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Masquerade

On a remote hillside, in the oppressive black of night, a squat log cabin nestled into the treeline. It blazed brilliantly with firelight from within. Smoke poured from the chimney and raucous voices bled liberally through the walls and windows. Occasionally, the jubilant sounds reached a crescendo when a filthy joke achieved its conclusion or one of the more drunk revelers fell over after attempting to stand up. Outside the cabin, there was only blackness, no moonlight or starlight leaking through the heavy rain clouds that dominated the summer sky. A warm, gentle breeze rustled through the treetops and shadows, projected through the windows, danced across the surrounding grasslands as people moved about within the brooding structure.

The front door opened, spilling yellow light and a cacophony of slurred voices into the night. Two figures staggered onto the porch, men laughing heartily with an arm draped across each other’s shoulder. The bigger of the two men pulled away briefly and returned to the doorway, shouted something inside and then drew the door shut. With the din of the party trapped in the cabin once more, the voices of the two men were now distinguishable.

“Alright, let’s go,” the bigger man cajoled. Only their outlines were now visible as they made their way down the steps onto the path.

“I can’t see a damned thing. Let me get a lantern,” remarked the other, his voice notably higher pitched.

“Nonsense! Damn it, Ben, let’s just go. I can get us there,” the first man argued, gently pushing the one called Ben further down the path.

“If I break my neck, I’m going to hold you responsible,” Ben grumbled and then laughed.

There was no laugh from the bigger man. He moved quickly, hefting a revealed club high into the air and bringing it down viciously onto Ben’s head. There was a muffled, cracking sound and a single grunt before Ben toppled forward and sprawled unmovingly. The big man stood there completely still for several minutes, saying nothing. He casually tossed his weapon aside and walked back to the cabin, stomped up the stairs and opened the door. He called into the cabin and was quickly joined by two other figures. They spoke briefly and the two henchmen proceeded to recover Ben’s body, one man holding the legs and the other gripping the shoulders.

With the limp body back in the cabin and the door securely locked, the party goers seemed completely sober and serious. The light mood had been abandoned and replaced with an air of expectation. There were exactly a dozen of them in attendance, not counting the unconscious Ben who was now tied to a simple wooden chair, blood spreading down his shirt. The twelve men were arranged in a semicircle around the chair; all of them now wearing elaborate ceramic masks with a variety of painted designs and feathers as decoration. The masks were all unique colors, from white to black, to shades of red, blue, or green.

After a full minute, Ben stirred with a pained groan, his face contorted, eyes squinting and his hands struggling against the unrelenting bonds. The masked men waited patiently while Ben blinked and shook his head, trying to clear his vision. His shaggy blonde hair was matted in the back with dark blood, moist dirt and dead leaves.

Ben looked at the assembled masked men and laughed, then winced and grunted, his head now a single throbbing raw nerve.

“Well, talk about asking for it,” he rasped to himself.

The man wearing the ivory white mask with tears of blood and a beard of crow feathers stepped forward. His voice was muffled only slightly by the mask.

“Let’s skip the pleasantries, Ben. We know it’s coming again tonight. And we know you called it,” said Crying Pale Face.

“Yeah, so?” retorted Ben, “Do you think I’m going to send it away because you ask nicely? No chance.”

Silence hung in the air for several moments. Crying Pale Face looked back at his peers and then at Ben.

“Think, eh? It will only be able to see you, Ben. Only you. And what do you think will happen then?”

Ben sneered and spat, “Amateurs! You don’t understand anything, do you? I’m truly surrounded by children…” He then closed his eyes and turned his head to the side as though trying to hear some faint sound.

There was a low rumble that each man could feel in his chest. They stirred nervously, but no one moved from where they were standing. A gurgling sound came from nowhere and there was another rumble followed by a muffled whump as a void of blackness exploded in the corner of the ceiling, quickly fading but not never completely vanishing. A faint chemical smell filled the air and the black smudge began roiling across the ceiling, the men staring in abject horror. Wispy tendrils trailed behind the thing and it swerved back and forth, slithering closer to the assembly at the center of the cabin.

Ben began chuckling quietly, “The masks aren’t literal, my friends. I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood my notes. You could have just asked, instead of pilfering.”

There was a cracking sound like a tree branch breaking, and Crying Pale Face toppled to the side, headless. Panic set upon the remaining men and they began running and clawing their way to the door, but the large iron lock resisted being opened. More cracking sounds followed and more masked faces disappeared from the crowd, fine sprays of blood sprinkling the remaining men.

The sound of many screams and one voice laughing drifted into the night for several seconds before silence reigned again.

The front door opened again, a single man standing silhouetted against the flickering light of a raging fire. Smoke began pouring out of the doorway above his head. He headed into the yard.

He glanced back at the cabin briefly.

“Okay, let’s try the next town. I still have some hope.”

A metallic cylinder, almost exactly his size, descended from the sky and hovered in front of the cabin. With a final deafening crack, the cylinder and Ben disappeared while the cabin evolved into a towering inferno.