Castle Roland

Short Story

Posted: 31 Oct 15

Castle Roland 2015 Halloween Contest 2nd Place Winner

Mask of the Hunter
Copyright © 2015 by Cynus

The sun was setting, casting long shadows across the city as Samuel Cleese glanced out the window. Within the hour night would be upon them, the perfect setting for a night full of mischief and fun. It was Halloween, and Sam had always loved the holiday, even if he were now too old for the activities he had enjoyed as a kid.

He had turned twenty one only two weeks before, and though he envied the trick-or-treaters to some nostalgic degree, he was glad the awkwardness of his youth was beginning to fade. Besides, being old enough to legally drink at last made it much easier to attend the wild Halloween party being thrown at the Columbine Hotel at the edge of town.

His hands set to work on straightening the plain black tie which hung around his neck, fingers deftly smoothing out the knot to ensure a professional look. He'd decided this year he'd go dressed as an American president, and had put on his best suit for the occasion. While he respected the purpose of the holiday was to scare away the evil spirits by being even more fearsome than they, he had a different agenda tonight.

It had taken a lot of work to get his best friend Brenda to ask if Daniel was going to be at the party, but she'd grudgingly done as he'd asked. Brenda knew how to get information if she wanted to, and it hadn't taken long for her to ask around and confirm Daniel was going to be there, and that he'd be there alone. If there were any friendly spirits watching out for Sam this Halloween, then with any luck Daniel wouldn't be leaving alone.

Sam couldn't help but sigh as he thought of Daniel's slim body, his skin bronzed from the long summer hours in the sun. His dark complexion was accented by his pitch-black hair, and his blue eyes were hauntingly beautiful in their complexity. Sam had been covertly watching Daniel for months, ever since they had begun the same Humanities course together at the community college. While they had yet to speak, Sam knew a great deal about Daniel simply from what others had said about him, but one detail stood out above the others. Daniel was gay, and he was single. For once in Sam's life, the guy he was going after wasn't already taken, and this was Sam's night to get the man of his dreams or die trying.

There was one problem left to solve. The party was a masquerade, and so finding Daniel could prove to be difficult, if not outright impossible. He would have to rely on voice, and hopefully some other details - like hair color - would remain visible. Of course, the masks could work to Sam's advantage as well, too. He wasn't confident enough to approach Daniel on his own, but perhaps behind the Richard Nixon mask he'd acquired specifically for the occasion, he might be able to muster up the courage, especially since it covered his entire face.

Sam sighed and smoothed back his blonde hair, adding gel and combing it to lie perfectly straight along his scalp. He'd never thought of himself as handsome, but tonight that wouldn't matter. Tonight he'd be a completely different person.

Such was the magic of Halloween after all.

"Are you ready to go yet?"

Sam turned around to see Brenda standing in his doorway, grinning despite the exasperated tone in her question. She was wearing a flowing but functional red and black full-length gown, and an opera mask in matching colors covered her eyes, extending in an owl-like beak over her nose.

"I have to make sure everything is perfect," Sam said, sighing as he fidgeted with his cufflinks again. Everything seemed straight, but his nerves were starting to get the better of him. "I want Daniel to like me. Is that too much to ask?"

"You are so neurotic, it's amazing you can even get out of bed in the morning," Brenda replied, rolling her eyes as she stepped into the room. She stopped as she stood next to Sam in the mirror, and when he started to reach for his tie again, she grabbed both of his wrists and spun him around to face her. "Stop fidgeting, Sam. You look great, and everyone else will think so too. I've always said you wear suits well, and you're only proving my point right now. Daniel's not going to know what hit him."

"I hope you're right, Brenda," Sam replied, looking at the mirror skeptically. "Oh, why couldn't I have been born better looking, or with money?" He sighed wistfully.

"That's the question we all ask," Brenda said, chuckling.

"You all ask that question about me?" Sam asked, grinning mischievously.

"Neurotic and incorrigible at the same time," Brenda replied with an eye of approval. "You're going to be the hit of this party, aren't you?"

"I don't know about that, have you forgotten Daniel's going to be there? I think he'll be the center of attention, as he should be."

"Of course I haven't forgotten, you won't let me forget!" Brenda patted him on the cheek and then started pulling him away from the mirror. "Now come on, the party is starting right now. If we leave soon we'll be as fashionably late as we're supposed to be."

"All right," Sam said, reaching for the Nixon mask which was sitting on his dresser. "Let's get this over with."

The Columbine hotel was one of the largest buildings in the small college town of Aspen Ridge, four stories tall with over two hundred rooms. Only the buildings on campus rivaled it in size. It didn't see much use during the spring, summer, or fall, but during winter season the town was packed with enthusiastic skiers and snowboarders come to risk their lives on the slopes. Ski season would begin when the first snow fell, but until that happened, the hotel preferred to rent out for private parties, either ones hosted by college students or for company retreats.

Today one of the local fraternities had rented the building, and had spared no expense at decorating it for the occasion. Jack-o-lanterns covered the steps, crudely carved into ghoulish faces and filled with candles. Two large braziers had been set near the entrance, though far enough from the building to prevent the tall red-orange flames from catching the wooden supports on fire.

Behind the burning pumpkins and braziers were a number of scarecrows, some hanging limply while others were position to be watching those who ascended the steps toward the hotel. Those scarecrows who watched had been made with sinister grins on their faces which almost made them seem alive. The eyes of the scarecrows were obscured by masks similar to the one Brenda wore, but in the ambient light of the flickering flames, the masks were eerie. It was not a place for the faint of heart.

Sam loved every minute of it. He'd been looking forward to the creepy aspect of Halloween almost as much as the rest of it, and now he was here, he was glad their hosts appeared to care as much about the holiday as he did. He wasn't one to scare easily, not with his great love of all things creepy, but he jumped - along with Brenda - at the sound of a crow cawing behind them as they ascended the stairs.

He spun on his heel, instinctively putting himself between Brenda and the noise. When he saw the single black bird was what had startled him, he was glad the mask was obscuring his face so no one would see him blush.

"My hero, saving me from a crow." Brenda chuckled beside Sam and lay a gentle hand on his arm. "If you keep that up, maybe I'll go home with you and Daniel will have to find someone else tonight."

"Keep your voice down," Sam growled. "I don't want anyone to know I'm looking for him."

"Then how do you expect him to know you're interested?"

"I'll find him, I'll flirt with him, and then hopefully . . ." Sam paused and thought about it for a moment. "Okay, so maybe I don't have a really good plan. Do you have any idea how nervous I am?"

"Yeah, I totally do," Brenda said, nodding sagely. "I seem to remember you gave me this much grief when I was going after Steven, and you made fun of me for weeks." She flashed Sam a wickedly eager grin and added, "I'm going to enjoy torturing you until you actually do something about it."

"Well, you won't have to wait too long," Sam said with a decisive nod. "Tonight's the night I give up being single and take home the man!"

"That's the spirit!" Brenda said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Let's get in there and find us some boyfriends!"

They walked up the steps arm in arm, the picture of poise and elegance. As shy as Sam was in public, he had been involved in drama for years and had acted in a number of roles in school plays. Brenda had been right there with him all along, and they both knew how to walk as if they owned the place. Though she was dressed decidedly more elegantly than he, they walked as if they belonged together, and the looks they earned from the masked men standing beside the door told them they'd succeeded at creating their intended image. They would not be forgotten so easily.

One of the men, a tall, broad-shouldered man with thick biceps and thighs, bowed to them as they approached. He was wearing a green colonial coat with matching britches, and a tricorn hat over a werewolf mask, and he spoke with a voice both deep and rumbling. "Welcome to the party, I trust you remember the rules from the invitation, but I will repeat them for your convenience. Masks must be worn at all times within the ballroom. Please do not ask for names of anyone in the ballroom to preserve the spirit of anonymity. Other than that, please, enjoy yourselves."

"Thank you, sir. We intend to," Sam replied, bowing to the man. "Now, milady, let us enter the ball."

"Most certainly, milord. Let us dance."

"I'm glad to see you're getting into the spirit of things," the green-coated man said with a chuckle. "Perhaps when I'm relieved of door duty we could have a dance later, ma'am? That is, if I would not be intruding. I would hate to interfere, milord."

"You may dance with her if you wish," Sam replied, nodding his assent. "But you will have to take it up with her. She's a free spirit, free in all regards, and free for more than just dancing."

Brenda punched Sam in the shoulder as the door guard laughed. "I accept your offer of a dance, but as to everything else . . . that is for me to decide."

"I appreciate a strong-willed woman," the door guard said with one final bow before gesturing to the open doorway. "I hope to find you sometime later this evening."

Sam and Brenda said their goodbyes to the guard and walked through the door. The entry hall of the hotel was as extravagantly decorated as the outside, though with notably less fire. Electric candles lined the walls, and candelabras sat on the tables, similarly fitted with glowing bulbs over flickering flames. The large chandelier, a prominent feature of the hotel and one of its selling points to tourists, was dimly lit, helping to cast the entire room in sweeping shadows.

The hotel had been built by a wealthy investor in the first ski resort who had wanted his guests to have quick access to both the town and the slopes. He'd named the hotel after the beautiful flower which was plentiful in the alpine meadows around the town, and decorated the hotel in blues, purples, and whites to match the colors of the flower's petals. The intricately patterned rugs and various paintings which hung around the entry hall were made to match this color scheme, but even with the bright and inviting colors, the dim light gave a haunting appearance to everything it touched.

Two grand staircases led up along the left and right walls to the second floor, and above that were another pair of staircases which swept back the other way and led up to the third floor. The landings prevented them from seeing the last pair of staircases leading to the top level, but from Sam's previous visits to the hotel, he knew they were just as impressive as those on the ground floor.

A single wide staircase descended into the ballroom between the two ascending ones, and Sam's eyes lit up with excitement as he saw the people dancing and milling about at the bottom. There were people in elegant attire matching Brenda's, as well as ghouls and goblins of all sorts. Witches danced with gothic vampires, and werewolves with kimonoed geishas. There were also a significant amount of people showing a lot of bare skin, wearing tight or revealing costumes designed to tantalize and arouse rather than frighten.

Sam had never been fond of those types of costumes before. Halloween wasn't about being sexy, it was about being frightening! But tonight was different, he realized. Tonight he was spending Halloween with the intention of getting a date with his crush. He couldn't belittle their intentions when his own were so similar, especially when several of the shirtless men walking through the crowd made his heart race and his face flush. Even if he didn't end up with Daniel tonight, there would be plenty of material to feed his future fantasies.

They descended the staircase and entered the huge ballroom. They didn't try to make an entrance as they had on the outer steps. Neither wanted the attention from so many guests, especially while the two of them were together. They didn't want to give the impression - as they had at the entrance - that they were an item. It would severely compromise their ability to flirt.

The ballroom was as extravagant as the rest of the hotel, tiled in blue and white, with small chandeliers hanging from above and reflecting their light off of the smooth floor. Unlike the entry hall and steps outside, this room felt warm and inviting, and with all the bodies inside, the late October chill was easy to forget. Tables had been set up in the corners of the room, holding bowls of punch, both alcoholic and not, and other refreshments. These tables were watched over by men in colonial dress like the door guard, but each wore a different mask so they could tell each other apart.

The music was loud enough for everyone to hear, but wasn't so intense as to drown out conversation. The guests were more inclined to converse with each other than dance, and they formed crowds around the edges of the room which took some time for Sam and Brenda to work their way through. Sam kept a lookout for Daniel as he passed through, hoping to catch a glimpse of his sun-bronzed skin or black hair, but he didn't pass anyone whom he thought might match Daniel's description.

After several minutes the duo stopped at one of the refreshment tables. Brenda took a cup of punch from the non-alcoholic line, but then took one of the alcoholic ones and handed it to Sam. She was the driver, and she didn't intend to drink at all, but she definitely didn't want Sam to miss out. "You look like you're going to need this tonight." She said, giving Sam a pointed look.

Sam stared at the drink for a moment, wondering how he was going to drink it, and then pushed his mask up slightly so his mouth was uncovered, but his eyes and nose remained obscured. He downed the punch quickly, feeling the burn as the alcohol hit his throat. He wiped his mouth and slid the mask into place before tossing the empty cup into the trash can at the end of the table.

"Thanks, I needed that," Sam said, nodding at Brenda. He scanned the crowd again, hoping in the few minutes since they'd arrived that Daniel would have shown himself. "Have you seen him anywhere yet?" He whined.

Brenda let out an exasperated sigh. "Geez, we just got here. Can't you have a little patience?"

Sam let his shoulders slump and he bit his lip anxiously. "Well, I want to get started wooing him right away."

Brenda laughed and Sam turned toward her, hurt. Once her laughter had subsided she turned an incredulous grin on him and asked, "Who says 'wooing' anymore? What are you, eighty?"

Sam pouted behind the mask, but his mood transferred into his voice, leaving no doubt of his displeasure. "Leave me alone. Go find some other guy to harass. Get married. Have kids. Name one after me so you can always remember the guy you teased mercilessly about his college crush."

"God you are awful tonight!" Brenda said, shaking her head. "Okay, I'll look around and see if I can find him. Stay here and look cute okay?"

"How am I supposed to 'look cute' when I'm wearing a mask?"

"The mask helps," Brenda said in deadpan. "Seriously."


"Listen, little boy. I'm doing you a favor, you better play nice."

"All right," Sam replied, raising his hands in surrender. "Queen Bitch."

"That's more like it," Brenda said, nodding in approval. "Don't neglect my title again."

They shared a laugh before Brenda disappeared into the crowd, Sam watched her go and then turned his attention to the staircase leading down into the ballroom, watching to see if Daniel would come in before Brenda came back. He put his back to the refreshment table and waited, knowing it would only be a matter of time before Daniel arrived either way.

He didn't have to wait long. A man in a long black cloak walked down the steps, wearing a black and gold masquerade mask which resembled a fanged skull, obscuring only the upper half of his face. Sam knew those lips from anywhere, and the black hair which poked out wildly from around the mask was definitely Daniel's. He scanned the crowd, smiling broadly and excitedly.

Sam felt his heart flutter, and he knew this would be his chance. He reached for another cup of alcoholic punch to boost his confidence and downed it even quicker than he had the first, and then took a third cup for good measure. As he threw the cups away he turned back to look at the entrance again, smiling nervously and looking for where Daniel had gone.

His smile faded as he found Daniel again, standing at the base of the stairs and looking up toward the top as if he were waiting for someone to come down after him. A second later a man dressed in a white cloak with an angelic mask descended toward Daniel. They shared a kiss, quick and friendly, but to Sam the matched pair might as well have been making out in front of him, taunting him with something he would never have.

"Hey there, Nixon. Nice suit."

Sam turned to see one of the shirtless dancers he'd noticed upon entering the ball, and now that one of the dancers was closer to him, Sam realized he'd misjudged how creepy such a costume could be. The young man was wearing a black plague doctor mask with a hooked beak and sunken eyes, causing Sam to peer into wells of shadow in order to see the dancer's eyes. A headdress made of black feathers cascaded down from his scalp, hiding the dancer's hair color.

On impulse, Sam's eyes glided lower, passed the dancer's toned pecs and abs to the loincloth like attire encircling his waist. This too, was covered in feathers which matched the headdress. The dancer's legs were bare down to just below the knees, where dark leather boots covered his shins and feet. He was clearly attractive, but at the same time he reminded Sam of the crow which had caught him off guard on the steps of the hotel. That extra creep factor, paired with the scene he had just witnessed between Daniel and his date, were enough for Sam to want nothing to do with the dancer.

"Um, thanks," Sam said with a weak smile. "If you'll excuse me?"

"Was it something I said?" the dancer asked, cocking his head to the side. "I was hoping we could dance."

"Um . . ." Sam began, but then he saw Brenda pushing her way through the crowd toward him. "Could you give me a minute?"

"If it means dancing, sure," the dancer replied. And then he reached for a cup of punch. Sam was too preoccupied in staring across the room at Daniel and his date to notice if the dancer had taken one with alcohol or not.

"I don't know if you saw but . . ." Brenda began, but then stopped short as she saw the way Sam was standing. He was completely withdrawn as if all the energy had been taken from him. "You saw him come in, didn't you?"

"Yeah," Sam sighed, "I guess it just wasn't meant to be, huh?"

"I'm so sorry, buddy," Brenda said, pulling Sam into a hug. She squeezed him tight for a moment and then let him go when she heard him sniffle. "Hey, there will be other fish."

"Yeah," Sam sniffed, "like I'm going to find someone else like Daniel so soon after I lost him,"

"Quit being so melodramatic," Brenda scolded. She leaned closer and whispered while indicating the feathered dancer with her eyes. "What about that guy? He's hot."

Sam shook his head and pushed away from her, speaking louder than he intended. "I don't want to talk about it. I'm going to go sit down."

"I'll come with you," Brenda said, sighing as she followed after him.

They reached the edge of the room where a number of chairs had been set up for weary dancers and took seats next to each other. Brenda wrapped her arm around Sam and held him close, consoling him for his unrequited love even though she thought he was being completely over the top. She understood what it was like as well as anyone else whom had ever had a crush. Love could be all consuming, especially when one was putting grandiose expectations on it, and whenever reality came crashing in it was always devastating.

Sam understood this on an instinctual level, but it took him some time to warm up to Brenda's suggestion that everything would be all right. After a half an hour of conversation he was starting to smile again, provided he ignored the section of the room where Daniel and his date were dancing. It would take some time, but he knew he would get over it eventually, and he resolved to not let it ruin his Halloween.

Brenda had just finished a joke which had them both in hysterics when the door guard pressed through the crowd and joined them. He walked immediately to Brenda and extended his hand as he bowed formally, his deep voice equal to the bow in its formality as he said, "Good evening, milady. Would you do me the favor of a dance?"

"So formal," Brenda cooed, clearly pleased by the attention the man was giving her, but then she sighed and looked down at Sam. "I would love to, but my friend here has had a rough night and I don't want to leave him."

Sam pulled away from her and nodded toward the door guard. "I appreciate you looking out for me, but go. Don't worry about me, I'm fine now. Thanks for everything."

Brenda met his eyes through the mask, and she gave a single resolute nod in understanding. "I'll be right back, okay?" She asked before giving her hand to the door guard and letting him pull her to her feet. He guided her toward the dance floor just as the strains of a waltz began to play. Sam smiled, knowing Brenda would enjoy the slower dance, and was glad at least one of them would be happy at the end of the night.

"Hey." A familiar voice said. Sam turned to see the feathered dancer from before standing several feet away. His head was cocked to the side in what Sam could only assume was a quizzical fashion. "I know it's none of my business, but you were hoping to hook up with someone special tonight, weren't you?"

"Yeah," Sam sighed. "You could say that. I was hoping Halloween would have its usual charm for me and I'd finally find someone special."

"Well, we don't know each other, but I really would be happy to dance with you," the feathered dancer said, extending his hand out to Sam. "I don't know what you look like under the mask, but I think that's the point tonight. No faces. No inhibitions."

Sam started to reach for the feathered dancer's hand, but then hesitated. He wasn't sure he was up to dancing just yet, despite all of Brenda's work on making him feel better. "Are you sure? I'm pretty smashed already. I don't know if I'd be any good at dancing right now."

"Maybe you could just sit right there then and enjoy it?" The feathered dancer said with a chuckle, closing the gap between him and Sam in two quick, graceful steps.

"What do you mea—"Sam started to ask as the feathered dancer took another step, widening his stance as he straddled Sam. He bent his knees and lowered his ass to Sam's lap, bending at the waist as he gripped Sam's shoulders for support. Sam's eyes locked on the feathered dancer's taut stomach muscles as his perfect abs contracted and expanded, matching the slower rhythm of the waltz.

Sam's cock was throbbing within seconds, but he still hadn't completely comprehended what was happening. His body was loving every second of contact with the feathered dancer, but his mind was fighting the alcohol for control. He wasn't sure he wanted things to move so quickly, especially with someone whose name he didn't even know.

"Just so you know," The feathered dancer said, leaning forward to whisper in Sam's ear seductively, "I'm not looking for anything permanent, just a bit of fun, you know?"

Sam nodded, starting to feel his senses returning to him. He reached his hands up to push the feathered dancer off of him. He'd made his decision; he didn't want to have sex play with someone he didn't know, even if it was only a lap dance. The problem he found, was he didn't know where to put his hands. Anywhere he touched would be directly against the dancer's skin, which would risk giving the wrong impression. He decided it was worth the risk and put his hands on the dancer's bare waist just as the music stopped.

"Uh . . . uhhuh," he said, answering the dancer's question at last. "Yeah, sure, about that . . ." His breath caught in his throat as fast tempo techno music started to play, and the dancer's movements changed. He lowered himself the rest of the way onto Sam's lap and then grinded against him as he moved backward, arching his back so he could press his forehead against Sam's, allowing their eyes to meet through the holes in the masks they wore.

While maintaining eye contact, the feathered dancer slid his hands slowly down Sam's shoulders and arms, rocking back and forth against Sam's crotch until their hands met on the dancer's hips. He took Sam's hands in his and guided them lower, under the loincloth to bare flesh underneath.

With his hands on the naked skin of the dancer's ass, Sam realized the dancer was completely naked underneath the loincloth, and suddenly the entire dance become much more erotic. He could feel the tip of the dancer's cock against his stomach, with only the cloth of his shirt keeping them separate. The dancer leaned forward again, leading with his cock, guiding it through the space between the buttons of Sam's shirt.

As soon as Sam felt the smooth head of the dancer's cock against the skin of his stomach he knew he could no longer resist. He wanted it too badly to say no now. He massaged the dancer's ass as he whispered, "Oh my god, I'm going to cum if you keep that up."

The dancer kept the rhythm going, bouncing up and down on Sam's crotch as he whispered, "How about we go somewhere private and I make you forget about whoever you were planning on hooking up with tonight?"

Sam hesitated for only a moment before he let his body win the argument. "You do more of what you were just doing, and I might believe that's possible."

"Oh, believe me, there's plenty more where this came from," The dancer said, standing and leaning forward, using Sam's shoulders to help him rise to his feet. This put the tented loincloth in Sam's face, allowing Sam to get a strong sniff of the dancer's musk. The dancer shuffled backward, sliding his hands into Sam's and gripping them, pulling him forward slightly but not forcefully. "Come on, Nixon. I've got my stuff stashed in one of the rooms on the second floor. Let's sneak up there and I'll make sure you have a Halloween to remember."

Sam only needed to think of his throbbing erection to know he needed the promised release. "Okay," he said, letting the dancer pull him to his feet. "Let's do it."

The door was cracked open, but even if it had been closed they would have been able to get in. A piece of tape had been placed along the doorframe across the strike plate, preventing the door from locking. The feathered dancer led Sam by the hand, through the doorway and into a room dimly lit by a nightstand lamp.

As soon as they were inside the room, the feathered dancer removed the tape and closed the door behind them. A black backpack sat against the wall next to the door, and the feathered dancer knelt beside the backpack, opening a side pocket and pulling out a condom. He then took off his boots, setting them beside the backpack. Sam followed suit, kicking off his shoes next to the door before slipping out of his suit jacket and dropping it on top of his shoes. He then turned around to face the dancer.

"Are you ready?" The feathered dancer asked, stepping forward and placing his hand on Sam's chest. Sam's erection had subsided slightly on their way to the room, but it was back immediately as soon as the dancer touched him.

But despite the blood rushing from his head to his cock, Sam had also had the time to fight through the haze in his mind, and was hesitant once again. He knew he wanted sex, but he was less sure about it being so anonymous.

"Before we do this . . ." Sam began hesitantly, biting his lip behind the mask as he paused, unsure of how to explain his doubts.


"My name is Sa—"

"Uh-uh," the dancer replied, cutting him off with an emphatic shake of his head. "No names. That's not what this night is about. This night is about lowering inhibitions; releasing the beast within."

Sam sighed, he had to make the choice, once and for all. He'd wanted to get laid, more than anything, he thought, but he'd also wanted a relationship, and he wasn't going to get that here. But still, he was single, and he was erect, and the dancer was willing and ready and even had a condom . . .

"What about the masks?" Sam asked. "What if I want to kiss you or something? Or suck you off?"

"Do you want to do this or not?" The dancer asked in an exasperated tone, putting his hands on his hips and staring intently at Sam. "Look, it's not too late to back out, but I'm having sex tonight, with you or without you. Don't waste my time."

Sam nodded and stepped forward, thinking he'd be stupid to miss the opportunity, hoping it would be his final decision. He slid his hands onto the dancer's waist, loving the feel of the smooth skin under his fingers. His erection immediately responded to the feeling of a man's flesh at his fingertips, and he nearly orgasmed then.

"You made the right choice," the dancer said, reaching between them and starting to unbutton Sam's shirt from the bottom up. "You're not going to regret this, I promise."

"Wait," Sam said, catching the dancer's hand, "hold on a second."

"What?" the dancer asked, tensing in Sam's grasp. "What's wrong?"

"I'm . . ." Sam sighed and relaxed his grip on the dancer's hand. "I've never done this before."

"You're a virgin?" The dancer stated more than asked.

"Yeah," Sam said quietly. "Is that a problem?"

"Not for me," the dancer replied, shrugging. "But it explains your hesitation. I'll be gentle, okay?"

Sam felt a wave of relief wash over him, and he nodded. He could feel the smile through the dancer's gaze as the dancer returned to unbuttoning Sam's shirt. Sam's heart was pounding, and he masked his nervousness by exploring the dancer's body. He slid his hands along the dancer's back, gently caressing his flesh and feeling every contour of his muscles.

And then as the dancer opened Sam's shirt and peeled it back, Sam suddenly felt more vulnerable than he ever had before. The tie which still remained around his neck felt tight, and he was sure he was about to pass out from lack of breath. He gasped for air, and then the dancer reached up and loosened the tie, untangling it from Sam's neck and throwing it to the side.

"You're nervous," the dancer said with a chuckle. "You don't have to be."

Sam nodded and tried to get back into the moment, sliding his hands lower down the dancer's body, under the loincloth and onto the dancer's ass, massaging his cheeks between his hands. The dancer moaned in pleasure and wrapped his arms around Sam's waist, pulling them together. Sam gasped as their erections touched through the cloth separating them, and then couldn't help but moan loudly as the dancer rhythmically ground against him.

And then the dancer pulled away, sliding his hands around to the front of Sam's belt, undoing the clasp and then moving on to Sam's zipper. Sam sucked in his breath as his zipper was ripped down, and his black slacks slid down his legs and bunched up around his ankles.

The dancer deftly unbuttoned the front of Sam's boxers and reached inside, freeing Sam's throbbing erection and holding it in his hand, stroking it slowly. It was the first time Sam had ever felt another man's hand on his cock, and he shuddered with pleasure at the intensity of the rhythmic stroking.

He had to know what it was like on the other end, and he pushed down on the elastic hem of the feathered loincloth, sliding it over the dancer's hips until it fell to the floor. The dancer quickly shuffled his feet, stepping out of the garment and kicking it to the side, giving Sam a moment to appreciate the view. As gorgeous as the dancer's body was, nothing prepared Sam for the stunning sight of the beautiful cut cock hanging between the dancer's legs. It wasn't too long or too short, average thickness and perfect for the dancer's frame. Sam took it in his hand, feeling the weight of it as he gently stroked it, his hand quickly becoming slathered in the pre-ejaculate.

The dancer moaned and gripped Sam tighter, and they stroked each other for a short time. It was the greatest feeling Sam had felt so far in his life, and he wondered what other wonders were in store for him as the night progressed. He couldn't wait to take the beautiful cock in his mouth, or even feel it in slowly penetrate his ass as the dancer had his way with him.

He was just about to kneel down in front of the dancer and push back his mask to taste him when the dancer beat him to it. In a series of quick movements the dancer pulled away from Sam and then knelt in front of him, pushing the beak of his plague doctor mask aside and taking Sam in his mouth. Sam nearly screamed in ecstasy as the dancer's warm mouth smothered his cock. The dancer's tongue wrapped around Sam's shaft, licking it from tip to base and then back again. Sam swooned and nearly lost his balance, gripping the back of the dancer's headdress for support in order to keep from falling over, and then swooned again when the dancer sucked Sam's cock in deeply, all the way to the base and then slid back off with a succulent pop.

And then the dancer was back at it again, his tongue making love to Sam's cock with the grace of experience behind it, dancing from base to tip. It was everything Sam had dreamed of the experience and more, he now knew what he had been missing, and was so glad he'd taken the opportunity when it was presented to him.

He moved to run his fingers lovingly through the dancer's hair and ended up with a fistful of feathers for his trouble. He felt a spike of pleasure from the blowjob but it didn't feel as high as before. Something was wrong. He tried to get back into the feeling of it again, and peered down at the dancer to look lovingly into his eyes. What he saw instead was the lifeless eye sockets of the mask staring up at him, twisted to the side to give the dancer access to Sam's cock without removing it. The sockets were empty, devoid of soul.

Just like the sex he was having. Just like the moment. This wasn't everything he'd dreamed of for his first time, it was a farce. This sex was as unreal and pointless as every mask he'd seen down in the party, and he couldn't let it continue that way.

"Stop!" Sam cried. The dancer pulled off of him and looked up. Sam quickly stepped away, raising his hands defensively. "I can't do this. I thought I could but . . ." He trailed off and shook his head, reaching down to pull up his pants.

"Seriously?" the dancer asked. With the mask still contorted to the side, it was easy to see the scowl he was wearing. Sam hurried and buttoned his pants back up and started shoving his quickly deflating cock back inside his boxers. "You're going to tease me like this and then be a little bitch about it?" The dancer spat. "What the fuck is wrong with you?"

"Sorry, I can't . . ." Sam said, shrugging helplessly as he finally managed to get his cock to behave. He zipped up and started on his belt as he began speaking rapidly, "I don't even know your name. This isn't how I wanted my first time to go. I need to leave."

Sam turned around to look for his tie when he felt the dancer grasp his arm in a vice-like grip, spinning him back around. The plague doctor mask was back in place and seemed far more ominous than it had before. "Fuck that," the dancer growled, maintaining his grip on Sam's wrist. "You're not going anywhere until I get what I came for."

"Let go of me!" Sam yelled, ripping his hand away. "What the fuck!?"

The dancer shoved Sam hard toward the bed, and Sam tripped over his feet and landed hard against the mattress. In one quick bound the dancer was on top of him, holding him against the bed with one hand and ripping at Sam's zipper and clasp with the other. "You've led me on all night," he growled menacingly, "and I'm going to fuck you whether you want it or not!"

"Get off of me!" Sam screamed, pushing the dancer off and away, fighting him every second as he struggled to his feet and made a break for the door. The dancer caught his arm again and spun him around, trying to shove him back toward the bed.

Sam's knee twisted painfully underneath him as he tried to get past the dancer, and it buckled right as he was shoved again. He fell, hard and fast toward the nightstand, feeling a sudden rush of pain as his head cracked hard against the hardwood corner.

As his world faded to black the last thing he heard was the dancer's frantic voice shouting, "Shit! Fuck fuck fuck!"

Sam reached up to feel his head, surprised to find it didn't really hurt at all. There was no blood, nor any sign of injury, except for a dazed feeling and a sense of disorientation. He looked around the room, still on the floor of the hotel room where he and the dancer nearly had sex.

Unless the dancer had raped him while he was unconscious, Sam realized. He looked down at his pants, still in the same state they'd been in when the dancer had thrown him against the bed, and there was no pain anywhere in his body. Even the knee he remembered twisting was fine as far as he could tell.

He began to wonder if it had all been part of a dream induced by too much alcohol, but he hadn't had that many drinks, unless the punch was stronger than he'd thought it was. He climbed to his feet and looked around, wondering how long it had been since he'd passed out.

The dancer was long gone, and he'd taken his backpack with him. Sam noticed with dismay that some of his own items were missing as well, including his shoes, suit jacket, and tie. His shirt still hung open, and he began to button it, muttering angrily about how the dancer had either pranked him or stolen from him just because Sam had refused to have sex with him. After his shirt was buttoned he redid his belt, and in the process noticed his pockets were empty as well.

"Fuck, really?" Sam asked the empty room. "Did you fucking take my wallet, keys, and phone, too? What kind of creep are you?"

He shook his head and looked around the room, hoping the dancer had simply hidden them rather than taking them. He opened every drawer on the nightstand, in the wardrobe, and in the bathroom. Checked under the bed, and ransacked the covers, but he couldn't find them anywhere. He didn't know what else to do, other than go downstairs and hope to find Brenda. At least then he'd be able to get a ride home.

With a sigh he opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. Looking back, he memorized the room number so he could tell the hotel staff later that he'd misplaced a few items inside and hope the cleaning crew would be able to find them. He looked both ways down the hallway, one way which led back toward the stairs which would return him to the party, and the other which ended at a fire exit. He knew the fire exit opened up to a staircase which ran along the outside of the building and connected all of the floors. It was a short walk around to the front of the building from there, and he'd be able to get some fresh air which he desperately needed, even if the cement outside would feel cold against his shoeless feet.

He walked toward the exit door, glad his disorientation was beginning to fade. Whatever had happened while he was passed out, it was over now. He'd find some way to get past it and learn from the experience. As excited as he'd been to come to the party and drink himself silly, he doubted he'd ever let himself lose such track of his senses again, at least not for a long while. But at least he'd managed to keep his hold on his virginity and not give it to a stranger.

The cool October air hitting his face as soon as he stepped through the door was like a gentle embrace from an old friend, welcoming him home. It was the exact thing he needed after the night he'd had, and with the air came the scent of autumn leaves, and a hint of smoke. He could see several large bonfires through the trees of the forest surrounding the hotel, burning bright and tall, with people gathered around them and clearly enjoying each other's company.

That was what he should have been doing, Sam realized. Halloween was meant to be a celebration; a time to have fun with friends and family in the magical atmosphere which surrounded the holiday, and instead he'd spent it getting drunk and mooning over a crush he'd lost, which almost led to him being raped. It made him wish he were young enough to trick-or-treat again, and enjoy the costumes and decorations with the same child-like wonder he'd once had.

Sam leaned against the cold metal railing of the wrought-iron stairs skirting the building, peering out at the bonfires and wondering what sort of magical evening the people near it were having. Whatever they were doing, it had to be better than his night had been.

Cawing interrupted his thoughts and sent shivers down his spine. He looked up to see a crow sitting on a window sill above him and further down the wall. Sam wondered if it was the same one as from earlier in the night, but either way, a crow was the last thing he wanted to see at that moment.

He kept his eye on the bird as he descended the staircase, noting that the bird seemed to be watching him with equal intensity. This unnerved him more than a little, but as soon as he reached the bottom of the stairs, the crow flew away and everything felt right again. Except for the cold cement under his feet which made him wonder why he'd ever thought going through the fire exit without shoes would be a good idea.

He started around the edge of the hotel, following the cement walk which meandered through the hotel's grounds, past trimmed bushes and flower beds filled with withering plants, dying in the chilling air of fall. They would soon be buried under snow, and Sam's whole world would be dead in winter, waiting for the spring thaw to live again. Thoughts of winter brought the predicament of his cold feet back to the forefront of his mind, and he began sprinting down the path, hoping to reach the hotel more quickly.

As he came around a bend in the path he saw Brenda standing in the parking lot, chatting with the door guard next to her car. She was glancing at her watch and then back at the hotel as if she were expecting someone to come out at any moment. Sam realized it was him she was waiting for, and he wasted no time in trying to get her attention.

"Brenda!" He shouted, pulling up short from his sprint to catch his breath. He saw her start to turn toward him and he added, "Am I glad to see y—"

Sam cut his words short when loud growling came from inside a hedge between him and Brenda. The hedge rustled and a large dog emerged from inside, teeth bared and snarling viciously at Sam. Sam raised his hands and took an involuntary step backward, taking a moment to size up the dog.

It was huge, as large as a mastiff at least, with a white coat which shined in the moonlight which washed over it. Its fur was thick and sleek, and its red-tinged ears were laid back angrily. Without any warning the dog darted forward, straight at Sam and barking loudly.

"Oh no, bad dog," Sam started, keeping his hands between him and the dog as he shuffled backward, his feet taking on a mind of their own. "Stay! Stay," he ordered, but the dog kept coming. "Holy shit!" Sam shouted, turning on his heel and running back the way he'd come.

He didn't have to glance over his shoulder to know the dog was still chasing him, the snarling and growling was loud enough that he was amazed Brenda hadn't heard it from the parking lot and brought the door guard to his rescue. But there were no human noises piercing the night other than his own frantic panting and occasional yelp.

His intention was to let the dog chase him around to hotel so he could reach the parking lot from the other side, but as soon as he rounded the back of the hotel and found himself near the fire escape, two more dogs were waiting in the shadows, identical to the first and clearly of the same mindset as their growling filled the night air and his heart with terror. One was standing at the base of the fire escape, blocking him from retreating up the stairs, while the other stood on the path, preventing him from escaping in that direction either.

His only path left was a trailhead which led into the woods, and in desperation he took it. There was little he thought more dangerous than taking a trail through the woods at night without shoes, but being eaten by three hungry dogs seemed high on the list. His hope lay in the bonfire he'd seen earlier, and the people who'd been tending to it. With any luck the dogs would be afraid of the fire at least, and he'd have some reprieve.

The snap of jaws behind Sam gave him an indication of how close the dogs were to him. Although it seemed impossible for them to be so near, he swore he could feel their warm, moist breath on his skin, and it spurred him to run even faster. He tore down the trail as fast as his legs could carry him, the barking and baying of the dogs like some sadistic cheerleaders urging him to play his best or suffer the consequences.

It was a miracle he didn't trip until his thoughts drifted to Brenda, thinking briefly about how she'd never believe him when he told her what had happened that night. He lost focus on the trail as soon as the image of her in the parking lot entered his mind, and his foot hooked a root and sent him sprawling forward into the dirt.

"Fuck!" He screamed as he rolled to his feet, hopping up quickly and struggling forward, knowing whatever ground he'd gained on the dogs had just been lost. He could smell the bonfires in the air now, much stronger than they'd been before, and he was sure he could see the flickering flames through the trees. With grim determination, he began to sprint down the trail again.

He thought about going through the underbrush, ignoring the trail altogether, but as soon as the thought crossed his mind he heard new growling join that of the three already chasing him. They were cutting off any chance of him moving side to side, almost as if they were herding him, or trying to surround him. If he didn't make the bonfire soon, they would get what they wanted.

"Why the fuck are you chasing me!?" He screamed in desperation, knowing there was no chance his question would be understood. The bonfire was still a hundred yards away, and he hoped his question would at least be heard by some of those tending it.

And then his foot clipped a rock, and he went tumbling forward again. This time the wind was knocked out of him as he landed, and he gasped for breath, struggling to his hands and knees as he prayed the dogs would make his end quick.

"Get behind me! Quick!"

Sam looked up in awe at the man coming toward him. Despite the torch the man carried, Sam's mind was too frantic to pay attention to any of the details as the man rushed toward him, his eyes on the dogs who were starting to circle around Sam.

Sam scrambled forward, half crawling half crouching until he was past the man and looking back wild-eyed at the dogs, of which there were now nine. The man waved the torch at the dogs, holding his hand out and meeting the dogs with a level gaze. The dogs looked at the man and then at Sam, then back at the man. The snarling ceased almost immediately, and the dogs seemed to relax, almost as if they'd grown bored of the chase. With a disinterested look back at Sam they loped off into the woods, disappearing into the underbrush.

"Those dogs listened to you," Sam whispered in awe, once the dogs were out of sight. "Do they know you?"

"You could say I'm intimately familiar with their owner," the man said quietly, turning to face Sam and holding the torch high enough to illuminate the area and his personage, but the grey hood of his cloak kept his face hidden in shadows. The cloak hung low around his form, with red Celtic knot designs embroidered across its entire length. Sam could barely see the man's clothes through the opening of the cloak, but he was certain his savior wore a medieval style tunic and a skirt-like garment about his waist, both red.

"Are you all right?" The man asked, taking a step forward and extending his hand out to Sam to help him to his feet. Sam took the proffered hand and allowed the man to pull him up. In the process he was able to get a brief look of the lower part of the man's face, and the pleasant but sad smile which graced his lips.

"Not really," Sam replied, looking down at his clothing. His pants were torn to shreds from his run through the woods and his tumbling to the ground. The buttons of his shirt had come undone and several seemed to have been lost entirely. He was surprised he wasn't cut like his pants had been. "I just had possibly the worst night of my life. I'd really rather not talk about it."

A light gust of wind moved through the trees and sent shivers down Sam's spine. "You must be freezing now," the man observed. "Come join us at the bonfire."

"Thanks," Sam said, turning toward the bonfire and waiting for the man to lead the way. "I could use a moment to catch my breath before I return to the hotel. I'm sure Brenda's going to be looking for me."

"I can imagine," the man replied with a strange chuckle. The sound was hauntingly melodic, and as he continued speaking Sam noted the quality was still present in the man's voice. "My name is Aaron by the way."

Sam nodded in greeting. "Sam. Thanks again for saving me from those dogs, Aaron."

"Not a problem. We like to take care of each other here."

Aaron led Sam through the trees toward the nearest of the bonfires, around which several logs had been set, with a number of people sitting on them and enjoying the heat of the flames. Some were dressed similar to Aaron, but the others were dressed completely in furs like trappers. Each of those sitting around the fire were men, all drinking from metal cups.

The smell of venison filled the air, and Sam saw a smaller cook fire beyond the first bonfire, where a large man stood turning a spit which bore a skinned deer. Several tents were erected further back, before the next bonfire and closer to the edge of the clearing.

None of the men were remotely familiar to Sam, but they also appeared harmless. He sensed no malicious intent from them, and they practically ignored him altogether, except when their eyes briefly passed over him as they acknowledged Aaron. Aaron nodded to them in turn and then continued to lead them forward, past the first bonfire and further into the camp.

"I haven't seen you around before," Sam said, glancing around at the camp before turning to look at Aaron. "Are you new in town?"

"No, I was hunting in the area," Aaron replied neutrally, "hence the stag there."

"That smells delicious," Sam said as his mouth watered. "God, I hadn't realized how hungry I was."

"Well, we'd be happy to share," Aaron said, stopping next to the spit and laying a hand on the shoulder of the large man tending it. "I wasn't the only one who got lucky hunting today. My compatriots would be happy to feed you."

"It's true," the large man replied, smiling through his thick beard at Sam and then nodding at Aaron. "Lord Aaron is a generous man, and you should take his bounty when it's offered."

"Lord? So you are European then?" Sam asked, awestruck. Brenda was never going to believe this when he told her. "I thought you might be a foreigner, there's something different about your voice."

Aaron nodded slowly and turned toward him. Even standing as close to the cook fire as he was, his face remained mysteriously in shadows. "Yes, I do hail from there originally. I move all over the world, however. Wherever the hunt calls me."

"The hunt?"

"I hunt up until the eve of Samhain, when the world dies, and is reborn." Aaron indicated with the torch in his hand that they should continue walking, and Sam fell into step beside him. "I do it every year, and I meet all sorts of people in the process."

Sam's head began throbbing without warning, and he reached up to where he had hit it against the nightstand, wondering if he'd suffered a more serious injury than he'd originally thought. His hand found nothing but the strap of the Nixon mask he was still wearing. "I'm sorry," Sam replied as he removed the mask to free his head from the extra tension. "This is all fascinating to me, but my head is killing me."

Aaron nodded in understanding and gestured beyond the second bonfire toward the third, which had lessened in its intensity since Sam had seen it through the trees, and now a large cauldron sat atop it, nine figures standing around it, some adding ingredients to the cauldron and one stirring it while the remainder watched. "Not a problem. Come with me, I'd like you to meet some of my friends. They should be able to help you with that headache."

As they approached, Sam looked more closely at the figures around the cauldron. Each was a woman of undeterminable age, wearing cloaks similar to Aaron's in design but each one different in color. It became apparent as they drew nearer that those which he had originally assumed to be observing were in fact chanting incantations as the cauldron was stirred.

"This whole thing feels very pagan to me," Sam said, nodding in understanding. "Don't get me wrong, I have a number of friends who are devout pagans, so I don't have a problem with it, but are those witches? Like, real witches?"

"You could call them that," Aaron replied casually. "They certainly wouldn't be offended by the title. They do make some delicious beverages."

Sam stopped in his tracks, looking at the cauldron anxiously. "I think I've had enough to drink tonight, thanks. I don't need any more punch."

"Trust me," Aaron said continuing toward the cauldron and gently waving Sam forward. "This will cure the headache caused by the alcohol."

"I'm not sure that's what caused my headache, but how did you know I was drinking?" Sam asked, taking another step forward though his eyes narrowed in suspicion.

Aaron chuckled, unperturbed by Sam's suspicion. "I could smell it on your breath."

Sam laughed at that, realizing that suspecting the man who'd saved him from the dogs wasn't being fair, and Aaron had been nothing but gracious. He'd been offered rest, warmth, food, and now drink, and all from a man who didn't appear to have any other motive. Sam let his guard down and followed Aaron the rest of the way toward the cauldron. "Fair enough. Sorry, after what happened to me tonight, I'm having issues trusting people."

Aaron shrugged as he walked to a table set up beside the cauldron, containing a row of cups and serving utensils. He took two cups and a ladle from the table and walked to the edge of the cauldron, filling one and then the other. He then walked back to Sam's side and handed him one cup before taking a drink from the other. "Well," He said after swallowing. "I suppose there are worse people to trust than a mysterious coven leader in the forest, offering you something to drink from a cauldron watched over by nine witches. Probably not many, though."

"Hah, when you put it that way, I suppose appearances can be deceiving. You're a very generous man." Sam shook his head in wonder, and then nearly gasped at the smile he saw on Aaron's face. The smile was still sad, haunting even, but it also filled Sam with an unnatural warmth which made his heart flutter. He knew somehow he could trust Aaron, and he raised the cup to his lips, smelling the spiced apple cider before tasting it. The aroma was not only pleasant, it was nearly intoxicating, and before he realized what he was doing he had drained the entire cup.

"I try to be," Aaron said before taking another sip. "Are you feeling better?"

Sam stared at the cup in amazement. His headache had immediately disappeared as soon as the cup was empty. In fact, he felt better than he'd ever had in his life, and he couldn't imagine how that was possible considering the night he'd had. His stamina was revitalized, his arms and legs were no longer weary from the run through the woods, and he swore he could see more clearly than ever before. Even the shadows hanging around Aaron's face were easier to pierce than before, though it was only enough to allow him to see the outline of Aaron's face and not the detail.

Aaron had high cheekbones and a slender jaw, and his nose was neither too large nor too small. Although Aaron's eyes were still hidden from Sam's view, he could feel the intensity of his stare now, and knew Aaron was analyzing his every move.

"I'd say I'm more than feeling better. I think I could run a marathon right now if I wanted to," Sam replied, shaking his head in wonder and handing the empty cup back to Aaron. "What was in that?"

"Spiced apple cider," Aaron said with a shrug, though one corner of his mouth was tugged up slightly in amusement and some of the sadness faded from it. Sam's whole body felt warm again, drawn as he was into that smile and wanting to know how it looked when Aaron's eyes lit up at the same time. He knew he was being completely crazy to think Aaron might have any interest in him, being a foreign lord, master of magical arts and leader of his own coven. To think Aaron would be gay on top of it all, and have interest in the boy he'd saved from a pack of dogs was asking a considerable amount.

And so his heart fell, and he buried his feelings. He'd already exposed his heart enough that night, and he doubted it could take much more abuse. "I should get back to the hotel," Sam said neutrally. "Thank you for your hospitality, but I'm sure Brenda's waiting for me."

"Perhaps, but you really can't go out there like that. You're clothing is in rags and you're barefoot," Aaron said, gesturing to Sam's state of disarray. "I'm sure we have some clothing which will fit you somewhere, and while we see what we can find for you, we'll get you fed, hmm?"

Sam smiled, knowing he'd be silly to refuse Aaron's generosity. Making it through the woods in his current state without injury had been miraculous. Doing it again would be asking for trouble. He could certainly use the clothing, and the venison also smelled delicious.

"Okay, I'll stay," He said with a grin, "But you better fill that cup up for me again. I'm going to need more of that 'spiced apple cider'." His index fingers made little quotation marks in midair and he was rewarded with another melodic laugh from Aaron.

"One cider coming right up," Aaron replied with a bow. "How about you join the men round the first fire, and I'll bring you the cider and hopefully have some news about clothing for you. This is going to be a night to remember, Sam. I'm glad you chose to join us."

"Chose?" Sam asked in wonder. "I distinctly remember being chased here."

"Indeed. You could have fought the dogs instead had you wished, though that likely would have ended quite badly for you," Aaron replied, smirking.

"I suppose you're right," Sam said, laughing nervously. "I'm glad I chose to join you too. I'll see you in a moment, Aaron."

Aaron joined Sam after a moment, handing him a fresh cup of cider and telling him that clothes would soon be found for him. It was welcome news, of course, but not nearly as welcome as the spiced beverage sliding down Sam's throat, warming his insides almost as much as Aaron's smile did.

Upon seeing him, the men around the fire greeted him and introduced themselves. There were too many names for him to remember, but they all remembered his and made sure to use it often, almost as if they were sure he would be staying awhile and wanted him to feel welcome.

After a few minutes he realized he wouldn't really be opposed to the idea, and as it stood, Brenda would likely have figured he'd either found a ride home or decided he'd found someone to spend the night with. She would worry for a while, but that damage was already done, and even if he did return to the hotel, now there was no telling if she'd even be there.

All of this was rationalizations, Sam knew, but he really didn't want to leave after he'd had the second cup of cider, and smelled the venison cooking nearby. The refreshment was good, the company better, and his Halloween night seemed to finally be heading in a good direction.

A young woman approached from the direction of the witches' fire, but it was not one of the ones Sam had seen tending to the cauldron. She was prettier than all of them put together, and her blue eyes bore a sadness to them beyond any Sam had ever seen, save maybe the haunting smile Aaron wore. She was dressed like the hunters, and not like the witches, and around her neck hung a whistle, white and red, and carved to look like a dog. She leaned forward, whispering to Aaron so only he could hear. He smiled and nodded as she pulled away, and she smiled back before walking back the way she'd come.

Sam instantly felt jealous as he remembered what Aaron had said when he'd first arrived. Aaron was intimately familiar with the owner of the dogs, and Sam would bet money this woman was the owner in question. He shook his head ruefully, a profound sadness beginning to take over his heart. He knew he shouldn't have set his heart on Aaron, but he hadn't been able to stop himself.

He was about to rise to his feet and tell Aaron he'd be leaving as soon as he had the promised clothing, refreshments be damned, when Aaron turned to him and tilted his head to the side in a quizzical manner. "I sense a great longing in you, Sam," he said with a slow nod. "It's mesmerizing, really. How much of me I see in you."

Sam was completely caught off guard by the strange remark, and he took long enough to sort out his jumbled thoughts that Aaron was able to speak again. "Regardless, Matilda has informed me suitable clothing has been found for you. I hope you won't mind if it's not quite your size, but it should do. She even found you a pair of boots. They're hers, but she has large feet for a woman."

"Hah! As if Matty is a woman!" One of the nearby men called out. "She's a man as surely as the rest of us."

"Only by your outdated ethics," another man replied. "Just because she hunts like the rest of us doesn't make her any less of a woman. She's far too beautiful to be a man."

"And who says a man cannot be beautiful?" Aaron said, standing and facing the men. "Do you not remember Bran? If Bran could not be considered beautiful, then there is no such thing as beauty."

"Hear, hear!" called several of the other men at the fire, and then a single one of those men added, "Lord Arawn speaks the truth again!"

Murmurs of agreement rippled through the gathering and Aaron raised his hands to silence them. "Regardless of what you may think of Matilda, do not forget she deserves your respect. She could outhunt any of you, any day of the year. From the first snow to Samhain, she'll bring in more than the rest of you combined."

"Aye, that she will," the first man agreed. "And give the glory to her Lord as is proper."

Aaron waved the man away amidst cheers of his name, though some shouted Arawn instead of Aaron, which Sam found strange but not enough to comment. The men returned to private conversations again, and Aaron took the opportunity to pull Sam away from the fire.

"I wish sometimes they wouldn't treat me as a nobleman," Aaron said, sighing as they began walking toward one of the tents.

"Why shouldn't they? Are you not a lord?"

"Does that make me better than they? Why should I expect something from others because of a title?" Aaron asked, laughing bitterly. "I think life is much simpler when we learn to let go of expectations and assumptions, and travel as the wind takes us. One does not go into a hunt knowing how their prey will react, if the wind will be in their favor or not, or if their arrows will fly true."

"But we're talking about life here, aren't we?" Sam asked. "Life is not a hunt."

"Is it not?" Aaron replied, stopping and turning toward Sam. "We move through life pursuing one thing or another, some of which are particularly elusive, which requires us to rely on our experience, skill, and cunning in order to seize opportunities when they arise, or make them ourselves. Are we not all hunters attempting to capture our prey?"

"I suppose you may have a point," Sam said, nodding slowly. "I've certainly felt at times that I'm chasing something and can't seem to catch it."

"I suppose that must be the longing I sensed in you earlier," Aaron said, smiling at him. He reached out with his hand, letting it hover over Sam's shoulder but then withdrew it without making contact.

Sam tried to understand the meaning behind the gesture as Aaron continued, the haunting melodic quality returning strongly to his voice. "This is really what the hunt of Samhain is all about. You refer to this holiday as Halloween, I know, but where I come from there was a deeper, spiritual side to this holiday. It was a day of feasting and preparation for the next year; it was a day of transition, from one stage of life to another. For the Celts, Samhain was the death of summer, and the birth of winter. It was also a time for the souls of the dead to return to the world, finding new incarnations in order to live again, just as the world will slowly thaw and return to life again."

Aaron gazed off into the trees as his voice grew distant. "When we hunt we are locked in the cycle of life and death, we seek the death of another that we may live, and if they live then we may die, though to delight in that killing is a different matter altogether. Some seem to forget we reap what we sow, and the more harm we cause, the more harm will befall us."

"If we reap what we sow, then clearly I've been sowing the wrong seeds," Sam said, rolling his eyes. "I didn't think I deserved any of what happened to me tonight."

"Sometimes it does seem that way," Aaron replied, nodding slowly. "I can certainly see the other point, but consider this: perhaps all the good you've sewn is why I was there when you needed me most."

"Perhaps," Sam conceded, "But I prefer to think it coincidence, although one I'm grateful for. Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good, and it happens the other way around as well. All of it is coincidence."

"Maybe, but then why were you led to me, on tonight of all nights?" Aaron asked, shaking his head and turning toward the tent. Sam waited for Aaron to elaborate but he said instead, "You'll find clothing inside, and some sturdy boots. You don't need to worry about returning them to us. Consider them a gift."

"Thank you," Sam said, smiling his appreciation as he walked past Aaron and parted the flap of the tent, peering inside. A lantern was hung in the center of the tent, illuminating the space in a soft, white glow, and a neat pile of clothing sat off to the side. Despite the medieval dress of those around him, he was surprised to see jeans and a polo shirt, both similar to the ones he was used to wearing in his everyday life.

"Hey, these clothes are perf—"Sam began, turning back to where Aaron had been standing, but his host was nowhere to be seen. Sam ran his fingers through his hair, not knowing what to make of Aaron's disappearance, but then he shrugged and decided he'd worry about it after he was dressed.

He stepped into the tent and started to undress, removing first his ruined slacks and then his shirt, tossing them to the side and wondering what he would do with them. They were little better than rags now, and would only serve to remind him of the bad things which had happened to him that evening. He paused when he reached his boxers, wondering if they'd supplied him with underwear as well, and as soon as the thought crossed his mind he noticed a pair of boxers underneath the polo shirt. They appeared brand new, and Sam shook his head in wonder. It all seemed far too perfect, but he had decided to stop questioning his good fortune a long time before.

The boxers came off, and Sam started to dress in the new clothing, pausing as he reached for the new pair. He was naked, standing in the tent of an almost complete stranger, surrounded by people outside whom he didn't know at all, but he had never been more comfortable in his life. The strange warmth which he'd felt every time Aaron smiled at him permeated the tent, and sank into his bones. His heart was pounding in his chest, but it wasn't out of fear or panic as it had been earlier in the night, it was as if it were sensing a primal rhythm, a music which his ears could not hear but which his blood could not help but dance to.

And then the drums started outside the tent, a slow rhythm at first, and then the drumming grew more intense as another set of drums joined the first. The rhythm became more intricate, and Sam felt a pull toward the front of the tent. He reached for the flap of the tent and then remembered his nakedness and turned back around.

Before he had taken another step, a flute joined the drums, a trilling sound, playing a haunting melody which instantly brought Aaron's smile, and Matilda's gaze back to his mind. A fiddle joined the song next, playing chords alluring and intoxicating, a sound to match the taste of the apple cider, and the scent of the venison. His heart longed to answer the call of the song, and he turned back toward the tent flap, ignoring his nakedness as he poked his head outside to see what had become of the camp.

He gasped in surprise at the impossible change which had come over the camp. Jack-o-lanterns carved of pumpkins and turnips were everywhere, embers burning inside of them and helping to illuminate the camp with their flickering flames. Two of the bonfires had disappeared altogether, but a large feast table had come from nowhere, arrayed with the roasted stag as the centerpiece, but with all manner of apples, squash, and potatoes garnishing the meal; roasted chicken and quail accompanied the venison, and bowls of berries and pies were spread throughout the feast. The sheer amount of food was staggering. Places were set for far more people than Sam had seen in the camp, and each one had a goblet in front of it which he somehow knew were filled with the cider from before.

But the music drew his eyes away from the table to the last remaining bonfire, which had doubled in size and intensity, around which the men and women were gathered. Some on the outer ring, playing their instruments as those in the center danced around the flame. Gone were the furs, the cloaks, the tunics and skirts. Men and women danced naked around the flames, their bodies painted with runes and symbols. Each of the dancers wore ghastly masks, each different but no less fearsome than the others. Some resembled growling wolves, others fierce hawks, and some Sam could only describe as demonic.

The dancers circled the fire, allowing Sam to see each and every one of them, but the last dancer in the ring took his breath away. His body was painted far more intricately than the others, sporting not only runes but also intricate knotwork across his chest and back. His body was that of a dancer as well, with toned, lean muscle everywhere, forming contours which added grace and sleekness to his body. As he danced, each step matched perfectly to the rhythm of the haunting melody, as if he were the one the song were about.

But the most imposing feature of the central dancer was his mask, a bleached-white skull of a stag, with a full rack of antlers to make any buck proud. It was a crown fit for a forest king, and Sam had no doubt as to the identity of the dancer. Aaron was even more impressive than Sam had imagined.

Before he realized what was happening he found himself walking toward the bonfire, all thoughts of getting dressed were left far behind him. His blood sang along with the melody, and his heartbeat matched the rhythm of the drumming. The closer he came to the bonfire, the more intense the warmth inside of him became. A primal energy filled the air, unshackling him from his inhibitions faster than any alcohol ever could.

Aaron pulled away from the dancers as Sam neared, and he stared directly at him, extending his hand out to him. Sam took the offer without hesitation and let himself be pulled into the ring. He moved entirely on instinct, and found the dance inside of his soul. His entire being thrummed with primal energy, taking his mind to a higher plane as he danced circles around the flames, reveling in a feeling of being alive unlike anything he'd ever felt before. The dance was orgasmic, but not erotic. It filled him with pleasure he could not begin to describe, and he lost himself in the beauty of it.

He didn't know how long they danced, or what time it was when the music slowed and the feast began, but after a time the intense flames began to die down. The dancers pulled away, weary but high on the energy they'd channeled in their ritual. The instruments ceased, first the fiddle, then the flute, until there was only a slow drumming left for Sam to dance to. He was one of the last dancers remaining, and he stopped at last when he circled the flames one final time and found Aaron standing, staring into the fire.

"I'm glad you decided to join us," Aaron said, keeping his focus on the flames. "I trust you enjoyed yourself."

"I did," Sam replied, nodding enthusiastically. "One thing I never expected to do in my life was dance naked around a fire."

"You didn't."

Sam tilted his head to the side, curious what Aaron meant. "I didn't what?"

"There's something you need to know, Sam," Aaron said quietly. "It's something very important, which I waited to tell you, but the dawn is fast approaching and I've run out of time."

"What are you talking about?" Sam asked. Despite the warmth of the flames next to him, he felt a shiver travel down his spine. "We have plenty of time. I'm not going anywhere."

"I wish it were that simple, Sam." Aaron sighed, turning toward Sam at last. "But, unfortunately that may not be the case."

"Aaron . . ." Sam said cautiously. "Just tell me what's going on."

Aaron chuckled bitterly, but even his bitterest laugh made Sam's body react in ways which were blatantly obvious now that he was naked. He blushed and covered his penis with his hands. If Aaron noticed the gesture, he decided not to comment, and returned his attention instead to the slowly dying fire.

"My real name is Arawn," Aaron said slowly. "I'm sure you don't know the significance of that name. I'm hardly as popular as I once was, though I've never cared much about popularity anyway."

"Okay, so you lied to me about your name," Sam said, shrugging. "I can forgive that. Why would that make me want to leave?"

"Sam, I'm not human, at least not anymore. Perhaps once, long ago, I was. It's hard to remember after so many years," Aaron said slowly. "I've been called a god, though I've never been fond of that title either. King I can handle, but god? So pretentious . . ." he shook his head ruefully, and Sam almost had to take a step back to avoid being hit by the antlers.

"You're a god?" Sam asked, "I can believe a lot of things, but . . ." he paused and looked around at the camp. The same camp which had changed in an instant. "Okay," he said, sucking in his breath and then exhaling slowly. "Maybe I can believe that too. If you're a god then, what are you the god of?"

"The dead, Sam," Aaron replied. "It's my responsibility to take souls to the Otherworld, to give them a place to rest until their next incarnation."

Sam felt another shiver travel down his spine. "The God of the Dead, huh?" He took several slow, deep breaths, but his voice still shook as he turned back to Aaron. "Does this mean . . . am I . . ."

"Yes," Aaron said quietly. "Yes, you're dead, Sam."

Sam nodded slowly, tears coming to his eyes. He wasn't willing to accept such a claim on Aaron's word alone. He needed proof. He turned away, walking back toward the tent where he'd left his clothing. He paused, considering dressing in his old rags instead of the new ones, but then realized there was no reason to disregard Aaron's generosity so callously, even if he didn't believe the claim about him being dead. He dressed in the new clothing, and was surprised to find it fit so well. Even the boots were the perfect size, as if they'd been made specifically for his feet.

He gathered his rags and stepped outside, starting in the direction of the hotel. Aaron was nowhere to be seen, and the feast table and jack-o-lanterns were now missing. Only the dying bonfire and the tent remained in the camp, and after glancing over his shoulder Sam realized the tent was gone as well.

When he walked past the fire he hesitated. It had been a beacon of hope to him earlier in the night, but now it was little more than embers of its former glory. He would remember the dance, the music . . . Aaron's smile. He would remember them fondly, he realized, once he returned to the hotel and put all this crazy business behind him. Even if it had all been some strange drunken dream, he knew he'd remember it and always wonder.

But then he realized he was still holding his rags, and still wearing his new clothes. He shook his head helplessly, unable to figure out what was real and what was not, and then made a decision, tossing the rags into the fire.

He didn't wait to watch them burn, and instead returned to the path he'd taken to reach the clearing, following it back toward the hotel. He walked slowly, and there was light on the horizon by the time he made it back to the hotel, though the sun had not yet risen.

The first thing he noticed was the flashing blue and red lights of several police cars parked in front of the building. A large group of party guests had gathered, watching as a team of paramedics emerged from the front door of the building, guiding a gurney with a body on it, covered with a sheet.

Even this wasn't enough for Sam, and he approached the gathering, looking for any sign of Brenda. He found her after only a moment, her eyes frantic and her cheeks stained red. She'd discarded her mask long before, as most of the guests had, and the large door guard stood beside her, rubbing her shoulder in consolation as she stared at the body being placed in the ambulance.

Sam watched numbly before letting his gaze take him toward the cop cars, where his eyes locked on a young man sitting in the back of one patrol car, the door open as a cop stood to the side, reading him his rights. The young man was handcuffed, but he didn't appear to be in any mood to resist, or in any condition to do so either. He was naked from the waist up, a kind and youthful face contorted in sickening worry. Sam's eyes scanned down to the loincloth around the young man's waist, which sported an array of black feathers.

Sam's breath caught in his throat, and he covered his mouth in surprise to prevent his first surprised sob from exploding out of him. He was truly dead. Aaron had been telling the truth about everything, and now he was gone too.

A bark sounded off in the distance, and Sam turned to see one of the white dogs standing on the edge of the woods, looking at him curiously. A second later Aaron walked forward to stand beside the dog, his face once again covered in the shadows of his hood. Sam shook his head in denial, but knew it was pointless, and he collapsed to the ground, not knowing what else to do.

Aaron approached him slowly, and when he reached Sam he extended his hand toward him, offering to help him to his feet for the second time. It took Sam a moment to gather himself, but Aaron waited patiently, keeping his proffered hand extended until Sam was ready. And then Sam put his hand in Aaron's and was pulled up to a standing position. Sam started to lose his balance but Aaron caught him, pulling him into a quick embrace.

Sam sobbed into his shoulder for a moment as Aaron stroked his back, and then they parted, Sam wiping his eyes as he felt overwhelming grief seize his soul.

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you," Aaron said sadly. "I . . ." he shook his head in dismay. "I so desperately wanted you to stay."

"I'm not angry at you," Sam replied, shaking his head bitterly. "I'm pissed at life. So many things I wanted to do . . . I never even got a chance to find love. I never . . . fuck, this is so messed up."

"The dawn has almost arrived, Sam," Aaron said, peering toward the horizon. "You're going to have to make a decision about what you want to do."

"What do you mean?" Sam asked. "I'm dead. Don't I just go somewhere for the rest of eternity?"

"Remember what I said about how Samhain is a time of transition? The end of an old life and the beginning of a new one?" Aaron asked. "You have a choice. You can be reborn with the dawn if you wish. I can release your spirit back into the world, you'll find a new body, and a new life. You'll have no memory of this night, of this life, except perhaps in fleeting dreams or when your soul comes across someone you knew in a former time, and you'll wonder why you feel so connected."

"So, I'm to be reincarnated?" Sam asked. "I suppose that's better than being dead. But you said I had a choice."

"Yes . . . You don't have to be reborn this year. You could wait until the next. You could . . ." Aaron trailed off, his voice trembling with uncertainty. "You could stay with me."

Sam's mouth hung open in surprise, and for a moment he forgot about his predicament. Aaron's voice was pleading, as if he wanted Sam to choose the second option over being reborn, though he couldn't fathom why.

"What do you mean, I could stay with you?" Sam asked. "Why would you want that?"

"Do you remember the longing I told you I sensed in you?" Aaron asked, and then continued as Sam nodded. "I, too, have a longing for companionship. I long to feel my heart sing and my blood burn for another, to have someone in my life who doesn't care about my position, my appearance; who doesn't care that I'm God of the Dead. Someone who loves me."

Sam felt the aching behind every word and realized the source of the haunting he'd felt from Aaron. Aaron was haunted by eternal loneliness, and wanted it to end. Not only that, but he wanted Sam to be the one to end it.

"I understand what you're saying, but what about the men at the fire? What about the witches, and Matilda? Aren't they your companions?" Sam asked, trying to process everything.

"They work for me, they see me as their lord, and some of them even consider me their God." Aaron shook his head in frustration. "Sam, I've watched you all night. I've been drawn to you in ways I cannot explain. I know you're skeptical, but that's exactly what I need. I want you with me, Sam. I need you. I never think of myself but . . . Sam, you have to make a choice. You have only until the sun rises. Will you stay, or will you be reborn?"

Sam stared at Aaron and then glanced back at Brenda. Her face was buried in the chest of the man next to her. He looked at the dancer whom he'd almost had sex with, but with whom it hadn't felt right. It had been too impersonal, too lacking of meaning, but things hadn't been that way with Aaron.

"Let me see your face," Sam said, turning back to Aaron. "Let me see your face, and you will have your answer.

Aaron lifted his hands toward his hood, hesitating as they reached the hem. But then he pulled the hood back and let it fall, revealing his face to Sam for the first time. Aaron's lower face was frozen in eternal youth, but his upper face was covered in a plain white mask. Aaron removed the mask next, revealing darkened flesh - the scars of serious burns suffered long before - with violet eyes filled with the intensity of a thunderstorm like pools of light amidst the darkness surrounding them. Those eyes were locked on Sam's and Sam didn't need to look any further. The warmth he'd felt before was back, stronger than any time before. The rhythm of the dance played in his mind, the scent of the feast and the taste of the primal magic he'd experience through the night came flooding back to him. It all paled in comparison to the feeling of electricity coursing through his body, drawing him close to Aaron with each passing heartbeat.

Their lips met as the sun crested the horizon, washing over them with its first rays of warmth, but Sam didn't notice it at all. The masks had all disappeared, the inhibitions were gone, and only embers remained of a life Sam no longer needed.