The words ‘Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’ were still reverberating through Reuben’s skull as he left the sermon chamber. The flock had swollen ten-fold in number since the night before. Every heckle and holler had had manifold times more energy and intensity to it as they punched the air and praised the Lord.
A palpable feeling of dread was upon Reuben as he looked upon them all. Each and every one of them was in the grasp of this self-proclaimed Messiah. They were hopelessly lost to him and his beliefs. They believed in him as once they might have believed in science or enlightened principles or any of the other discredited pillars of the old world.
The more he reflected on it though and the more he chewed over his conversation with the Shield King, the more he realised that these people had to believe in this Apocalypse gospel. If they didn’t then there was only despair. They had to believe the tomorrow ahead of them was better than the yesterday they had survived. He sensed moreover that most of the people that populated the compound did not even care if what they now believed was flawed or deranged. All they wanted was a bit of hope. And Douglas was delivering it to them in bucketloads.
With so many new people came so many new faces. The compound’s empty corridors were empty no more. As a matter of fact, the whole place felt quite overcrowded now. Whereas it had been hard to practice social distance before, it was completely impossible now. From the moment he exited his room he was faced with a wall of people. These people moreover, who only a few hours ago had been terrified out of their wits and had witnessed all sorts of horrors, had now let down their guard. They had relaxed into the comfort which the compound afforded. They were starting to forget the strife and grief they had come through. Out on the corridors, they were laughing and joking, cracking open cans of beer and sipping at wine. It was as if they were all on holiday; a holiday into the lives they had once lived.
The most unsettling fact of it to Reuben though was that this was just the warm-up. In a bid to raise spirits and to welcome the new additions to the family, Douglas had called for a dance, a ‘proper hoe-down’ as he put it. The moment the sermon had finished, his henchmen had all started rearranging the furniture to create a dance hall. The holy dais for the three kings was now converted into a stage for the ad hoc band of musicians they had put together consisting solely of a fiddler, a banjo player and a harmonicist. Reuben was not sure which horrified him more: the thought of so many people in a closed space dancing with each other, or the music itself. Country and Western held no appeal for him.
He tried to keep himself on the fringes as he always did, leaning himself against the wall as the crowd started to flood into the chamber. Alcohol was already circulating amongst them like oxygen. The hazy racket of so many chattering voices filled the air. Then the lights were dimmed, and the band began to play. One by one people started to pair off and dance their worries away. From his watchful solitude, Reuben caught sight of Douglas on the other side of the room, a big satisfied smile on his face.
Then the back door opened. And a lone figure walked through.
The figure was like no other and instantly caught Reuben’s attention and Douglas’. The entrant was clad in a long white robe. Hands concealed within the folds of their sleeves. Face hidden behind some kind of shroud or veil. Most striking of all though were the four white spikes that rose from their head to form a thorny crown. This lone figure stood there on the rim of the dance floor, not a soul paying him any mind. For a second Reuben thought that someone had opted for fancy dress. Yet there was no sense that this person intended to impress people with this unusual costume. If they were, they were failing miserably since no one at all seemed to even notice them. No one it would seem could see him. Reuben wondered if this were a hallucination. Perhaps he really had lost his mind.
But if he was hallucinating, then so was Douglas.
From opposite sides of the room, both Reuben and Douglas started towards the figure. Revered and worshipped as he was, everyone made way to let Douglas through. Reuben did not enjoy such fortune and he was forced to dodge and duck between dancing couples to reach his destination. Up ahead he saw the Holy King come face to face with this anonymous intruder.
“It’s you. You came,” he heard Douglas say, a tangible strain of both relief and happiness in his voice. “You really came. You answered my prayers... you came to see my work. What I’ve done in your name. This is just the beginning. We’re building your kingdom here on Earth. Once your plague is through, we’ll make it so.”
The Masked King made no reply to Douglas’ sycophancy. He just stood there in anonymous silence.
“Our faces are bare,” continued Douglas, his hands clasped together, tears of joy watering his eyes. “We accept your judgement. We do not fear you. We will accept it without question, without a second thought. Every one of us. This is the revelation, the Apocalypse. And we lay bare our souls before you now as you always intended.” Still, the figure said nothing. “Will you show me?” abruptly asked Douglas, the voice of a humble beggar echoing out of him now. At this, the figure twitched his attention to Douglas. “Will you show me your true face? All my life I’ve seen the masks of God everywhere. I’ve always known you to be everywhere. But I know you intend to reveal yourself in full... I know because this is the great unveiling. The Apocalypse is here, and your true self will be known to all men.”
At that, the Masked King parted his sleeves to reveal he was wearing a set of snow-white gloves. Slowly and tentatively he grasped the edges of his shroud and began to pull away. Douglas stood there with mouth gaping open in awe, resembling a child eager to unwrap their Christmas presents. As the mask was undone though, the truth, at last, was brought to bear.
There was no blinding light. No white-bearded Father of All. Nor was there even a bearded long-haired Jewish carpenter.
There was only the brutally bare face of a grey skull.
Douglas flinched at the sight of it. He blinked with fright. He even pinched himself as to assure himself that this was real.
“What?” he rasped in disbelief. “No... No... This can’t be. I saw you... I saw you in my dreams... you’re not God... you’re an... you’re an imposter.”
“You were wrong not to fear me,” said the Masked King in a voice chilling enough to make the deserts freeze. With delicate ease, he covered his face once more, the hollows of his eyes boring into Douglas through that ghostly shroud. “What great smiles your children have. What fruitful pickings they make.”
“What? The Hell do you mean?”
“What is the name of your Lord’s plague?” asked the Masked King.
“C-c-corona,” stuttered Douglas. The Mask King removed his glove to reveal a skeletal hand and stroked the Holy King’s face with it.
“I am he,” declared the Masked King. At once his robes of white turned to a dull grey, and the spikes of his crown became the dark red of blood, rivers of scarlet slithered down his head in runnels. “Now you will know my judgement.” Douglas fell backwards onto the floor, wheezing for breath, his eyes wild and wide with disbelief as the Masked King stepped over him and stood up on the stage.
“You...” croaked Douglas on the floor. “You promised... said you’d save me... you said... in my dream... in my dream... you said I could save them... you promised I could do it.”
The Messiah’s words went unheard and unheeded. No one noticed him. No one cared.
A new figure had taken the stage.
Up there, amidst the clueless musicians, the Masked King stretched out his arms. With deadly ease, he raised them up till they were spread out just like Christ on the Cross behind him. The ends of his sleeves then unfurled into long streaming tentacles of grey silk, each of them about two metres long.
“Now,” he said. “You dance for Corona.”
“Fuck,” Reuben cursed to himself.
He had no clue what the King’s words meant. But he knew it could not bode well. Real or not, it did not matter. A gut instinct screamed at him from within to get the hell out of there as fast as possible. Nothing good was about to happen here.
Yet it was already too late. The rhythm and beat of the band abruptly changed. The tune they now played had an almost hypnotic cadence to it, a seductive sound that could not be denied. Where before only a handful of people were dancing, now everyone began to dance. Before Reuben even contemplate his means of exit, he was forcefully partnered up with someone and was out in the middle of the dance floor spinning and stomping with hundreds of others. Every time he tried to break free, he seemed to find himself in the grip of another mesmerised partner.
Then the Masked King descended.
And with murderous intent, he joined the dance.
No partner had he. His was a dance all of its own. Swirling and twisting he swung his long sleeves over and around his head like serpents. In sharp contrast to the western line dancing of his victims, his was more of an Oriental ballet. He pirouetted and spun on his feet, scything through the dance floor in a storm of red and grey. With each step and turn he took, his snaking sleeves lashed out at the dancers, rippling and shimmering like ribbons of death.
Reuben desperately tried to shove his way out yet always he found someone linking up with him arm in arm and before he knew it, he was spinning around in the same trance of circles again. With each turn of the dance, he would catch a fleeting glimpse of the Masked King. More and more though, he began to catch sight of skeletons amongst the dancers, each of them smiling and laughing as though alive. In fleeting flashes of death, they skipped in and out of view as the dance kept on turning. With every switch of partners though, he saw more and more of them. With every screech of the fiddle and every hum of the harmonica, he saw them get closer and closer till they were dancing in the group right next to him. With the blink of an eye, the whole neighbouring group had turned to skeletons.
His heart began to pound, his breathing began to strain. Sweat pumped from his brow. He needed to get away. If he didn’t, he was dead. Unable to simply break loose and run, he resolved to dance his way out. He went from partner to partner until finally he was on the fringe of the death spiral and was able to simply let go of his partner’s hand.
Within seconds of his escape, all the individual pairings had grouped together into three concentric circles with the Masked King at the very centre. With all circles running in loops around him, the faceless sentinel simply held his arms out and let the spores of pestilence do their work. In three blinks of the eye, every single dancer had succumbed to his touch. Everyone was a skeleton.
With that, the music ended and everyone fell to the ground, leaving the Masked King alone in the centre. Surveying his work around him, the King caught sight of the unscathed Reuben and hurled his tentacles out at him. Reuben was too far away for them to take him into their grasp and so they groped at nothing, searching in vain for a new host to latch onto.
Suddenly, he heard a thud. He looked and saw that the band had collapsed into corpses. He looked back to the dance floor. The Masked King had vanished. As had all the skeletons. In their place remained only the hundreds of naïve souls that had succumbed to the dance. He saw their faces lying flat on the floor.
Lily-Jean was dead.
The Brave King, David Deveraux, was dead.
The Shield King, Bobby Fisher, was dead.
The Holy King, God’s Chosen Saviour, Billy Douglas, was dead.
The Last Haven was no more. The sea had swallowed the Ark.