John had been preparing sandwiches when he left the cabin, Debbie said. The dog was barking outside and he went to check on it, And then he never came back.
It had been over an hour. His car was still there. There was nowhere really he could walk to. Woods in all directions for miles.
Debbie was looking very worried. This wasn’t like him, she explained. Those of us who knew him weren’t sure if it was or wasn’t. It was the day time though, which was in all of our favor.
“What if he fell somewhere, and he’s hurt?”
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Marsha chimed in. “Probably just having a long smoke somewhere…”
“Or maybe he sat down to rest and fell asleep,” I added. “You know how he is.”
Debbie looked like she was about to cry. I decided to change the subject.
“Debbie,” I said. “What about the sandwiches?”
“You said he was making sandwiches when he went out…”
“Let’s all go together back up to your cabin, and finish making those sandwiches. I’m sure by the time we’re done, he’ll be back.”
We all agreed this would be a good idea, pulled on our shoes and trudged further up the hill to their cabin.
When we got there, I noted silently that the dog was nowhere to be found either. I decided not to mention this out loud to the others, though it probably just meant the two had gone for a spontaneous hike in the woods. Maybe the dog chased after some critter, and John after the dog.
We went inside and found the sandwiches untouched, still half-finished on the counter.
Marsha took the lead and coaxed Debbie into helping her finish the sandwiches. I tried to find something to listen to on the radio. In this hilly terrain, it was difficult to catch a signal. Switched to AM. Crunchy sounds coming in from way off, states away. Oldies.
“I’ll go poke around outside while you ladies finish. Be right back.”
I went out the screen door and down the steps. Everything outside was still. No wind. Occasional quiet bird song. Even he sounded loathe to break the silence. I looked around for tracks, there were none. So I just started moving toward the woods. I thought I heard the gurgling sound of water in the distance, so semi-subconsciously headed towards it. Knowing John, he was probably looking for a place to drop a hook in the water. Maybe that was it. Fresh fish.
When I found finally a stream gurgling down through the hills, I did also see some footprints in the wet soil by the edge. A man and a dog, clear as day. But they were nowhere to be found nearby. And I didn’t see any potential places they could have slipped and fallen. So I decided to turn back to the cabin to share my discovery. Probably by the time I arrived back, John would be there already.
As I wound my trail back to the cabin, the stillness of the forest I felt was giving way to something else. An unease? Not even the birdsong from earlier.
I climbed the stairs, and as I did so the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I began to feel very strange. Alert but also sluggish. Like it was a chore to reach the top of the steps, and the screendoor. And when I did, I couldn’t understand what I was seeing inside.
There were several men inside the cabin, native men. Broad faces and dark hair. Debbie and Marsha seemed frozen in place. The whole moment frozen. My limbs felt very heavy. I had to struggle to open the screendoor and push my way inside.
The men didn’t speak. No one spoke. But I got the overwhelming feeling of malice, that they intended to do us grave harm. My mind was racing, but my body was hardly responding.
One of the men was staring at Debbie. Tears were streaming down her face, but no sound was coming out. I tried to manuever to put myself physically between her and the man, but another of his gang fixed me with his own debilitating stare. What was this dark power we were falling under? Would we be killed here today – or worse?
In that moment of sheer terror, of teetering on the brink, John suddenly burst through the screendoor.
“It’s magic, man.” He said to me.
“What?” I managed to stammer out.
“Black magic, man. Fucking black magic. You have to fight it.”
Some part of me sprang back to life on hearing this.
I saw John run at the man who was controlling Debbie with some kind of evil mesmeric gaze. John lunged at him, a spark setting off a chain reaction in some dark corner of my lizard brain, causing me to lash out at the man nearest me.
But where our blows landed, if they landed, our hands felt soft and weak. Bodies becoming numb and sluggish where we made contact. I could tell we were falling back under their spell.
Magic. Someone had taught me some magic words, I thought. Years ago. In a dream maybe. I tried to call them to mind. Tried to just voice them out of darkest memory, without knowing what language they were, or their meaning.
I heard the voice coming out of my body, as if from someone else far off. It sounded like a monster, but I could feel the muscles of my throat adapting to create the proper overtones.
Sounds poured out, arcane names. Even as my body became more and more frozen.
The men however seemed unphased. In fact, a couple of them I took to be their leaders started laughing. Only then I noticed there was a child among them, a pre-teen. One of the men grabbed the child roughly by the arm, as if to demonstrate, lifted him up and hurled him violently across the room into a bookcase. Books spilled out of it on the impact. But the child was clearly unharmed. He was laughing even with the older men. I could tell they could not be harmed by physical means alone.
Still, I raised up my arms in front of me in an “X” of warding against them. My mouth forming around strange alien syllables, like GORTHRAX. KALUMNOS. Other things pouring out of my triggered subconscious.
With each word, arms still in warding, my fingers flew through different configurations. Mudras from ancient texts. Charms against the evil eye. The sacred hand of Anthuor.
Until it suddenly struck me. The inversion. The damnation of all things. Clenching my hands into fists. Up comes the middle fingers on each hand, followed by the ring fingers.
The word, SHKULYA. I didn’t know what it meant, but with all the force of my being not numb to these entities, I projected it with my voice, arms and hands in warding.
And the spell broke. For only a moment. The Deathless, as they called themselves, were called out, bound. SHKULYA meant Lifeless. Their true nature. The key to their being.
I shouted it aloud again, feeling the chains immobilizing me breaking away.
And with a blink, the scene of the cabin altogether faded away. And I was standing again at the edge of the stream in the woods. John was there and the dog was barking.
On the other side of the water stood the apparitions of the men. For it was clear now their bodies were insubstantial. They seemed to emerge from and merge with the brush. Except for their coal black eyes, staring, penetrating. But we knew they, the Lifeless, could not cross the flowing water.
John and I looked at each other, knowing.
“Let’s get out of here, man,” he said.