painful tingling his his head. He was remembering, now. It happened every time, this flood of memories. He could repress them, push them down to the depths of his shameful subconscious, ignore them until he had convinced himself that they’d gone away. But when the music began, he remembered. When the music began, The Other One woke up.
Troy couldn’t remember when he gave the beast a name. The last six months were a painful, shameful blur. Perhaps he had given the beast a name so he could visualize the hateful thing that squatted in the dim recesses of his consciousness. Perhaps he had done it to seperate them, to keep the borders distinct, to keep the edges from blurring in the chemical-induced mist. Perhaps the beast had named himself.
Each time The Other One took over, he took a piece of Troy with him. Every blood and sex-soaked night spent running through the valley–so fast the trees blurred and the ground moved beneath his powerful feet in a undulating rush, a ceaseless blend of dips and hillocks, rocks and brush–the beast grew stronger, and Troy grew weaker. Soon, terribly soon, the borders would come crashing down. The Other One, the bloodthirsty, barbarous, senseless thing, would take over. He would burn the Loci house to the ground and laugh as Troy’s memories went up in flames.
He heard a shouted command, dimly, like it came from far away. He thought it likely that it was more like a few feet, but his ears didn’t seem to be working right. There was a loud ringing in them. A ringing, and the three-note banjo, rising and falling over and over, folding and twisting on itself like a serpent.
The gas exploded from the mouth of the tube set into his cage in a noxious cloud. Instinctively Troy tried to back away, pulling up the tattered remains of his shirt to cover his nose and mouth, but he only managed to weakly pull at the fabric, falling to his knees. His hands didn’t seem to be following his commands. The gas smelled noxiously sweet; like he was being suffocated by taffy. It reminded him of his boyhood summers spent at Virginia Beach. Stuffing his face with a rainbow of saltwater taffy flavors in a car with the windows rolled down so he didn’t pass out from heat exhaustion, waiting for his mother to finish cleaning vacation houses so they could go swimming. He kept his memories of his mother in the spotless kitchen beside the garden of the Loci house. For a split second he was tempted to walk through that comforting room, to seek solace with the image of his mother standing by the stove stirring a pot of etoufee in the Big Pot, slapping his knuckles as he attempted to swipe another crawfish before supper.
But he couldn’t. Dark things lived in the house now.
“No.” Troy muttered. In the cage beside him, like it came from miles away, he thought he could hear screaming. ‘Shawn. The first half dozen or so times the process was incredibly painful. Troy has blacked out more than once to the sounds of his own screaming.
“‘Shawn! It’s gonna be okay, boy! Listen to me!”
But the boy continued screaming. The pressure inside his own head was building by the second. He held his breath and hammered his fists uselessly against the cage.
Release me! The voice was louder now, closer. Troy knew he needed to change the rooms of the basement, confuse The Other One and keep him locked up, but his control was slipping; if he reached in now, it would take over. But he was coming anyway. Try and change the layout, invert the stairs and change the locks–or watch helplessly as The Other came anyway.
His lungs were burning for air and he instinctively inhaled. The sweet summer scent changed; now it had the slick saltiness of recent sex, mingled with a elegant, floral perfume. Heat sunk into his groin in a lingering stroke. He clenched his fists as another shiver rolled through him. He felt a pressure building against his forehead like a sinus infection. His head felt like a balloon, swelling and growing until it was ready to be popped. It also felt heavy, like a rock. Like the muscles in his neck would surely collapse under the immense weight.
The gas stopped, but not before it had done its job; Troy’s veins stood out starkly against the dark, smooth muscle of his forearm and an unbidden erection pressed tightly against the faded fabric of his waist.
All the smells of the valley rushed into his heightened senses; sweet rain, sweat and unwashed bodies, fire and woodsmoke, the faint rot of the decaying corpses that hung from the trees of the Hollow. But nothing entirely wiped out the smell of fresh sex. It pressed against him cloyingly, like an anxious and eager lover. Troy shook his head dully in an attempt to rid himself of the thought, but The Other One liked it. It fueled the heat that hummed in his groin. That heat was what would inevitably betray him, he knew. That was how it happened, in the end.
Four women slipped beneath the fabric around Troy’s cage, each holding a pair of red glow sticks. They moved with slow deliberation, peeling away from the faint red light like shadows, silhouettes against the darkness. They were wearing tattered, loose fitting shirts and tiny shorts, long jeans with revealing holes slashed into them, button down shirts with too many buttons undone–provocative clothing, chosen with a purpose. The women’s eyes never left Troy’s as they circled, surrounding him on all sides. Their pupils were huge and jagged, vacant and filled with a sexual desire that was crafted through chemistry. They had once been beautiful, Troy thought distantly, before the drugs. Now their skin was pallid and stretched tightly across their skulls like wax. It was all the same to The Other One.
The music that boomed and roared through the valley changed, quickening in pace and complexity, joined by a deep bass that thrummed in Troy’s chest. It was music that send energy and excitement singing through the nerves; dancing music, hunting music, fighting music fucking music. The women dropped their glow sticks.
“Hey big boy.” The one on his right purred, running her hands through her short blonde hair, swaying her ample hips in time to the music. “Do you like what you see?”
Troy had a vision of bending the woman over on the grass, howling in triumph and ecstasy as as she didn’t-quite-struggle beneath him. His vision faded to a pinprick and didn’t return until he gasped huge, billowing breaths through his mouth.
The women of the house, kept for the amusement of the Knights. Troy wondered how many dozen of times they’d been fucked in the last week. The Other didn’t wonder. It was all the same to The Other.
The women began to dance, slow at first. Their hips swayed, their hair flitted in and out of the sooty red light thrown by the glow sticks at their feet. He turned, trying to look at the floor, the grass, anywhere but where they wanted, but his head felt heavy, like it was full of lead. The music began to slowly increase in tempo and fervor and the women with it.
“I know you’re in there.” One of them moaned through full lips–but they weren’t full in reality, they were dessicated and covered in fever blisters Troy screamed silently, but it was all the same to The Other One–set in a flirtatious pout. Her hair was long and curly, reaching to the small of her back in thick copper ringlets. She rotated on a pointed heel, caressing the long skin of her leg with one hand as she unbuttoned the last buttons on the too-large plaid shirt. “Why don’t you come out and play?”
They always used the same phrase. Troy gritted his teeth and held his fists to his head as a ripple of pain shot through his gut. His flesh felt cold and clammy, but sweat beaded at his hairline.
“Hey you.” Standing above him was a thick-waisted woman with long black hair bound in a ponytail. Her black curls bounced against her gyrating shoulders, barely touched with damp. Her too-short shorts were already on the ground beside her shirt. Her pendulous breasts gleamed with sweat, barely bound by a ragged strip of fabric that masqueraded as a bra. He could smell her sex, and was sure it was her, and not his imagination or the last vestiges of the gas that hung in the damp air of the tent. Salty and fresh, like summer trout. She grinned lasciviously at his fallen form. He shook his head. He couldn’t, anymore.
No no no no no.
“Won’t you come out to play?”
She slid a finger along the thin cotton underwear, revealing the faintest shadow of pubic hair where her legs met, arching a single, inviting eyebrow. Her eyes sparkled with lust.
Troy recoiled mentally, and The Other was waiting. He slipped through the gaps of Troy’s confusion, filling his consciousness in a sudden, agonizing instant.
It was like looking in one of the twisted funhouse mirrors of a carnival house. It was his face, Troy’s face, lean and handsome, but stripped of love and humanity; cold eyes, a snarling grimace on his lean lips. No mother had ever loved that face, no friend had even creased it in laughter. It was a face of a beaten man who rises to his feet with fists curled to exact revenge with lives broken. The face of a selfish lover who doesn’t care if he inflicts pain as he reaps his pleasure. The face of a hunter who runs his prey to the ground. He reached out a hand, covered in tattoos, grasped Troy’s, and pulled.
The horrible, grating voice shook the walls of the house with laughter, but that sneering mouth never moved.
In a single, terrible, second Troy felt his control over his body slip away. He was pulled deep within his mind, screaming silently through his mouth that wouldn’t open. He thrashed limbs he didn’t have, tore at chains that didn’t exist but pulled him deeper nonetheless until blackness lapped at his ears and nose, threatening to drown him. He was stuck; a prisoner in his own flesh. He could still see, smell and hear, but it was through The Other’s eyes, nose and ears. The Other enjoyed tormenting him, showing him exactly what was happening to his body while he was a prisoner inside it.
The Other One leapt at the bars of their cage, ignoring the sharp crack of his collarbone banging against the unfeeling iron, snapping his teeth and pawing desperately for the woman with one hand, the other frantically working at the hem of his tattered pants. Heat bloomed in his loin like the lid being thrown off a furnace. Lust, frustration and the sweet release of pent-up anger and aggression raced through his blood like gasoline. His pulse quickened, and his vision narrowed.
The woman squealed with triumphant glee, hopping backwards and clapping her hands together in an oddly girlish manner.
“Deacon! Deacon he’s ready!”
Dimly The Other One could hear the one who called himself Preacher prattling over a microphone to his Knights, droning over the hunting-music about the Spirit of Jesus and how he is a Vengeful God who shall keep the Gardens of Heaven free for those who serve in his Flock and blah-blah-blah. The Other One knew what was coming, and what his reward could be. Even the mere thought of the Hunt Ceremony caused a finger of lightning to race through the stiffness that hung between his legs. Writhing forms lit by the glow and heat of the bonfire, naked and glittering with sweat, bending to his every depraved and selfish wish.
The cloth was yanked from his cage, flooding his heightened senses with a cascade of smells from the Valley; sweet summer rain, dirt, pine boughs, diesel fuel, unwashed bodies. A crowd of thirty or so men were screaming their raucous approval to the Preacher’s every word, brandishing a motley assortment of automatic weapons purchased off the internet.
“Deacon, start the hunt!” The Preacher cried grandly.
“Git to yer trucks boys! Merle! Crank up them tunes! John-John, Didjer, on me!” Deacon’s words were slurred and messy and his accent was thick and night incomprehensible. The music swelled through the speakers hung throughout the valley until it echoed from the hump-backed mountains that surrounded them, thrumming through Trey’s blood and matching his hastened heartbeat.
A black-suited man dropped nimbly to the ground in front of Trey’s cage. His hair was black and combed clean, kept in a neat ponytail at the base of his skull. His face was lean and hungry, and a trimmed goatee curled around the edges of a thin, unamused mouth. His eyes were brown and warm, a contradiction to the rest of his features.
Preacher John. Deep in the darkness of his mind he could feel the weak one screaming his hatred and disapproval, but it was easy for The Other One to tune him out. He was in charge now. He had no negative feeling towards the man. He was the gatekeeper to The Other’s desires.
“How are you this eve, my sons?” Preacher John asked, standing before the four cages, arranged in a semi-circle.
“Oh we good Preacher! We’s excited to feel the Spirit in our lives, that’s the truth!” Atlas fawned from his cage. The boy the weak one knew as De’Shawn stood stiffly, silently. The Other knew that the boy still grappled with his other. To his left, the First stood staring silently, staring at the valley with bloodlust in his eyes. His powerful hands grasped the bars of his cage so tight his knuckles were white. A savage growl ripped gutturally from his throat. Though he would never admit it to himself, The Other One was wary of the First. He was just as likely to snap at you as he was the prey.
The Preacher held something out. It fluttered in the damp summer wind. A handkerchief, bordered with flowers. The four Hounds leaned forward, inhaling hungrily.
The topmost scent was cheap hotel soap, scented scantily with lavender. A burst of citrus, most likely from a matching shampoo. The remnants of expensive perfume from several days ago. Sweat, running at the base of the complex scent like fungus, sharp and acrid. Fear. She was afraid, The Other realized with an unconscious grin. He loved hunting the afraid ones. They always ran faster. The Other One liked a challenge.
“Do you have it?” Preacher asked. The Other nodded once. The black-suited man tucked the handkerchief back in his pocket, holding a manicured hand up in the air. The Other’s adrenaline spiked. The time was now.
“God walks with you, my Hounds. Bring her back to me, dead or alive.”
The Preacher dropped his hand, and the men grunted as they pulled on the ropes leading to the cage doors, heaving hem open with a grating squeal of rusty iron.
The Hounds sprang into the summer storm, screaming in joy and fury, hands curling into fists as they followed the scent as it fled through the forest. Blood would be shed this night.