Hello friends!I am very excited to announce the winner of my 2016 Halloween story contest. This story was written by Frank Montellano, a member of my Facebook writing group Den of Quills. Please visit his Amazon author page here.
I love this story not only for its eerie, supernatural feel but also for its message of hope. Without further ado, I give you our winning Halloween story — The Lost Shrine! Enjoy!
Punishing rain spat at him from every inch of the black night. Memphis stood at the bottom of the hill, rivulets of rain streaming around his feet. His stomach growled, urging him forward. In a flash of lightning, he thought he saw a hill up ahead. The brief glimpse looked much like the vision he had seen in a fever-dream: a misshapen hill, two ancient, gnarled trees flanking a boulder at the peak. The next bolt of lightning danced on the hilltop, striking the boulder with a blinding light. A sign? The boom that followed was almost immediate.
“It would have to be pouring, wouldn’t it?” he said to no one in particular. “Not bad enough that I’m on an uncharted island, you know, surrounded by water? You have to hinder me from above as well?”
It had taken Memphis four years to find this abandoned place. He had come too far to be turned back by some wind and rain, no matter how fierce. Besides, the ship that had put him ashore had already left with the evening tide.
The rain stopped for a moment, letting the full moon shine. The trip up the hill was no small matter, but he was resolute in his purpose and within a couple of hours he had hauled his large frame up to the summit. The trees on the hilltop looked like crippled giants, backs bent in pain.
He wondered how long they had been there.
He wondered if he would one day share their fate.
There, at the top of the hill, was a shrine hewn from a small outcropping of rock, carved long ago with symbols of the ancient tribe that once lived on this island. This was the right place, he could feel it. This was the place that his gut had led him to. He patted his bulging abdomen, feeling the thing inside him shift under his skin. It purred a long slow growl back at him in contentment.
Memphis sat in the mud before the stone shrine and composed his thoughts.
A chill wind raced around him, causing him to shiver and shake. He reached into one pocket and pulled out a thick blob of hard candle wax. Cold fingers grasped mud at his side, rubbing it on the sides of the candle before setting it down on the shrine. Out of his pack came an ancient bowl, crafted out of a hard, red stone and carved with shapes and sigils that were old when mankind was hairier and swung from tree to tree. One last time he reached within his garments. This time for a knife. With it he started carving a protective circle around the altar. It needed to be well done and deep, two hand spans down and a hand span wide.
The work was hard, the mud unyielding. Even the earth was trying to slow him down. He was wet and bone cold. His stomach was complaining, gurgling with pain and warnings. Odd, it usually stopped when he reached his goal. It must be time to feed again. Rainwater constantly filled his channel and threatened its security at every moment. Luckily – did luck have anything to do with it? – the rain that had threatened to return was but a drizzle as he finished his defensive circle against the elements.
He stood up and let the last of the rain wash the mud off of the blade. When he was done, he took the knife, slashed his left wrist next to the multitude of scars, and poured a handful of blood into the bowl. He stabbed the knife into the mud in front of him. All was set except for the flame.
The rain was done, but now the wind was picking up again. A few high clouds played peekaboo with the full moon. It took almost an hour to light the candle and keep it lit. He cursed often, but always in general terms, mentioning no One or no Thing in particular.
Finally. Everything was ready.
Above the din of some returning rain and a fierce wind he yelled. “Oh Great Ones, Lost to the masses but known to me. I speak to you in a foreign tongue, in a land that has forgotten you, surrounded by the enemy and underneath the stars that herald your return. Allow me to live and sacrifice in your service. I vow that you will once again be worshipped by the many.” He plunged his fingers into the bowl and dressed the four grooves in the altar stone with blood.
He stood there, hands to the sky. The stormy winds lessened for a moment, and then came again redoubled like the crack of a whip. Smiling, he blew out the candle, poured the bowl of his life blood onto the shrine and waited out the return of the sun on that cold, windswept peak.
The fragmented dreams he had that night would haunt and guide him for the rest of his life.
He woke with the sun and spent the next three months repairing the shrine. Every day he washed the stone altar three times with a mixture of blood, water and certain local herbs; once at sunset, once at midnight and again right at sunrise. On each midnight of the full moon he sacrificed a small animal and ate it raw right on the altar.
During these months he also built a small shelter near the shore and explored the island. It was barren of any inhabitants larger than a fox. There were a few curious ruins at the lee side of the tallest mountain, but his gut was uninterested in these.
He waited for another sign.
Around midsummer, as the days grew longer and the storms grew stronger, a ship arrived on the island. It was piloted by smugglers who had been blown hopelessly off-course. The portly stranger bade the lawless men to come up and seek the blessings of the shrine. A few superstitious sailors came up and listened to him, taking part in a ritual later that night. The sailors stayed a few days waiting for any breeze and gathering water and supplies. A wind came the next day and the sailors bid the stranger fair winds.
Alone again, the stranger went about his duties. Some luck was evidenced by the smugglers and they returned the next year to the shrine a reverential bunch. They laid stones for the path up the hill, planted some fruit trees and built a nicer hovel for the tender of the shrine.
The presence of the shrine grew in stature. No longer was it forgotten. An injured sailor soon joined in daily worship of the shrine as he healed. A small smuggler’s outpost was founded in the sheltered valley behind the shrine and with that, the stranger left the island on the next boat, a gut feeling urging him southwestward. His work here was done.
The stars wheeled through the sky, seasons came and went. Time passed.
Thank you all for reading. I hope you enjoyed the story as much as I did. My sincere congratulations to Frank — a very talented writer. Until next time, I wish you all nothing but the best of all things.
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