Becoming a blood sacrifice was the last thing Aubrey expected when she went trail running one November afternoon.
Aubrey Gets Sacrificed
Aubrey Selden stared in disbelief at the stone monument and the accompanying map nestled on the manicured lawn: Afterlife Multinational Partners. A perky red dot showed You Are Here. Boldface lettering below that stated that All Visitors Must Report to Front Desk in the Reception Area.
"This is sort of like the doctor's park where I go for blood work," she said out loud to the deserted space, trying to grab hold of some sense of normalcy.
You Are Here and not there because—
A rush of memory flooded her mind—trail running, being trussed up by many brutal hands, and then a knife plunged into her over and over. The lawn's perfect greenness seemed as unreal as her predicament.
"Maybe someone at the front desk will be able to tell me what's going on."
She wandered to the main reception area and took her place in line, corralled inside red velvet ropes. A man with a flowing white beard sat at a desk behind a large window. The glass was absurdly clear, "which makes perfect sense because nobody is going to cough or sneeze on it when they're dead," Aubrey thought.
A young woman with vacant eyes stood ahead of her in line.
"You need to go to Suicides, down the hall," White Beard said.
The woman shambled off.
A plaid-jacketed, middle-aged man behind Aubrey was chattering on to a group of geriatrics about how his dog had bounced out of his truck after he hit a pothole, and then he'd swerved again to avoid hitting a deer, and that tree came out of nowhere, and that's how he came to be here, and gosh, he hoped he wouldn't be judged too much because he killed his dog by accident.
"Next!" called White Beard. A placard on his desk showed Aubrey what she suspected: St. Peter, Director.
"Welcome to Afterlife Multinational Partners. Name, please?"
Aubrey told him and St. Peter typed it in. He scanned the screen.
"Hold on there a moment...Selden, Aubrey...cause of death: sacrifice to...Esus?!" he said, with a note of incredulity.
A chorus of "Ohh's!" broke out among the office workers behind the glass.
"Not something we see every day," he said. "That's a different department."
"What? Who the f— who is Esus?" she asked.
"Esus is an ancient Celtic god. And since you were sacrificed to him, you're now his property. That's about it," he said.
Aubrey leaned against the glass. "You can't be serious!"
St. Peter frowned. "Please don't lean against the glass, Miss Selden, and yes, as serious as the heart attacks that killed at least six people I saw today. Sorry, there's not much I can do. Like I said, they're under a different jurisdiction."
"Nothing you can do? I thought you were the head honcho around here! Well, what do I do? Where will I go? What's going to happen to me?"
Loud sighs and shuffling feet reminded Aubrey that a line had formed behind her.
"Not the head honcho." St. Peter clacked around on the computer a moment, and a ticket printed out. "Here. You can go file an appeal with a caseworker. They can see if you'd be eligible to go to a different part of the Afterlife or if you have any recourse. You should be in their system. Next!"
Aubrey banged her fists on the glass. "No, I need help. Please! You can't just give me to some god that nobody even knows about anymore! What is wrong wi—"
"Young lady," St. Peter said with his white eyebrows drawn together as one, "kindly take your hands off the glass. I suggest you start coming to terms with your new state of unbeing, just like everybody else. Next!"
The line shuffled forward and Aubrey was dismissed.
Clutching her ticket, Aubrey stalked past the curious line of gawkers. Some were smirking, others staring, and few looked as panicked as she felt. The man in the plaid jacket was wondering where his dog was and supposed there was a different place for pets, and it's a shame really because he hoped he might see Sarge again.
Soon, Aubrey found herself in front of another suite whose sign proclaimed it to be the Department of Accidents. She looked through the doorway and saw a counter area with several windows.
A sign on the wall read "Accidents involving motor vehicles up to and including automobiles, trucks, and SUVs, tractor-trailers, motorcycles and scooters, and ATVs will be handled in the order they arrive. Accidents involving watercraft up to and including float tubes, kayaks, canoes, jet skis, motorboats, steamboats, tugboats, trawlers, yachts, barges and ocean liners are now seen at the corner office and will be handled in the same manner as above. Please take a number."
"It's just like the DMV!" she said.
A few windows held placards stating their specialty: Dismemberments, Impalements, Decapitations, and others that were similar.
She continued down the hall past a smaller office that said "Miscellaneous Accidents" and peeked in. A bored looking young man leaned back in his chair, waiting to be served by a woman with a tuft of wildly coiffed, tiger-orange hair and garish blue eye makeup. Aubrey looked away when they caught her staring.
She wandered down the empty hall, looking for any sort of clue as to where she should go. Lots of doors, lots of signs. Then she noticed there weren't any bathrooms and wondered why, and then the awful reality of her situation set in.
Aubrey would have cried if she could have shed actual tears, but she still felt the heavy ache inside her chest.
"Hey," someone said.
Aubrey whirled around. It was the guy from the Miscellaneous Accidents waiting room.
"What are you doing, just wandering around aimlessly?" he asked.
"Do you know anything about this place? I mean, where stuff is?" asked Aubrey. "I saw the map out front but it's gigantic."
"Well, it's pretty big and confusing. I can help you if you want. I'm Howie, by the way."
"I'm Aubrey. And I'd appreciate that. So, what did you do to umm, you know...get yourself here?"
They strolled down the hall together.
"I fell off a ladder while I was doing roofing with a friend. How 'bout you?" Howie asked.
Snatches of memory floated by her.
It was early November. She went running in the afternoon, just before the 4:34 PM sunset. The group of men in gray, hooded sweatshirts had caught her by surprise, overpowered her and carried her further into the woods. Their shoes squelched through the wet leaves and muck.
They must have been hiding and waiting. She often ran this path when she knew it would likely be deserted and there would be no unleashed dogs running loose to chase her.
She could not make a sound through the Duct tape over her mouth, nor could she break free of the zip ties binding and cutting into her hands and feet. They tightened a rope around her feet, scratching her through her wool socks, and they strung her up from a branch, like a human meat bag suspended over a butcher block.
They chanted in a language she could not understand and then one of them drew a hunting knife from his jacket, and thrust it into her stomach. It made soft schlucking sounds as they passed it around, cutting into her flesh.
The ground spun and heaved, like a deranged carnival ride. The last thing she saw was a whirling kaleidoscope of blood-spattered red, yellow and orange fallen leaves on the damp forest floor.
"I was murdered...stabbed in the woods. The guy at the front desk said it was a ritualistic killing, a human sacrifice to some god named Esus."
"Whoa! That's heavy," Howie said. "Who's Esus? I've never heard of him. I didn't even realize people still got sacrificed."
"Yeah, me either. It happened so fast. I was out trail running and then, well, it happened. The pain was so gross and it felt weird and cold, y'know? Like the blade of the knife was cold when it went it. It didn't hurt right way, maybe it was a delayed reaction or something. But when it started to hurt, it was the worst...worse than anything I've ever felt. And then I found myself here. I still can't believe it."
She looked at the floor. It had the same, ugly, blue-and-gray flecked Berber carpet they used in every office complex everywhere. Howie waited for her to continue. "So I guess I'm stuck here."
"Well, that would make two of us," said Howie. "Anyways, I'm sorry it happened to you."
"Yeah, me too. And I'm sorry you fell off a ladder. So now I'm looking for the office that handles that sort of thing. Any idea where I can find it?" She showed him the ticket that St. Peter had given her.
"Unless you want to give up your turn, I would suggest heading back here so we can serve you!" called a voice tinged with the long-term effects of a 2-pack-a-day smoking habit. It was the orange pouf-haired woman from the Miscellaneous Accidents office.
"Looks like I have to get back to Ms. Clown Town," smirked Howie. "Maybe I'll catch up with you later, OK? Hope everything works out."
"By the way sweetie, the office you're looking for is over here," said Orange Pouf.
Next to the Miscellaneous Accidents office was a small alcove with an even smaller placard: "Sacrificial & Ritualistic Deaths".
"Business used to be booming," explained the caseworker wearing a very sensible navy blue pantsuit, "but then this sort of thing started to go by the wayside. People just don't get buried alive or thrown into volcanoes like they used to. More people were dying of heart attacks and cancer, so they kept on moving me from office to office until finally, they stuck me here."
She directed Aubrey to a brochure-stuffed book display, like ones in hotel lobbies filled with touristy related literature, or in health clinics with pamphlets on STDs.
Aubrey scanned the list of titles: "So You've Been Sacrificed: Coming to Terms with Your New Status as a Blood Offering" and "Getting to Know Your Patron God".
The caseworker typed away on her keyboard. "Ok, let's see what this says. Selden, Aubrey. Grovertown, Massachusetts. DOB: 5/7/1988, DOD: 11/04/2014. Sacrifice to Esus. Cause of Death: suspended from tree, stabbed multiple times. Expired from exsanguination & stab wounds."
Once again, Aubrey's mind flashed to swinging upside down from the tree and the men taking turns plunging the knife into her. She had flailed her bound arms and succeeded in belting one of them in the jaw, but they had settled that by giving her a huge blow on the temple with the knife's handle.
The printer spat out a sheet of paper.
"Looks like you put up a good fight. Not your fault, by the way. Some people arrive here burdened with an unnecessary sense of guilt. Unfortunately, well, here you are. "She adjusted her glasses. "Are you ready?"
"Ready for what?" Aubrey's stomach dipped a Tilt-a-Whirl.
"For you to meet Esus, of course! Let's not keep him waiting any longer. Now, I must warn you," she said, leading Aubrey down the corridor, "that Esus is, shall I say, a touch cantankerous?"
"Cantankerous? You mean—"
"I mean grouchy, choleric, grumpy...but that's probably because he hasn't had visitors in oh, centuries? Ah, here we are."
A glowing red EXIT sign illuminated an access door. The caseworker pushed it open.
They were in a leafy, sunlit courtyard. In the center stood a massive willow tree.
"What do I do? What's going to happen?" Aubrey asked.
The caseworker handed her the printout from the Sacrificial & Ritualistic Deaths office. "This should explain everything. But he'll probably know why you're here."
"BEATRICE!" a thunderous voice boomed. "WHERE IS MY SACRIFICE? BRING HER HERE!"
Aubrey turned and furiously tugged at the access door's handle.
Beatrice smoothed her hair and her pantsuit lapels. "Just a moment, sir." Under her breath, she muttered, "After two millennia, you might learn some patience."
"WHAT?" he roared.
Aubrey looked up to see a giant, auburn-haired man with a glossy beard and glinting green eyes stormed up to them. He held a vicious looking axe, with a cutting edge so sharp it could slice a mouse's whisker thirty-nine ways.
"Esus, this is Aubrey. Please be nice." She explained Aubrey's circumstances and showed him the paper.
"Blood sacrifice, hah! Nowadays they're calling it "ritual murder". Kind of takes away from the drama a bit! I know that these days on your pitiful little planet, human sacrifice is frowned upon. What do you humans do now when you want to please the gods?" he bellowed.
Beatrice crossed her arms. "Esus, you know perfectly well what goes on down there. I let you use my internet access!"
Aubrey cringed away from his shouting. She expected there to be an earthquake any moment from the noise. "P-pray? I don't know."
"Pray!? Back in my day, you weren't anything until you had a nice bloody sacrifice. Gods were gods. Virgins were virgins—none of this 'born-again virgin' bullshit. What else?"
"Ummm, I'm not sure. A lot of people are atheists," Aubrey said.
"ATHEISTS!" screamed Esus, slicing the air with his terrible axe.
Aubrey dashed behind the willow tree and cowered on the ground.
"HUMAN! Why do you run away from me?" His voice shook showers of leaves from the tree. "Come back here!"
Aubrey clapped her hands over her ears.
"Remember what I said about being nice?" said Beatrice, whom Esus had forgotten was there.
"Oh Beatrice, you take the fun out of everything!" Esus said.
"I end up having to be mediator far too often for you old-time gods and goddesses! Please remember your manners," she said. "You can catch more sacrifices with honey than you do with vinegar."
"Actually, I caught a fair number of them by splitting them open and spilling their blood like a tipped flagon of wine," he said.
"That will do, Esus," Beatrice said. "I can't have you scaring the newly dead into a second death. Aubrey, it's time to come out. I'm sure you two are capable of having a civil discussion."
Aubrey peeked out from behind the wide trunk. "Not unless he promises not to swing that axe around anymore."
Esus promised (with his fingers crossed behind his back, of course. After all, you can't make an ancient god change his ways overnight, especially when they've got a reputation to uphold as a bloodthirsty woodcutter).
He explained to Aubrey that he had his origins as a Celtic-Gaulish deity.
"Gaul being your modern-day France. Back then there were three of us; me, Taranis, and Teutates. They're even louder than I am if you can believe it."
Aubrey said she couldn't and preferred not to find out.
"Teutates' victims were drowned in a vat of ale, which is a waste of perfectly good alcohol if you ask me. Now, that bastard Taranis knew how to put on a show! He required his victims to be shut inside great wicker effigies and burned to death. Sometimes along with a bunch of livestock. You don't get that sort of theatrical quality anymore," he said with a nostalgic gleam in his eyes.
"But then religions changed and humanity decided to get on its collective moral high horse, so to speak," Esus sighed. "Oh, sure, there's still plenty of wars, torturing and lovely, warm red blood being shed. But it's nothing like it was in my day."
Esus continued his lamenting. "Now, I know a thing or two about what goes on down there on that miserable little rock you call Earth. Modern people have a problem with violence, and then you go around starting petitions and having demonstrations, and peace rallies, and revolutions! What I would give to see someone stretched upon the rack—"
Aubrey's eyes practically bugged out of her head.
"Or a good crucifixion. But the biggest problem is that you hypocritical humans don't have useful reasons for killing a person. You do it the name of "democracy" or something foolish," Esus rumbled on. "At least in my time, you did it for fertility, honor, glory, or to ensure a good harvest if you wanted to be boring. But worst of all, you modern humans don't even have the decency to sacrifice each other in our name anymore (apart from your case, of course). What has the world come to?"
He swung the axe. The blade whistled over Aubrey's head and slammed into the tree.
Aubrey dove for cover.
"Oh, come on, now, I wasn't aiming for you! I quite enjoy your company. You listen to my stories and you look terrified at all the appropriate moments."
Aubrey shook with fright. It was bad enough to be ritualistically killed when you were out trail running in the woods, minding your own business. But to find yourself facing an eternity in the Afterlife with the evil lumberjack of gods!
"Now come over here, let me get a good look at you," said Esus. "Please," he added.
Aubrey crept over to him and sat in a shady patch under his willow tree. Beatrice nodded in approval and slipped away through the access door.
He pointed at her shirt. "What is that?"
Aubrey realized she was wearing the same clothes as when she was killed.
Esus read her tee shirt with disgust. "Come to the Dark Side, We Have Cookies."
Aubrey appraised his outfit. He wore a leather kilt and a cuirass emblazoned with a leaf and bird motif. A bull's face and three birds resembling cranes or egrets decorated the center of the cuirass. On his arms were bracers adorned with twisting, angular designs.
"Well, what about what you're wearing? You look like a—"
Esus raised one hairy red eyebrow.
"A fierce, mighty warrior-god," she said, looking sideways.
"Aha, there's the respect a long-lost god deserves! Nobody would even know who I was if it weren't for that pillar bearing my image that was excavated from under the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris 200 years ago. So tell me, Aubrey, do you like my home?"
Aubrey looked around. The breeze whispered through the treetops that peeked over the round wall encircling his courtyard and carried the lush, verdant scent through the air.
The sky here was the deepest, richest blue she had ever seen. Even the glorious way Earth's sky looked the day after a bad storm seemed to be cheap, ugly imitation made of colored paper.
The sun was a perfect golden sphere. She remembered her own world's sun, and it seemed to be as harsh and gaudy as a glittery ornament by comparison.
"It's beautiful. Peaceful." She leaned against the willow tree. "Whatever happened to all the other people who were sacrificed to you?"
"They've moved on. Nobody sticks around forever. I think you should know that most people who were killed in my name were men, so you stand out," he grinned, waggling his axe.
"You know," he went on, as he noticed her eyeing the axe with suspicion, "that even the most learned of scholars who study antiquities do not know why I prune my sacred willow tree, though they love to guess. Do you?"
"I don't know anything about you. What do they think?" asked Aubrey.
"They think it might symbolize the destruction of the Tree of Life (you know what that is, don't you? You don't? It represents the unity of the material plane and the spirit world) during the winter and its rebirth in spring, or that it may mean the breaking down of barriers between the physical and spiritual worlds. All very poetic, but sometimes, I prune my tree because that is how I keep it healthy. That is why it looks so magnificent!"
He reached over her head and lopped off a thin limb with browning leaves.
Aubrey searched for something meaningful to say, but all she came up with was the time she had cut the lilac bush in her parents' backyard too far, and it didn't bloom for three years.
Esus' laughed rolled like a peal of thunder. "Well then, you are in the right place to be shown the right way to prune! You shall learn from a true master."
"Now, let me tell you about the Roman poet Lucian. Would you believe he had the temerity to call me uncouth? No, hold the axe like this," said Esus, adjusting it in her hands.
"This way," said the woman. She led the police officers up the overgrown path.
"I was just out walking Ginger and I let her off the leash and she raced off, and then she just about went crazy barking. And then here she was." She pointed into the brambly grove off the narrow path.
Aubrey's frosty corpse still hung from the gnarled oak.
"I can't bring myself to look at her again," the woman said. "As soon as I saw her, I was almost sick, I knew it was that missing woman. What a terrible, gruesome thing."
The officers thanked her again for putting in the call.
"And you know something? I remember Ginger chased her down the trail once. She just loves to chase runners."