Prologue - August 1999
He was dying.
The toll of being here had wreaked such havoc on him, he wasn't sure if his soul was in a body or rattling around an empty shell. He felt the decay coursing through his body like his blood was lead, every step he took became heavier and heavier until he felt as if he'd inevitably sink into the ground and become entombed in his own grave. Sometimes he wished he could. He'd been seeing visions of the other side for the past few months and he yearned to be in that darkness. No worries, no pain, no guilt.
But there was no Rosemary there. He couldn't go on if she wasn't with him. This was all his fault and he knew it, and she was trying to be gracious but he knew she was miserable. He'd made her miserable.
That's why they'd made this pact in the first place. "If you see an out,take it. Run to the police station and get help."
It sounded great in theory, but as he stood there twelve feet away from the open gate, his heartbeat deafening in his ears, he wasn't so sure it was as simple as they'd thought it to be. The tall, lifeless grass surrounding the compound was bending in the wind, like even God was telling him "This way." He doubted he could get past the gate without anyone seeing. And if he left and the others saw, what would happen to Rosemary?
He looked over his shoulder, searching for the woman in question, and found the same steely blue eyes he'd lost himself in so many times before boring into him like an anchor in a sea of uncertainty.
There were no words audible to his ears, but there was no question what she mouthed. It was the same thing her eyes implored. "Go."
"What are you doing, Neil?" a voice boomed from off in the distance.
He turned and saw the leader stalking towards him with a look of anger painting his features red. "Go," Rosemary's voice echoed in his head.
Without a second thought, he bolted through the wooden gate, his feet moving quicker than he'd ever thought possible. Outside of the gate, he felt lighter than ever. He felt free.
That is, until he heard a distinct, blood-curdling scream.
Chapter One - February 2000
Dana Scully's Apartment Complex
3170 West 53 Rd., Apartment #35
Georgetown, Washington D.C.
7:35 A.M. Saturday
While he'd never look a gift horse in the mouth when it came to seeing Scully on the weekends, when the reasoning was an impromptu Saturday meeting with Skinner, Mulder couldn't help but feel a bit nervous. They'd both received an email from their boss that read: Meeting in my office. Saturday at 8am. Be discreet, tell no one.
It would be hypocritical of him to say the older man was acting odd, but he couldn't help the suspicion blooming in his gut that something unpleasant was looming.
Mulder glanced at the clock and saw he was making good time. He'd offered a ride to Scully with the secret hope they could go out to lunch together after the meeting was over, and he was pleased to hear her accept. Now he was just sitting in his car outside her complex, staring up at the window he knew was hers from all the nights of "Wave at me so I know you made it up alright."
Like she could sense him, the curtains peeked open and he saw Scully look down at the street below, checking to see if he'd arrived yet. He caught the moment she spotted his car because her face lit up in a smile, and she lifted a hand to wave down at him. He honked the horn twice in quick succession in response, and he chuckled to himself when he saw her roll her eyes. She lifted up a finger and mouthed one minute, to which he honked in acknowledgement. He laughed again when she saw her let out a huff of amusement before shaking her head and disappearing behind the curtains.
Mulder turned in his seat and looked over to the center console and made sure the coffee he'd picked up for her hadn't leaked before changing the radio station from the sports review to the alternative music station he knew she liked. Looking in the mirror, he bared his teeth to make sure he didn't have any breakfast lingering behind before resigning himself to tapping his fingers against the worn material of the steering wheel.
It had been like this for them since the New Year. The Mulder who'd never experienced the decadence of Scully's lips on his own was left behind in the 90s, and in his place was a new Mulder who just wanted to see what else the aughts might bring. He may have designated himself to just being a hopeless romantic if it weren't for the way she was reciprocating. She was flirtier, she played along with him more, she instigated them hanging out outside of work more. Hell, just a few cases ago she'd played with his tie, pouted her lips at him, and asked if he would do something 'just for her'. Things were changing and he'd be blind not to see it.
But changing into what he wasn't so sure.
The passenger door opening drew him out of his reverie, and he turned with a smile to welcome Scully into the car. She was wearing a purple sweater that complemented her figure nicely, paired with an equally complementary black skirt - even her casual attire looked effortlessly professional. Her perfume wafted into the car like an olfactory greeting, which was one of his favorite parts of giving her a ride - the way her smell would linger even when she wasn't there anymore.
"I think my neighbors are going to come out here and trash your car one of these days if you keep that up," she laughed, buckling herself in.
"I was gentle," he teased back, pulling out onto the street and making his way to the Hoover Building.
"Gentle at a loud decibel," she retorted before making a sound of happy surprise. "Is this for me?"
He turned and saw her pointing to one of the coffee cups with her five-step order scrawled on the top. "Yep," he replied with a smile as he saw her beam.
"Thank you, Mulder," she cooed with a lilt. He felt himself smiling again in response to her simple gratitude. They'd been doing little things for each other, and though they'd done things like this for all of their partnership - grabbing a coffee for the other, getting the other something they thought they'd like, etc - it was being done with more and more frequency and it felt oddly domestic. He loved it.
"Why do you think Skinner called us in on a Saturday?" she asked. "And why all the secrecy?"
"Do you think we're being assigned a case?" he asked. "If we were being reprimanded, he wouldn't have made us come in on a weekend for it."
Scully paused for a moment, nodding as she thought about it. "But why us?" she replied.
"Maybe it's all an elaborate excuse so he could catch a glimpse of you in your street clothes," he teased.
"Damn, if I'd known that maybe I would have worn a halter top and booty shorts," she sighed in mock disappointment.
"It's not too late. I can turn around," he jokingly offered, slowing down in the middle of the road.
"Mulder!" she laughed, twisting in her seat to make sure no one was behind him.
He chuckled and a companionable silence fell between them for the remainder of the ride there. However, as they got closer, a sense of mutual anxiety fell upon them. Even though they'd been reinstated on the X-Files for over a year, he'd be lying if he said he didn't fear the day would come when they found a reason to shut them down for good. Knowing how much Skinner looked out for them, it wasn't unreasonable to think the man would take care with letting them down gently. Maybe that's what this all was for. He slid into his usual parking spot and felt a sense of foreboding unease wash over him.
"You ready?" Scully asked, unbuckling her seatbelt and grabbing her purse and coffee.
"As I'll ever be," he replied, grabbing his own cup before following her.
The Hoover Building felt like a ghost town contrasted to the usual weekday hustle and bustle of the hallway. Aside from the janitors polishing the floors, it felt like they were the only ones there. "Arlene isn't even here," Scully whispered upon entering Skinner's waiting room.
"Confidential enough to warrant avoiding the gossip of the secretarial pool," Mulder whispered back conspiratorially. "Spooky."
"Agents, I'm glad you could make it," Skinner called out from behind them. They both jumped and turned to see Skinner joining them from the hallway. "Thank you for meeting me on such short notice and on your day off."
"Of course, sir," Scully greeted.
"I can assure you it will be worth your time," he added, motioning for them to enter his office.
Mulder wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but the addition of two other men in Skinner's office wasn't it. They both turned to look at Skinner who walked towards the table, addressing the strangers, "These are the Agents I was telling you about."
Mulder and Scully walked towards the open seats at the table slowly as Skinner made introductions. "Agent Scully, Agent Mulder, meet Neil Howie and Dick Halloran."
"Nice to meet you," Scully smiled, shaking both men's hands before taking a seat, Mulder following suit.
"Let me cut to the chase," Skinner stated firmly. "We need your help on a case, Agents."
Mulder felt a weight lift off his shoulders at the knowledge that they weren't in trouble, but it didn't clue him into why they were needed. "What kind of help?" he asked.
"Mr. Howie's recently escaped from a death cult, and in light of Heaven's Gate, Waco, Jonestown, and all those millennium cults last year, the FBI has taken a strong interest in the case," Skinner replied. "We need people on the inside and your insight from the X-Files, as well as your history of working well undercover, makes you the perfect candidates."
"Death cult?" Scully repeated. "Wouldn't that fall to Violent Crimes?"
"Under normal circumstances, yes. But we've been working with an agent down in New Orleans specializing in Ritualistic Satanic Abuse, and she's warned us that this cult utilizes unconventional methods to keep the cultists in line. Unconventional methods that fall more into your purview," he explained. "I think it would be best if I let Mr. Howie fill you in himself."
They turned to the thin man sitting on the other side of Skinner. He had dirty blond hair and dark circles under his eyes. He looked timid, glancing at Skinner for permission to speak before beginning. "Y-you can just call me Neil. I, um, in 1998 I joined this group The Hallowed. I found them on an online forum. I was having a hard time finding a job, and they offered free housing and meals as long as I was willing to tend the land and devote myself to a communal, spiritual lifestyle."
Neil nervously reached out his hand and took a large gulp of water before continuing. "Um, me and my wife decided it would be good for us, so we moved. But right from the get go we knew we'd made a bad decision."
"Why's that?" Scully asked gently.
"They, um, they have oddly traditional values. Men being superior to women, women needing to be subservient to men. If we hadn't gone in as a married couple, I would have been gifted a bride," he explained.
Mulder glanced over at Scully and he saw her jaw clench beneath her skin. It sounded like they were going to be going undercover at this place, and he knew this was going to be hard on her. "What else was off?" Mulder asked.
"We had to participate in this huge ceremony of welcome, but it was all so performative. After that we were given our home, and we learned our expectations. Rosemary, my wife, she and the other women were expected to do the household chores and tend to the kids, but they aren't allowed to speak or look at any of the men. They aren't even allowed out of the house past a certain time. The men have to do the labor, but they also have to attend nightly gatherings," he stated.
"What types of gatherings?" Scully prompted.
"T-they focus on a specific man and brutalize him," he whispered.
"What do you mean?" Mulder asked, brows furrowing.
"They teach us that there is another realm we can go to, where souls from beyond can meet with us and communicate. But, the realm can only be reached after a certain pain threshold has been met," he answered.
"Why didn't you leave?" Scully asked.
The man got silent and shifted in his seat nervously. "In '86 I drove after drinking too much, and I killed a college girl walking home from the library."
Tension fell over the room as they all digested the confession. "And that's why it was hard for you to find a job? Because you have a criminal record," Scully filled in.
"No one wants to hire a murderer," he replied. "It was an accident. I haven't had a drink since."
Mulder was about to ask another question when Neil spoke up again, "And… I saw her there."
"What do you mean?" Mulder asked.
"The girl, the one I hit. On my first night there, I saw her during the ritual. They said I could see her again if I was loyal to the group," he explained. He started to tear up as his voice grew tight, "I just wanted to tell her how sorry I am."
Scully turned in her seat and rifled through her purse before passing the man a packet of Kleenex. "Thank you," he replied softly.
"Was that how most of the men were lured? Hard on their luck and desperate?" Scully asked.
He nodded before blowing his nose. "All the men there have some sort of criminal background, which is why I think some of them get so into the ritual side of it. They are given permission and encouraged to be brutes, and anyone who has participated in the ritual wants to stay because it's addictive."
"Why do the women stay?" she followed.
Neil looked at her like it was a ridiculous question. "They can't leave."
"What do you mean?"
"At The Hallowed, they are the property of the men. If they were to leave, or even when they don't follow the rules, they are punished," he answered.
"Punished?" Scully asked, quirking her brow.
The man realized the impression he'd given her and quickly started shaking his head. "No, no, I never laid a hand on Rosemary. I tried to keep her safe. It was the others who tried to enforce the gender dynamic. I think some of the men enjoyed it."
"Where is Rosemary now?" Mulder asked.
The man's face crumpled at the question and a few more tears fell down the already laid tracks on his cheeks. "I had to leave her there," he keened. "We were trying to find a way to escape, and she told me if I ever saw an out to take it and come back for her. So one day I saw the gate was left open and I ran as fast as I could to the police station. I thought we could go back and get her."
"Why couldn't you?" Scully asked.
For the first time since the introductions, the other man in the room spoke up. "I'm the Sheriff of Springwood. We went to get her as soon as Neil explained the situation, but…" he paused, taking a deep breath. "She wasn't there."
Neil's face contorted in pain as he let out a low whimper. The unspoken implication was deafening, but no one asked. "We didn't even need to get a warrant, we were allowed to check everywhere and it looked spotless. No sign of her."
"You have to find out what they did to her," Neil sobbed.
"That's where you come in, Agents," Skinner stated. "If there are a group of people in there being held against their will, we need someone to go in and find out. On top of that, it sounds like some of the men have been killed during the ritual, is that right, Neil?"
Neil nodded softly and Skinner continued, "We have reports of murder and domestic violence, and kidnapping is a federal crime." We've been in contact with the connection Neil made on the online recruiting site, and we have an invite."
"An invite?" Scully repeated.
"Tomorrow afternoon, Robert and Katherine Thorn will be picked up at a designated spot in Sherman Oaks, California by a cultist and brought onto the compound to start their new lives," Skinner explained. "I'm sorry for the lack of proper notice, but this has been on the cult's terms, not ours. Now that we have an in, we need to take it."
"Why weren't we consulted beforehand?" Mulder asked. "How long have you been talking to the group?"
"A little under two weeks, and we hadn't anticipated things would move so quickly. As for the secrecy, with how much the media focuses on anything with the word 'cult' or 'Satanic Panic' we couldn't risk this getting out. If there's wind that we're onto them, we can't anticipate what they'd do," Skinner replied. "Again, I apologize for the late notice."
Mulder shifted in his chair uncomfortably. Last time they went undercover it had been under more favorable circumstances, a big, comfy house, connection to the outside world, a bit of freedom - this case entailed himself likely being physically abused while Scully, his fiercely independent partner, was forced to be subservient to him. A situation neither of them would find favorable. "What protection do Scully and I have?" he asked.
"Sheriff Halloran is going to be assisting you on the operation. We're going to help you smuggle a phone in so you can contact him with progress reports and in case you feel that you're in danger," Skinner stated.
"After you get a layout of the place, we can figure out a meeting place. Since none of the women were allowed to talk to Neil, we aren't sure how some of the women got there. They may be abducted locals. If you can get some evidence or anything compelling and you're able to pass it along to me, we can start making a substantial case against them. Without that, they're just a group of people being weird, and we can't charge them for that. Especially when they can always see us coming and hide anything unsavory," Halloran explained.
"The ball is in your court, Agents," Skinner said."I can't force you to accept the case, but-"
"I accept," Scully stated firmly.
Skinner looked as surprised as Mulder felt at the strength of her conviction, but it made sense. There was no way Scully could stand by knowing that there were voiceless women suffering. It went against her nature.
"Me too," he agreed. If he was being honest with himself. This made him uncomfortable, and if it were up to him, he'd rather other agents be sent on the case. She'd just started getting back to her normal self since the Donnie Pfaster case, and he was worried being around evil men might bring up some bad memories. But he'd be damned before he tried to stop her, and if she was going, he was going.
A look of relief passed over Skinner's face and he nodded appreciatively. "Thank you. Both of you." He reached over to his side and pulled out a manila envelope. "Here's all the information we have. It's not much, but it's something. There's also a copy of the chat log and the demographic data we used. I expect you two can come up with some sort of back story for yourselves," he said, a layer of suggestion implicit in his tone.
"No matter what, make sure they know you're married," Neil spoke up. "If they suspect you aren't, you might be broken up and coupled with someone else. I've seen it before. They may be messed up, but in their eyes marriage means the woman belongs to the man without question."
Scully looked over at him and they shared a moment of mutual anxiety over what they'd just gotten themselves into. Skinner pushed the folder across the table to them and added, "Your tickets are in there as well. You leave for California tonight."
Scully took the folder and nodded her head softly. "Is there anything else?" Mulder asked.
"Yeah," Skinner replied with a nod. "Come back alive."