There were people all over, sweat and perfume mingling like smoke: arousal and tension filled Paul’s lungs, shot through the rest of his body and stuck. The bloke with him slipped his hand into the opening of Paul’s toga, making his way into Paul’s pants and around his bits. Paul felt like he was being weighed and measured. It wasn’t a problem; in fact, he encouraged his partners to become familiar with his body before they jumped in the sack – just not in front of loads of other people, people he worked with, people his children knew. They didn’t need to hear any more rumours about their father than already circulated like something in The Sun: it had to be true if it was in the press. This lot would take any step out of the bounds of propriety and turn it into ritual suicide and virgin sacrifice, if he wasn’t careful. This bloke at least was older than the last. Paul had actually felt quite ashamed of himself for that little escapade. It had been hard to resist the excitement of a boy becoming a man – a birthday celebration he was sure the lad never forgot. It was also the last time Paul had dared look at any man who wasn’t at least twenty five years old, no matter how good-looking or persuasive they were: daddy fetishes weren’t his bag.
The hold on his bits shifted and became a demand.
“Let’s get a drink first. We can take it with us.” He smiled and pulled out the horn he’d bought from the second-hand shop earlier that day, showing where he’d corked what used to be the mouth piece. “Might as well act like barbarians with our clothes on.”
“I’ll get some wine,” the man said, smiling.
“Alright. I’ll be in the garden.”
Paul melted through the crowd of bodies all dying to do the same thing he was about to do. They’d spent the evening seducing each other with a stray hand, a few words that no-one else should ever hear and touches when the annoying magical lamps weren’t on them like a spotlight, just waiting for Paul to do something worth taking a photo of to post on the front of a tabloid – or worse, a reputable news source with a story that didn’t match reality. He headed outside, to the terrace overlooking the garden maze: rose bushes, rhododendrons, and sundry bits of greenery had been tamed into wild walls and turns. At the centre, a stone paradise awaited whoever made it that far. It was well-known to Paul. This particular house had been host to many fancy dress parties for bachelors and bachelorettes with certain tastes. The last time was still fresh in his mind, a lazy shag that he’d wanked over for days before spoiling it with another random bloke. Magic hadn’t been an option that night; it was this time. People largely accepted that there were people who could use magic in various ways. Sometimes using his talents - not the ones they were after – was off-putting. Paul understood: some people liked fists up their arses. To each their own was his view, and this was at least one party where magic would mean sod all to anyone else, while making life easier. His black thumb gave him a key between the walls and dead-ends. Suck the water out of anything, put it somewhere else and voilà – tangled mass of trained shrubbery gone. The water would go somewhere else, hopefully not into the centre of the maze. That sort of thing happened sometimes. He’d think of something else, of course, if it went badly wrong.
The night air was pleasant and sharp compared to the heat inside. So many bodies gathered together, gyrating, glistening, built up energy. Paul could feel it everywhere, a fire so hot it ran through his blood and promised deliverance one way or another. He exhaled. All day it had been growing, the steady feeling that something was going to happen.
Paul turned at approaching footsteps. “What’s your name again?”
“Michael. We actually work together.”
“Oh, do we?” He held the horn out. “Might as well fill it up.”
The wine flowed into the aged crescent. It looked like bone, but Paul was sure that was craftsmanship. “Mm. Hard to tell in the costume, I know, but I’m in the back on the fourth floor, by the filing room.”
Colour me surprised, Paul thought. “Been looking forward to this, then?”
“You could say that.” Michael smiled.
“Let’s not waste too much time.”
Paul took the horn-chalice, thinking about blood and bones, before he drank deeply. Drops of scarlet rolled over his thumb and across the top of his hand, down his lip and chin, even though he’d tried to catch it. Michael caught the line of fading red at Paul’s throat and dragged his tongue up, until their mouths connected; everything he’d had to drink had gone from his stomach directly to his brain, drowning it. He laughed and pulled the bottle from Michael, stopping only to offer some to his companion. Michael shook his head. For a while, his world danced in colour and sound, voices becoming like vivid fireworks displays. It was like swimming through thoughts and feelings, something Paul wasn’t prepared for when his senses took over and led him. He took Michael’s hand and led him down a winding granite staircase the light of the full moon guiding them to the grass at the entrance of the maze.
Paul’s skin itched. He dropped the horn when scratching became an effort. The cork - damn it - should’ve been firmly in place. It was sitting innocently in the middle of the maze entrance like a child pretending to have not done anything wrong.
He scoffed and looked down. No-one was around for miles apart from the people inside the great estate. Blowing it wouldn’t offend anyone. He bent down and took hold of it.
“It’s brilliant, isn’t it?” Michael asked.
‘Brilliant’ wouldn’t have been Paul’s word for it. It reminded him of something out of a museum, some archaeological find from primitive civilisation when bones were used for just about anything. Faint traces of carvings covered the surface in intricate patterns, he noticed for the first time. So maybe it is a bit brilliant. ‘Beautiful’ might have been a better word, but Paul’s vocabulary lacked any spectacular adjectives. There wasn’t any energy about it that he could sense, at least not magical energy, but there was something special about it; that much he could feel in his bones. He wanted it.
Paul reached for it, running his fingers over the raised texture. Iridescent shades travelled the length of the bone and disappeared. Paul frowned, unsure if he’d actually seen the colours or not. The bits of dirt and other stains looked wrong. It was like the thing didn’t even belong in the same space with Paul, let alone in his hands. Not even the moon touched it. Paul looked closer at the carvings: men on horseback surged forward into the unknown. It was mesmerisingly familiar and unfamiliar at the same time; like an object in a half-waking dream, which the conscious mind rejected as unknown but the dreaming mind insisted was remembered. It fitted into his hand as if it had been made for him - and him alone - to hold.
Paul knew he was supposed to blow the thing; he felt it as naturally as he knew he had to breathe, though he couldn’t have explained why. Paul’s eyes widened and he caressed the horn, his heart beating faster. It was like he could feel himself on horseback, free and far from the failures in his life. Being there would take him away from it all, the rows with Corinne over the kids, rows with the kids over his shortcomings as a father, rows with lovers who wanted more than he could give or wanted to give - he felt like he belonged in that scene, like he should be there with them, chasing that stag, killing it, collecting the trophy for a thrilling chase.
Paul hefted the horn and placed it against his lips. No sound came out when he blew; instead, it brought silence, an eerie stillness. Even the party seemed to have stopped. In that instant, Paul knew something was terribly wrong. It was like every nightmare about magic – the ones he’d had when his parents read him stories as a child – was true.
Darkness descended like a wet cloak, and the unmistakable sound of hooves beating the ground, like the world had a heartbeat, thundered in Paul’s ears. He jerked, trying to see something – anything. There was nothing, just the sounds of horses, the baying of hounds, and heavy breaths from hollow nostrils. A chill colder than ice pierced him. This isn’t happening. Can’t be happening. He backed away from whatever it was that waited for him, sightless, trying to remember what had been around him; the inside of his head felt like fog had plummeted in, the alcohol finally heating enough to leave his brain alone. He tripped and fell backwards, hitting the ground hard; his foot caught on a root he didn’t remember being there.
The darkness lifted for a moment. A dream, I'm dreaming. I have to be. Paul pushed against the grass, which now felt like had taken the beating of rain all day, heels slipping in the muck. He clawed at the ground, only grasping sodden clumps of grass. Everything slipped away; he was slipping away. With nowhere to go, he dropped onto his elbows, into coarse mud. Sinking, sinking... he collapsed against the ground.
An indistinct figure, a presence he could feel more than see, wrathful and fearsome, hovered before him. Sounds and images flooded his mind as the figure spoke - at least, he thought it was speaking. None of the words sounded familiar; they felt it, though, and Paul knew that he’d done a very bad thing.
Pain tore him apart like he’d been struck by lightning. The shock stole his breath, and it felt like his anchor to the world, to magic, to life, no longer existed. He plunged into absolute, smothering darkness.