The night was still but blessedly cool when they emerged from the Chapel. Following Benoit along a gravel path, they went right, between buildings and past the half-dozen round beehive huts of the ancient monastery. An owl hooted at them from the oak grove as they passed.
Beyond the copse the valley opened out. Stones scattered among the bushes stood as white as old bones among the tumuli. In the distance the black waters of the Pond of the Druids glistened in the moonlight near a dark hill. They stopped.
“So, Professor MacLantis,” he said, “where do we start?”
“Down there, at the Vel-Tyno altarstone,” Gus said, pointing, his face hard.
“Monsieur Benoit, if you would kindly lead the way,” the Count commanded.
The wide, flat gravel-covered path made the walk easy. No one spoke until they neared the first of the stones, a massive trilithon, a titanic portal made of three huge rectangular blocks. They had arrived at a sinister, haunted place, once a sacred sanctuary of forgotten gods but cursed by the saints of the new faith as the abode of demons.
Before them upon a slight rise sat the ancient heathen altar of Vel-Tyno. It rested in a small rock-fenced circle of blighted earth where nothing ever grew. The ancient horns of the altar were grooved by the ropes and chains of uncounted victims worn into the stone. Blood-channels across its surface still bore dark stains. Faint traces of paint yet clung to the writhing stick figures carved across the sides.
Beyond the accursed rock stretched two roughly parallel rows of pale upright stones, tilted at various angles like crooked rows of rotten teeth. These ran down towards the stygian Pond of the Druids above which a layer of thin mist gathered in the calm.
“Here we are, Augustine. Now what?” The Count waved his gun at the scene.
“The sparkle on the overlay indicated the true direction, just not the distance,” Gus said with feigned assurance. “From here we must find the cleft with the Miners Shrine.”
“Of course,” Benoit said, eyes narrowing. “The final time we tricked the SS bastards was not far from there, near the Hill of Sighs. But the swine used hostages to dig for them.”
On they walked, past standing stones and mounds. They skirted the remains of a huge dolmen. The enormous capstone once perched upon a trio of pillars lay atop their shattered remains – and the unrecovered bodies of a squad of half a dozen conscripted diggers. Benoit crossed himself and touched the cross carved into the rock as he passed.
Finally they rounded a large rocky knob. “The Hill of Sighs,” the Count said, “I should have guessed: an appropriately eerie locale to contain so potent a secret.”
“Scientifically apt, too,” Lacnuit said. “This shrine has a natural solar alignment at midsummer dawn, too. The old stories say it’s what gave Heronimo the idea in the first place.”
“This is an evil place,” Benoit said, quickly crossing himself. “The moans of the damned are often heard among these stones, for it is whispered that the entrance to Hell is not far.”
“Simple country superstition,” Lacnuit snorted. “I have heard them myself, once when studying the Devil’s Chair up there. I assure you, it’s just the wind.”
“We could use a little right now, I think,” Gordon complained. “How will we find it?”
The mist rising from the pond now hung waist-level in the motionless air, obscuring the ground completely. In the distance, several plumes of smoke rose ominously from the town.
Lacnuit checked his large wrist chronometer. “But it’s now half after three, another hour or so until first light, I fear.” He rubbed his head.
“Don’t lecture, Lucien: find it.” The Count kept studying the map and the photo.
“If someone would help me onto this boulder, maybe I can sort directions.”
With Fawkes’ help, the old astronomer clambered up a fallen stone. He stood there uncertainly, peering at the starry heavens, seeking north. “Let’s see,” he muttered, “at solstice, sunrise should be about thirty degrees…” While he gestured and mumbled like the wizard he often portrayed, Gus whispered to Nigel, “Keep your eyes out for signs carved into rock. I’m ending this, tonight. Any chance we get. Benoit, you with us?”
“You’re on your own, MacLantis,” the old man hissed. “I’ll take my own revenge.”
Reuben hoarsely whispered, “Prof, I’m way out of my league, jefe. I’m sorry for everything, man. Please, you must help me. I just want to go home.”
“We all do, mate,” Nigel said. “Stay close to Gus and don’t do anything daft.”
“Reuben, hang on. Keep quiet, and just watch me, okay?” The man nodded nervously.
“Quit blubbering back there,” Sir Gordon ordered. “Buck up and do your part.”
“Sunrise will be this way,” Lacnuit announced, pointing confidently in one direction. “Which means we go that way,” he said, swinging his other arm opposite.
“Let’s go,” Count Roland ordered. “Watch your step everyone. Benoit, in front, please.”
In silence they picked their way through the fog. Benoit led the way like a truffle hound on the scent, head bowed, his lead increasing. Before they were halfway there, the Count suddenly realized the old man had vanished. Cursing, Roland climbed up on top a boulder but could barely see above the mist.
“Damnation,” he muttered to Jesús as he helped him down. “Watch your back, and stay close. He could be anywhere.”