THE NIGHT WAS on fire.
A great wall of flame leapt up, licking hungrily at the sky as it formed a circle around the small group clustered, cowering, in the middle of the field. There were two older ones--a mother and a father--with ten very young children, eight boys and two girls. The children were whimpering as they clung to their parents, who were glancing fearfully around them. Behind the nearly completed ring of fire, high atop a jutting ridge, could be seen a multitude of hooded figures, all dressed in black, their faces unseen, save for the one standing in front, who wore a red belt and whose head was adorned with a goat skull. There were several more of them down in the field itself, wielding shotguns, a few holding snarling dogs at bay on chains. Seeing the family's predicament, the one wearing the goat skull threw back his head and raised his arms to the sky.
"Praise be to thee, O Satan," he intoned to the night.
"Thine is the kingdom of Hell and Earth," the others replied.
"To you we offer a sacrifice," the high priest continued. The flamelights flickered over his goat face. "Accept our gracious offering of twelve nonbelievers, traitors to your Unholy Order."
"Praise be to thee," the others answered.
Inside the circle, the mother was gathering her children around her, clasping her hands and reciting a prayer of a different sort. "Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name--" Her voice was drowned out by the roar of the fire and the continued chanting of the others gathered above and outside. Goat-Skull threw up his arms again.
"Hail Satanas!" he shrieked.
"Hail Satanas! Hail Satanas!" the throng shouted back.
"Accept our offering, O Lord of the Flies," the priest went on, his voice rising with the flames, "Beelzebub, living-dead incarnation of the Great Goat--"
One of the followers interrupted him, shouting and pointing toward the fire. Another figure had dashed in seemingly out of nowhere, the circle of fire filling in behind him. The high priest watched, unalarmed; he merely grinned and crowed, "Hail, Satan! Another has joined your offering to make the unholy number thirteen. Receive your sacrifice and give us your eternal blessings!"
"Hail Satanas!" the others shouted.
The thirteenth figure, however, had no intention of joining the sacrifice. He dashed to the mother's side as quickly as he could and dropped down beside her. He was trying not to cough. He looked into her face to make sure she was all right; then he looked over at the children, and he caught a glimpse of the father. Their eyes met only briefly; the father turned away, guilt and something else showing on his face.
"You shouldn't have come," the mother said. He looked down at her again. "Now they'll have you too. Quick, take the children and try to run!"
"You're coming with us," the newcomer replied, "fire or no fire. I'm not leaving you to them." He looked up, beyond the fire to the hooded mass. The flames made them quiver and break apart, re-forming again seconds later, more hideous than before. Even as he was trying to think of a way to escape them all she was talking again.
"There's no time. We can't all run. They'll catch us. Please, take the kids and run. We'll try to follow afterwards."
"There'll be no afterwards," he replied, his voice rising slightly out of anxiety. She took his hand, squeezing it, and kissed his cheek.
"Don't worry about us. We'll be all right." He didn't agree with her, but he saw the determination in her eyes, and she saw it reflected in his. "Go now, Damien. Tell the children I love them."
For a moment he could do nothing but stare at her in disbelief at what he was hearing. All of this, and she was still unfazed. He could sense her grief, and it was only because she would never see her children again--it had nothing to do with herself or her own fate. He touched her cheek in return. "Goodbye, Lilith. I love you."
"Goodbye, Damien," she replied, "I love you too."
Then they were gone.
The flames roared at the sky as he gathered up the kids around him, carrying the two youngest, a boy and a girl, as he made a run for the fire. He couldn't believe he was actually going to do this, yet it was the only hope there was. As he ran, the high priest on the hillside froze, his arms still half raised, and stared down in bewilderment.
"They can't be," was all he could say, his voice soft and incredulous.
But they were. The children crowded around their uncle now, frightened but willing to follow. The wall of fire loomed ahead taller and taller, its heat already singeing their skin. Several of them cried out. He took their hands and hurried them along with soft words of encouragement, for it was a great risk they were going to take. The boy he was holding under his arm stared at the fire until it hurt his eyes, those strange sandy golden eyes he shared only with his sister, then let out a sob and twisted his head until he didn't have to look.
The high priest's eyes widened. "They are! Go down and stop them!" he shouted. Several gunmen left the ranks and ran off down the hillside to join those already below, their chained dogs barking wildly.
The flames were by now only feet away, a wall of brilliant orange and yellow pulsating outward with its own life. Several individual tendrils of flame reached out, as if straining to take hold of the newcomer's arms and pull him in. He swallowed as they neared.
God, let this work.
With a whispered prayer, he plunged through the fire, taking the children with him. For a moment it seemed as if they had been sucked into the light, disappearing from view, until they emerged on the other side and collapsed in the grass, their clothing smoking. The children were all right, just wide eyed and slightly singed. Their uncle tried to stagger to his feet, only to fall down on one knee, his body racked with harsh coughing. The youngest boy, the one he'd held, came to his side and touched his shoulder, looking down at him and wondering what was wrong.
"Go," his uncle croaked. "Keep going till you see houses. They won't come after you where there're other people." He reached up and took off his necklace, what appeared to be a silver D on a long chain, and dropped it into his nephew's hands. The boy's fingers curled around the still-cool metal almost instinctively.
The other children were running already. The boy looked at the necklace, then up at his uncle, uncomprehending; and then turned and ran away as fast as his legs would carry him.
He'd gotten about fifty yards when he heard the first gunshot ring through the air, and it jolted his nerves, stopping him momentarily in his tracks. He steeled himself and went on running, never once looking back. He was afraid of what he might see.
Or what he might not see.
Unfortunately, no matter how much he didn't look back, that night would stay with him for many years to come.