I’ve heard of secret organisations. Never did I think I would join one. But I did. I didn’t seek it out. They found me and they wouldn’t take no for an answer.
I had been working for my new company for three days when Jeff came over and properly introduced himself.
“Hi, Justin is it?”
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“I’ve been reviewing some of your code, it’s pretty impressive. Usually the contractors they send over are sloppy. Not you though, you have an elegance to your programming.”
“Thank you very much.”
Someone turned around from their terminal and said, “You should take that as a compliment.”
“Don’t mind Karl here. His code would be better suited in a Bolognese, so much spaghetti.”
“And fuck you too,” Jeff said, laughing with Karl, “Say, we’re going out for drinks tonight if you are interested.”
“Yeah, that would be great. What time?”
Jeff checked his watch.
“It’s almost five. How about we call it a day.”
Karl had shut his PC down before Jeff had time to reconsider.
“Never hand them an excuse to finish early.”
I was apprehensive to move to a different country for a job, especially one halfway around the world. It was to be my first time without the friends I had grown up with, and that scared me. I never knew what lonely felt like until the last few days, travelling home alone to my rented ranch house and spending the evenings watching television programs I didn’t recognise.
The bar we arrived at was a bit of a dive. Not something I would have chosen to patronise, especially on my own. I half expected the occupants to turn and stare me down as I entered. However, these people were already too drunk to even notice the extra bodies shuffle in.
“I’ll pay for the drinks tonight guys. We are ahead of schedule and it’s the weekend. Work hard and play hard, that’s my motto.”
“Since when do you have a motto?” Karl asked.
“Fuck you again,” Jeff said, slapping him on the back just that bit too hard.
We sat around a large wooden table. I watched as some other patrons tried to play pool. I think the white spent more time in the pocket than the other balls.
“If you don’t know Justin, he was sent to us by the motherland. He’s the hotshot that’s going to help us get the backend connectivity stable, so we don’t have a repeat of the last release. He’s much better than his predecessor.”
“I wouldn’t call myself a hotshot.”
“You’re being modest. If you saw the code I do, your brain would take a shit.”
There were three others around the table, not counting Jeff, Karl and I. They hung their heads, obviously hurt by Karl’s scathing review, even though it was done in jest.
Drinks were downed and we got drunk. I felt my inhibitions fall away as I began to join in the conversation. I retold stories about my programming past, far too dull to retell here. I fitted in like a hand to glove. Karl on the other hand was more like OJ. He didn’t want to fit, he actively thrashed against the good atmosphere that was now developing.
“Are you okay, Karl?” I asked, as if I had known him for years.
“He’s just nervous, he has his initiation to do tomorrow.”
“What’s that?” I asked intrigued.
Jeff thrust his hand out on the table in front of me.
“Do you see that?” he said.
The golden ring glinted in the florescent light, what looked like the profile of a large cat, its mouth open in a roar, decorated the middle.
“We’re members of the Ailuros Brotherhood.”
The others showed their rings.
“Karl’s a bit of a wuss.”
He stormed off and placed a dollar on the pool table, signalling he wanted the next game.
Jeff leaned over.
“It’s only a club really, nothing more than that. Just a bunch of like minded men getting together to eat some good food and drink some good beer.”
“Pretty much like tonight then?” I asked.
“You could say that,” he said, before falling into a fit of mirth.
“Hey,” he continued, stopping his laughter abruptly, “you should join.”
“I don’t know,” I said apprehensive after seeing Karl was very visibly upset.
“Nonsense, let me make a call and I can get it all set up tonight.”
“Please, I don’t want to be a bother,” I replied, feeling momentarily sober.
“I don’t want to be a bother!”, he said mocking my accent, “could you be more English!”
Jeff walked away from the table and took out his cellphone.
I felt odd, being left with these three guys I’d not so much as uttered a word to in the time I’d known them.
“Don’t do it,” one of them said.
“Shut the fuck up, Chris,” another replied, delivering a whack to the arm of the guy who was obviously Chris.
“Why, is there some sort of hazing?”
Chris didn’t say another word.
“All sorted, we needed one more,” Jeff said, returning to the table.
“I really don’t know.”
“Too late, you can’t back down now. Unless you want to be on the first plane back to Ye Olde England?”
I looked at him, trying to work out if he was serious or not. The gaze he returned was stern, he didn’t blink, or twitch. Just a deathly stare you would show when you wanted to prove you would win in a fight.
“I’m joking,” he said, his face relaxing, a large grin lighting up his face, “but you are going, I insist.”
“I’m only here for six months though, won’t I have to pay a membership or something?”
“No money at all. Nada. Just discount beer, great food and great company. I’m not going to take no for an answer.”
“Okay, sure,” I said, relenting.
“Beautiful,” he said, raising his arms up.
The others joined in his celebration. Chris hung his head, not sharing in the same enthusiasm.
“Fucking drunks,” Karl said, returning.
The same two men continued to chase the last two balls around the table.
“They don’t know how to play the fucking game, I’m going to be waiting all night.”
“Hey, Karl, Justin is going to be joining.”
“What, really? You convinced him too?”
“What can I say? I’m a charmer. Would anyone like any more beers? I’m buying,” Jeff asked.
“I’m going to have a cigarette.”
I got up to leave.
“You’re not in limey land anymore kiddo, you can smoke inside.”
It was as if he found it quaint.
“I’d like to get some fresh air.”
“I hope I don’t need to point out the irony of that statement.”
“I’ll join you,” Karl said.
A cool breeze came down from the mountains and perked me up a little. I offered Karl a cigarette.
“I’m fine, just wanted to get some air.”
I lit up and took a deep drag.
“So you are going to become a member of the brotherhood too then?” he asked.
“I don’t think I have much of a choice.”
“He can be a little pushy.”
“Jeff’s good at his job, in and out of work.”
“So, is he like a recruitment officer?”
“I guess you could say that.”
“They aren’t going to make me do anything weird, like fuck a goat?”
“I don’t know. Chris says it’s quite intense. But he’s still here, so it can’t be that bad.”
“He told me not to do it. He was quite adamant.”
“He said that to me too. Jeff’s a good guy though, he wouldn’t want to upset his star programmers, would he?”
Karl pushed my shoulder with his.
“I guess you’re right. So when’s your initiation?”
“Tonight,” he said and his demeanour changed.
“Like you said, it can’t be that bad.”
“I’ve heard stories, like they make you drink blood and wear the freshly skinned hide of an animal. My parents say it’s a cult.”
“Isn’t it just some big boys club?”
“That’s what Jeff and the others say. I have a bad feeling about it.”
It was starting to bother me now and I wanted to back out.
“We should go back in, they’ll be wondering what’s taking us so long.”
We rejoined the group. I had another two beers and Jeff drove me home around 21:30.
I woke with a headache, and was relieved to remember it was Saturday. I had a text from Jeff saying he’d pick me up in the evening. My heart dropped, remembering what I’d agreed to.
I ate breakfast and did a quick search on the Internet for the Ailuros Brotherhood. There were a few mentions on a local news site, saying they helped build a community centre, as well as some charity events. They were also big into conservation of the local wildlife. The mountain lion population had grown significantly under their watch, nothing but nice things. Even the local mayor gave an all singing and dancing soundbite as to how positive the group was for the community.
I’d always wanted to do some charity work, so maybe it was a good thing. And I was complaining to myself how I didn’t know anyone. This was surely a way I could meet people.
Jeff arrived on time and with a modicum of anticipation, I got in his car. We drove in silence as we left the small town and headed up into the mountains.
“How did Karl get on last night?” I asked.
After a long pause he said, “I don’t think it’s for him. It’s not for everyone.”
“Oh, so if I don’t like it, there’s no pressure?”
“Yeah, you could say that.”
I instantly felt more comfortable. I was worried I’d be forced to join.
“So what is going to happen?”
He peered over and grinned, “If I told you, it would spoil the surprise.”
“I think I’d prefer to know something.”
“You will have to wear a blindfold. But that’s all I’m saying.”
I didn’t know how to take that. Having to put my trust in someone I barely knew.
We turned off the main road and followed a narrow track through a wooded area. The moon did its best to illuminate our way as the road twisted upwards. A large log cabin came into view. Dozens of torches burned outside, guiding us the final few hundred yards.
It wasn’t what I was expecting at all. A large banner with the cat emblem hung from the outside wall. Two men dressed in ornate uniforms guarded the entrance.
We parked out front. The men approached and opened our car doors. We followed in silence as they allowed us entry.
“I have to go and get changed, why don’t you have a beer at the bar,” he said, pointing to the small room to the left.
He disappeared into the room opposite before I could protest.
The man behind the bar passed me a bottle, popping off the cap before I said a word. His golden ring glittered in the light.
“How much is that?” I asked, fumbling for my wallet.
“On the house,” he said.
I turned around and leaned on the counter, surveying the room. If I wasn’t mistaken, the mayor sat chatting to someone. I was sure it was him, I recognised him from the video I saw earlier.
Another man, looking as similarly lost as I, sat at a table on his own.
“Hi, I’m Justin,” I said, offering my hand.
“Luke,” he said, gesturing for me to sit down.
“Are you new?” I asked.
“My initiation is tonight.”
“Oh really?” I replied, “me too.”
“How did you get involved?”
“My dad’s the mayor.”
“Is that him over there?” I said, pointing.
“Yes. You’re not from around here though?”
“No, I’m from England. One of my work colleagues suggested I join. How about you?”
“My Dad’s been going on about it for a long time, and I finally relented. He said this town needs more of us. I think he’s right. They do so much good.”
“It’s time,” I heard from a voice I didn’t recognise.
The barman, the mayor and the guy he was talking to got up and left.
“I suddenly feel out of the loop,” I said, seeing the men leave.
“Tell me about it.”
“Come with me,” a man at the doorway said.
We followed him out and into the room Jeff entered minutes before.
“You’ll need to wear this,” he said, handing us brown leather tunics.
We slipped them on. I noticed small flecks of blood on the material. I started breathing heavily.
“It’s natural to feel a bit nervous,” the man said, “You’ll need put this on too.”
It was a hood made out of thick fabric. Reluctantly I placed it over my head and I was in pitch black.
“Tell me if this it too tight,” he said, tying something around my cheeks.
I waited while I assumed he did the same for Luke.
“It won’t be long now.”
I stood there for what seemed like minutes. My face sweated and my breathing laboured from the lack of air.
“I can’t breath too well,” I said.
“That’s just nerves. Relax and you’ll be fine.”
There were two knocks on the door.
As the door opened, the sounds of murmuring flooded in.
Someone grabbed my arm and whispered to me to follow.
My heart raced as I realised I could no longer turn back.
The voices got louder and louder and I was told to stop. A few moments later, the talking tailed off.
“You will kneel in front of the reverential master!” boomed out loudly.
The man helped me to the floor, my knees resting on a soft block.
“Have you come here willingly and of your own accord?” I heard from a voice I recognised, it was Jeff.
I wanted to say no, that he had forced me. But I couldn’t.
“Yes,” I answered, and Luke replied soon after. His voice broke as he did.
“Are you of sound mind and body and not a member of an organisation that would do us harm?”
“Yes,” I replied again.
Luke sounded as if he was about to break down in tears.
“Are you ready to pledge your soul to Ailuros and do whatever is necessary to fulfil her wishes?”
I gasped. This wasn’t what I expected.
“Yes,” Luke said, it was obvious he was in some sort of panic.
“Initiate, I’ll ask again,” Jeff said, “are you ready to pledge your soul to Ailuros and do whatever is necessary to fulfil her wishes?”
“Yes,” I said, knowing that no other answer would satisfy him.
“Bring them to the altar.”
The man heaved me up and walked me forward.
Murmurs erupted again as we approached.
“Silence,” Jeff announced, “You will place their hands on the altar.”
I felt the grain of wood under my finger tips. My hands shook as the adrenaline pumped into my veins.
“You will drink from the blood of Ailuros, binding your soul to hers.”
The man forced the cold metal cup into my hand and pulled the hood up, allowing me to drink. The tie around my face stopping me from seeing.
I sipped, expecting to taste wine. But instead feeling the metallic taste of copper.
I heard heaving from Luke next to me.
“You will not defile her life blood by letting it spill on the floor.”
A whip cracked and Luke cried.
I took a deep breath and gulped down the liquid. There was so much of it, I thought I was going to be sick. I slammed the tankard down, to rapturous applause.
“Drink it, son,” a man said faintly from afar.
I waited anxiously for my next instruction.
“Now your blood must be taken, so Ailuros can taste you as well.”
The man placed a tourniquet round my arm and tightened. He pumped my hand before plunging a needle into my arm.
I stifled a yelp, feeling the lifeblood drain from me. I was confused and overwhelmed with what was happening, I didn’t have time to protest.
He removed the rubber tubing.
“You will kneel and wait to hear of your approval.”
He forced me to the ground.
We waited. Luke sobbed quietly to himself.
“Everything will be fine,” I whispered.
“Silence,” Jeff said, as his fist landed on my face, “there must be silence when Ailuros considers you.”
Luke cried audibly.
“Don’t hit my son,” a man pleaded from afar.
Luke squealed as I assumed another of Jeff’s punches rained down on him.
Be quiet, I mentally pleaded with him.
“She approves!” Jeff shouted.
The room cheered. It was so loud I instinctively brought my hands to my ears.
“Take them to the chamber.”
I let out a big sigh, believing the ordeal was finally over. It was much worse than I could ever have imagined. I didn’t know how I was going to look Jeff in the eye again. He tricked me into this. I didn’t know if I could forgive him.
The man helped me to my feet and walked me forward. The people in the room started talking amongst themselves. It was finally over.
He led me out of the room, Luke continued to breathe erratically as he held back the tears.
“It’s over now,” I said in a whisper.
“Thank God, that was the worst experience in my life.”
I felt the man’s hand leave mine and held my eyes shut, so when he removed the hood, the light wouldn’t blind me. Seconds passed and nothing happened.
A metal door squeaked shut behind me.
“Hello? What’s going on?” I asked, my voice echoed around the room.
A scraping sound rang out, as something opened in front of us.
“Is anyone there?” I asked again.
“Dad? Where are you?” Luke asked, his anxiety back in earnest.
I heard bassy purrs and recognised it instantly, a large cat.
“Stay still and quiet,” I whispered to Luke.
“I don’t want to be here anymore,” he said panicking, “Let me out!”
He ran in the darkness, and banged on the metal door.
“Let me out! Let me out!”
But it was too late.
I heard a loud roar, and then a scream, followed by many more. You can never be prepared to hear someone being eaten alive. The ripping of flesh is something you recognise even when you’ve never heard it. Luke whimpered, then let out a large breath.
I wanted to help him, but knew I couldn’t. I stayed as still as I could and waited for whatever it was to finish its meal.
The creature roared and I shook. The sounds of many padded feet ran into the room and started gorging on what I expected was the remains of Luke. I prayed to a God I didn’t know existed that He’d let me live.
I wasn’t aware of the animals leaving. It was only when the metal door opened again that I awoke from my semi-trance.
A man took my arm and led me out.
The room was filled with the sound of murmurs again.
I felt the tie around my face release. The hood was removed before I could close my eyes to adjust. The spotlight that shone on me was so bright.
“We have a chosen one!” Jeff announced.
And for the first time, I saw the room. Ornate pillars ran from the ground to the lofted ceiling. Rows of people filled the seating on both sides of this grand hall.
Everyone stood and applauded. I gazed around the room. I saw Chris and the other guys. I saw the mayor. He clapped reluctantly, his eyes red and his face drenched in tears.
Jeff lifted my hand and placed a golden ring on my index finger.
“Welcome brother of Ailuros.”
I was paraded through the hall and back into the room where I was dressed. Jeff lifted off the tunic. I saw that I was covered in blood.
“I’ll get you some new clothes,” he said, “that’s the least I can do.”
“I don’t know what just happened. Did Luke die?”
“Don’t think of it like that, think of it as you were chosen. Just like we all were.”
“What happened to Karl? He didn’t leave did he?”
“He wasn’t chosen. You were. You should feel proud.”
I understood why the mountain lion population were doing so well.
“Now it’s up to you to persuade Josh to join.”
“He’s Karl’s replacement.”
“But why?” I said, confused.
“Ailuros always needs feeding.”`