“I told you the idea was bad,” Sia was fuming.
“ Don’t worry darling. We’ll soon be on the main road. And on our way to the resort.” Aman was trying to play down the situation.
“You said that hours ago, Aman. And even if we reach there, do you think the bus will be still waiting for us? ”
“Chill. Didn’t you hear the bus driver? It would take hours to repair the bus and we are just away for….”
“Three bloody hours.” Sia completed the sentence, gritting between her teeth, in annoyance.
Aman understood it was better to keep silent till they reach the safety of the bus seat.
After trying for another half an hour, when the duo found themselves back on the spot they had started, it was official. The two were lost in an isolated hilly woods.
It all started a few hours back. Sia and Aman had planned a weekend getaway in the serenity of Ravangla, a lesser known hill station in the lap of the mighty Himalayas. As per tour plan, they took a bus in the morning from New Jalpaiguri to reach their destination. On their way suddenly a news came that the normal route was blocked due to a landslide and the driver had to take a detour. The trouble started when the bus broke down in the middle of nowhere of this not so frequently used route. Without any warning the bus just stopped. Nothing the driver did, could make the old diesel engine roar into life. One of the elderly traveller of the bus, was particularly enraged.
– “Why you don’t maintain the buses properly? Don’t you know this area is cursed? How can you allow the bus to break down here? You have no idea how much trouble we will be in, if we cannot leave this place before sunset.”
The commotion caught the attention of Aman. The unjustified fear of the elderly person and the mention of the curse evoked much curiosity within his adventurous mind. And when the bus driver said it will take an hour or two to repair the vehicle, he decided to explore the ‘dangerous place’ a little more closely. His wife, Sia, dismissed the idea initially. But, with a little coaxing, she also decided to accompany him on his little venture.
They turned aside, and climbed the hill through the woods. After trekking for around fifteen minutes, they reached the top of the slope, where the wood thinned. Overseeing the high range on one side, and a white sprinkling of flowers all the way down – the scenery was enough to feed the soul as well as the eyes. A few selfies, a lot many poses, and the couple was soon treading back to the bus. That is when the problem crept in. It was as if they were arrested by some enchantment. No matter how much they tried, every time they attempted to climb down, they were back on the same hill top!
– “What is happening with us Aman? We walked up a straight path. But, now we are circling the same area for hours?” Sia asked in a trembling voice.
– “ I don’t know, Sia. It’s all my fault. You were right. My over enthusiasm has doomed us this time.”
Despair was absolutely evident from his voice. Sia hold his hand to support but, could not find any words to comfort him.
The mobile network had ditched them long back, now the battery also started to betray. Only if they could somehow contact the outer world. They had to break the spell and anyhow get out of this cursed land before the daylight bids them goodbye.
The woodland seemed ominously quiet. No birds were flying over it, like they could even sense the evil in there. The couple paused for a moment, now that even the sound of their own footfalls were silent, all that could be heard was the susurration of the leaves in the gusty wind.
The dappled shade of the woodland trees, which seemed so inviting earlier, was giving an eerie feeling now. Sia’s heart pounded in a way that had nothing to do with the exertion of walking. Adding to their dismay, the hilly woods accelerated the twilight, shrinking what would normally take an hour into just a few minutes.
Their eyes slowly adjusted to the encroaching gloom. The trees had become silhouettes, the air was turning colder and the gaiety of the woodland had been replaced with a sense of isolation. A shelter for the night, they needed a shelter urgently. Exhausted, and weary, at last the famished souls stopped trying to escape and sat down on the forest floor, and looked into the trees. Except for a few shreds of moonlight, the woods were as dark as shut closet.
-“Do you think there are wild animals here?” Sia asked slowly.
– “Very likely.”
– “Will they eat us?”
-“I hope not. We are looking awful, smelling bad and have growling stomach. I guess they would give us a pass.”
Sia was about to hit him for his cheeky answer, when she had a feeling of being watched. She pressed Aman’s hand hard and whispered faintly, “ Someone is watching us, Aman.”
Before Aman could speak up, a deep voice startled them from behind.
“ Who are you? What are you doing here, at this time?”
They turned around to find a large, formidable human figure. He had arrived without any warning. No sound of footsteps, nothing. His prodigious frame, sporting a weird looking oversized cloak and pretty long dread locks in the backdrop of the dark night in the woods, could terrify any weak soul. In the faint moonlight, his face was not clear and that made him look even more fearsome. In any other situation Sia would have ran in the opposite direction of such stranger, but, now in the present scenario, the existence of a fellow human being in this solitude brought a sense of relief to them.
Aman described in short the incidents since morning and how they got trapped in the woods. Was there a smile on the face of the stranger as he listened? They were too distracted to notice. But, they could feel the smile on each other’s face when the stranger said empathetically,
-“Oh, that’s terrible. But, you possibly can’t keep finding your way out in the dark. It will be too dangerous. You can be our guest tonight, if you want. Our small abode, where I reside with other fellow monks, is just around the corner. It’s not much, but I can assure you a roof and warm food for the night.”
Aman and Sia couldn’t believe their lucky stars. The man was not looking so terrifying now. He introduced himself as Sashank. Soon the two were following him to reach their shelter for the night.
Sia and Aman, walked up the stone steps to reach ‘the small abode’, which actually looked like a monastery, covering a large area of land. They were circling the area for hours, how was it possible to miss this place? It looked like this building also arrived here just now. The dark stone walls bathed in a stream of silver light that spilled through the clouded sky. From one window shone a glorious golden light. Not the homely, warm kind of light. The light was different, like a lighthouse amber beacon of danger.
-“I am not having a good feeling about this place, Aman. The place is so eerie.” Sia squeaked in an almost inaudible voice.
Their ankles were being tickled by the tendrils of weeds that had broken through the cobbles. Stooping down to scratch his legs, Aman replied, lowering his voice to the lowest possible level,
-“ Given a choice to battle eerie feeling or be the dinner of some wild animal, I prefer to choose the former.”
Sia knew he was right. They actually had no other choice than to trust this complete stranger.
Towering in front of them was a different kind of a monastery which let out a negative vibe, engulfing their energy. Sia could almost feel the evilness oozing out of every crack and crevice of the dismal stone walls of the house. Demonic gargoyles hung from the walls and the tenebrous ceiling added to the frightening atmosphere. The entrance hall was roomy, airy and full of medieval artefacts, which added to the gloomy shade of the candle lit room. However the most frightening thing was the huge black stone figure in the middle of the room. It was the most horrid statue they had ever seen. And the worst part, its red eyes, that were shining so bright, that it seemed the statue was alive.
Few other gigantic men, all clothed in a queer looking oversized cloaks and sporting dreadlocks, were going around the room, busy with some arrangement around the statue.
“We have a ritual tonight. They are preparing for it.”
Their host explained and then added,
“Let me show you the guest room. You must be so fatigued. Please take rest. The dinner will be served shortly. Then you can also join us in our celebration, if you want.”
Sia was interested to know about the cult the monks follow. But, did not consider it appropriate to ask. Aman was too tired to feel anything and the only word that made sense to him was ‘dinner’. His eyes shone in gratitude for the strange monk.
The dimly lit guest room was sparsely furnished. There was a Victorian bed in the centre of the room and beside it, a termite infested mahogany table, which must have had better days, bearing the only source of light in the room, an old oil lamp. But, the thing that caught Sia’s attention was the large portrait of the same horrid statue in the entrance hall. Aman couldn’t bother less about any weird portrait when the bed was ready for taking rest and dinner was assured. Soon he was snoring loudly, completely worn out from the strenuous day. But, Sia’s intuition was warning her of some impending danger. She waited in high alert, with bated breath, not sure of what to expect next. However, the day soon took a toll over her also, and she was in a deep slumber.
Their siesta was broken by a loud bang on the door. A younger monk was standing outside the door to greet them.
“ Master called you to witness the last ritual with us, before we break for dinner.”
The young monk guided the couple, downstairs.
They were greeted by their host, Sashank near the stairs. He seemed to be the high priest in the cult.
– “Sorry, the dinner took so long. Actually, today is a very auspicious day for us. And we cannot eat before the ritual is over. Just one final act and we can all move to the dinner table together. Apology for the delay.”
– “No, no, it’s okay. We are the untimely intruders here. You are already doing so much for us.” Aman started protesting.
They were once again standing in the entrance hall. There was no clock in the house, but something about the night announced that it was well past midnight. Aman was still sleepy, but, Sia was now wide awake, examining the others present in the room. There were around twelve other monks, standing at a distance, their gaze fixed at Aman and Sia. With a ravenous look in their bright eyes, as if the tastiest food has been served on the dinner table.
Sashank was still apologising profusely as he guided them to the statue. The room was darker than before. Only a handful of small clay lamps trying to put some light across the room. The black statue was smeared with red vermillion and that made it look more terrifying. In front of the effigy was an assemble of sandalwood, incenses sticks and an axe, also smeared with red vermillion. The whole set up was unnerving. The high priest bowed to his God and started chanting some incantations,
“Hey master of masters, please accept our offerings. May, the warm blood of the sacrifice quenches your thirst and you bestow upon us the power of immortality.”
And he gestured the couple also to bow in front of the idol , when the reality hit upon Sia. From the corner of her eyes, she noticed Sashank’s movement. He was about to pick the axe. It was all clear now. The warm blood of the sacrifice, the greedy eyes of the monks, the axe- it all made sense now. They would move to the dinner table soon after the ritual, but only as the food – they had to get out there.
“Don’t bow Aman. Run. We have to get out of here.”
And like a divine intervention, just then a strong wind blew out the lamps. Sia dragged Aman, and the next moment they were running out of the open door of the hall, into the darker wood. A loud, unnatural shriek, followed them, shattering the silence of the night. But, the couple did not deter and ran through the dark woods with all their might. This kind of darkness usually robs one of their best senses and replace it with a paralysing fear. But, they didn’t dare to stop. They ran for their lives, as far as their weary feet could take them, before collapsing finally on the muddy ground.
“The girl is still alive.”
“So is the guy. This is a miracle.”
Some people were discussing these things when Sia opened her eyes the next day. The bright sunlight dazzled her eyes. She tried to get up, but there was too much pain.
“Don’t get up. We are arranging a stretcher for you.”
A kind face was comforting her. She turned her head to look for Aman. He was lying near her, also regaining his senses slowly. A familiar face, was standing beside him. The bus conductor, from yesterday.
-“You people are lucky to get out of that place alive.”
Sia and Aman were on their way to the hospital with the bus conductor and the police. The bus conductor was narrating the other side of their story.
– “When you people did not return after two hours we were worried. We wanted to search you but, the local passengers intervened. The evening was approaching and according to the legend, anyone who has ventured into the woods after sunset have never made it out in one piece. Their beheaded body had been discovered in the meadow on the top the hill slope.”
Yes, the hilltop, where the house appeared from nowhere, Sia thought about it and coiled in fear from inside. They could have been the next beheaded victims.
“But, who were those people?” Aman asked.
“The demon worshippers. A hundred years ago a group of dacoits resided in that place. Apart from robbery, loot, murder their aim was to become immortal and they worshiped the devil for that. And devil’s worship demand sacrifice, human sacrifice.”
Sia did not want to hear any more. Each word was rewinding the incident of last night, which she wanted to forget. But, the conductor continued.
– “ They used to abduct people from nearby villages and sacrifice them in the name of worship. Generally kids were the easiest preys. It was said they used to drink the blood of the deceased as the grace of their lord, with the belief that it would enhance their power.
When the villagers found out the truth, they were enraged. One fateful night, when the ritual was in full swing and they were about to behead the five year old son of the village chief, the mob attacked their abode. They were lynched and the house was set on fire. All the culprits were burnt alive. But their soul did not leave the earth. Their thrust for blood still prevails and….”
– “And then as we saw yesterday, they still try to find innocent victims to sacrifice and finish their incomplete desire.” Aman completed the sentence.
Sia was not listening anymore. She focused her residual energy to look outside the car window, into the oblivion. The last twenty hours have taught her two important things. One, there are so many things in the universe which are beyond the logical thinking of ordinary people. Second, life is too unpredictable to be taken lightly. Delay of a moment could have rewritten their destiny differently. In the daily mundane life, sometime a miraculous incident arrives like an earthquake and perturb the whole existence. And they had one such life altering experience yesterday. Life would never be the same again for them anymore. But, after such a near death experience, they would definitely value life most dearly, that was obvious.