For most, it was impossible to walk the Paths of the Dead without first dying oneself. But for those who still practiced the old ways there were occasions when one of the living might walk amongst the spirits. It happened rarely; on long nights, when the moon was just a pale sliver behind dark clouds, and the air was icy as the breath of the dead.
Mati had spent days preparing herself for her journey to the Paths; fasting to the point of starvation, denying herself anything more than a few minutes’ worth of sleep at a time. She even refused water, and her mouth was so dry that her tongue felt like sand scraping the inside of her cheek.
Now she looked like a wild, starving beast, with ravenous red eyes and ropey muscle stretched around taut skin. The bones of her rib cage and shoulders protruded through her skin, and she looked lanky and gaunt, like the shriveled husk shed off by a molting insect.
She sat before a blazing campfire and slicked her hair back with mud she’d gathered from the riverbed. She did this until her hair was plastered flat across the back of her skull and down her neck. After this, she spread white ash across her skin until she was covered completely, and stood out against the backdrop of the night sky like a small knot of dense fog. She crushed bones with a mortar and pestle until they were a powder, mixed them with dried blood until they congealed into a paste, and then traced the mixture across every jutting bone of her ribcage, across her sharp cheekbones and the ridges above her eyes. After she was done Mati looked down into a basin filled with water; and when she looked into the murk and realized she could no longer recognize herself, and could only see the bones, she knew she was ready.
The intention of the ritual, handed down through generations by the elders of her village, was to take her to the brink of death. To ruin the body, but leave the mind intact. It would give her the strength of the dead, the strength to walk the Paths. But unlike the dead, she would retain her will, her purpose. Her mother had undertaken the same ritual, her grandmother; even Mati herself, years and years ago, though as a child she hadn’t grasped the symbolic nature of it. It had just been one more trial in a life full of hardships.
As the moon rose, casting its pale light down, as the wind swelled and shook the leaves from the trees, Mati could feel a chill spread through her body. Starting in her toes, and then crawling up her spine. She felt rejuvenated and sick all at the same time. The ritual had worked.
To the west the sun had sunk below the treeline, and long, web-like shadows stretched across the plains. Mati ran towards the sun with no clothing to protect her from the cold, no shoes to guard her feet from the rocks and brambles. The only possessions she brought with her from the living world were a small red pendant which she clutched in her right hand, and a sharp, ivory handled knife she gripped tightly in her left. The knife, she knew, would afford her little protection where she was going. But it made her feel at ease just to hold it.
The red pendant, though, that was of the utmost importance. The pendant, and what it carried. Without it all that she’d done, and all that she was about to do, would be for nothing.
Mati had only been to the Paths once before, as a child. It had been a rite of passage in her village, back when they still practiced the old ways. She’d only been escorted as far as the outskirts of town, then told she had to go the rest of the way on her own. “It’s our most important lesson.” Her mother, Tante, had told her. “Loss of a loved one should always hurt. It should never be easy to forget. The good memories always come with pain.”
And pain there had been.
Mati lept over the decayed remnants of fallen trees as she ran, snapping brittle branches and slicing through thick vines if they threatened to slow her pace. It began to rain fiercely, but the jungle was so thick with vegetation that scarce few raindrops were able to pierce the canopy. Lightning flashed high above, imperceptible as the echo of a whisper. Most of the rain simply slid down branches and dripped off of thick, flat leaves; glistening like thousands of spider-webs in the faint light of the moon.
By the time the sun had fully set Mati had reached the edge of Ravenwood, den of the witches. Trespassing here would normally be a death sentence, but on this night the witches would be preoccupied with their secret sabbats. Mati had seen them, all those years ago, during her first journey to the Paths. Her memories of that visit were but a flicker of images, of animal offerings burning on bonfires by the hundreds, pools of blood upon blade and stone, and the witches running naked in the moonlight, howling like wolves.
Unbeknownst to her at the time, Tante had bargained with the witches for Mati’s safe passage, all the way to the Paths of the Dead and back again. This kind of bargain was forbidden, of course, and for it Tante had paid a terrible price.
The witches had kept their word, though. They led Mati through the sprawl of their shanty towns; little more than wooden sheds and straw huts stacked haphazardly one on top of the other until they leaned precariously over the streets the same way the trees in the jungle would buckle and topple over from the weight of choking vines and their own branches.
The witches’ sabbats were much more elaborate than those that took place back in Mati’s village. Lanterns were suspended on ropes between the buildings so that they swayed in the autumn wind and cast the street in shades of green and violet. Red candles as wide around as a fist burned brightly in shop windows, and behind the glass Mati had seen shadowy figures stirring cauldrons that bubbled over with frothy green liquids. The lost ones, the mindless servants of the witches, were made to dress in elaborate costumes and act out scenes from fiction and fairy tale, scenes that even in her youth Mati knew intimately.
The witches always wore hideous masks, smooth and pale and white, with arched eyebrows and long, crooked noses. The masks left the witches mouths exposed, but their skin itself had an artificial, doll-like quality to it, and when they chose to smile it often distorted their lips and cheeks in an odd way, as if you were staring not at them, but at their reflection in a puddle of water. Tante had explained to her that the witches wore the masks permanently, not just during their festivals. They revealed their true faces only to those they wished to enchant.
Despite their fearsome countenance, they hadn’t scared Mati at first. They were kind to her, showered her with gifts, offered her piles of decorative candy skulls, pinched her cheeks and called her cute. It was only when she refused their gifts and affections that they showed their true intentions. The colorful lights and absurd looking street performers were the exact kind of things a child would find appealing, as if it was all a big performance put on solely to win her favor. This wasn’t uncommon. The witches couldn’t breed, it was said. They added children to their ranks from local villages. And they showed special interest in children that had already been taught the old ways.
Had it not been for Tante’s bargain, Mati shuddered to think what would’ve happened that night, once the last candle flame had flickered out.
But that had been a lifetime ago, and now Mati knew where they lived, and the smell of their campfires, and the paths even the witches were afraid to take. And even if she didn’t, a bargain with the witches would never be an option. She remembered all too well Tante’s last words to her: “Nothing in this world is worth making a deal with them, child. Nothing.”
Mati was silent as a panther in the tall grass as she cut through the underbrush and made her way deeper into the jungle. The entire jungle was silent, for that matter; other than the clicking of sharp talons on tree branches or the flutter of the wings from some unseen bird of prey, or the skittering of insects as they rummaged through the dead leaves on that littered the ground.
Mati ran on, until the stench of death filled her nostrils and brought her to a swift halt. She crouched down low behind a hollowed out tree, slowing her breath and letting her eyes adjust to the absence of light up ahead. And she peered, into the darkness.
Up ahead there was a fetid corpse half submerged in swamp water, belly distended and skin already starting to rot. Standing above the corpse was a cursed dead, a Druka; a ghastly looking thing with rough gray skin and teeth that had been filed to points.
The Druka were doomed to walk alongside the paths of the dead for all eternity. Their meanderings were completely without purpose, they simply wandered until they found something to eat or kill. They smelled almost as foul as the corpses they fed upon, and though they moved slowly they had the strength of five men, and were surprisingly stealthy.
That Mati had gotten so close to one without being spotted was extremely lucky, but slipping past without drawing its attention would require time she simply didn’t have. As Mati looked on the Druka used its long, blackened fingers to fish around in the corpse’s mouth. The Druka stared at its prey blankly as it prodded its cheeks; and then it laughed maniacally as it yanked out the corpse’s teeth and held them up to the light until each tooth sparkled like a shimmering red jewel.
Mati had killed Druka before, of course, but it took careful planning and sometimes the beasts fought for hours before they went down. Mati stared down at her knife and wondered if she could simply hamstring the Druka and then continue on her way, or if that would only anger it.
As she tightened her hand around the hilt of her knife, she heard lumbering footsteps from several yards away, and the snapping of branches. Several pairs of dark hands parted the shrubbery ahead, and another Druka emerged from the shadows. And another one after that, and another, until there were five gathered in total.
That’s it, Mati thought. I’ve failed.
Five Druka was far too many for her to try and take on alone. She’d be lucky to creep away with her life. The slightest sound might alert them to her presence. And that was if they didn’t smell her first. And with only one corpse to keep them occupied, they’d be on the move soon, hunting for more. Not to mention the fact that all the noise they were making was bound to attract the wrong kind of attention…
“Quite the predicament.” A seductive, playful voice whispered from just over Mati’s shoulder. Standing just behind her was a woman in ebony robes with smooth chocolate skin and streaked hair the color of a thunderstorm at dusk. She wore the mask of the witches; white porcelain with high cheeks, crooked nose and a wide smile, and the witch’s eyes glowed a fierce red. With the speed of a snake strike Mati seized the witch by her throat and pressed the blade of her knife to the yielding flesh of her neck.
“The moon waxes and wanes overhead. Midnight looms but promises not to linger.” The witch smiled, that crooked, wide smile. Mati began to draw the blade across the witch’s throat, and drops of blood rose as the skin split at the tip if the blade.
“So you think you have time? To finish me, and the Druka that even now is staring at our backs, wondering what’s making all that noise?” The witch mocked Mati, even with her last breaths.
Mati decided to lower the blade and let the witch speak, and in doing so she knew that she had damned herself. The witch rubbed the skin around the cut Mati had made, and within seconds the wound was gone. “Look.” The witch pointed towards the clearing where the Druka had been feasting. The Druka had abandoned the corpse, and were stumbling off into the darkness of the woods. “The way is clear.”
“All the way to the Paths?” Mati hissed.
“There and back again.” The witch said sweetly.
Mati gritted her teeth and shook her head. But she knew in her heart that the deal had already been made. “Your price?”
“There are so few left that know the old ways. You might be the last, now that Tante has …” The back of Mati’s hand collided with the witch’s jaw with a bone crunching smack before she could finish her sentence, and the witch collapsed to the ground, sprawled at Mati’s feet.
The witch propped herself up on her elbows and wiped blood away from her lips with her forearms. Her eyes burned like bright flame. “Debts can be paid… later.” And with that the witch vanished, dissolved into shadows of the trees, the echo of her voice absorbed into the din of the storm.
Mati ran until she reached the deepest part of the jungle, where the sky was hidden by long leaves and a tangle of vines.
It is said, though few have seen it, that in the heart of the jungle is a small pond that never dries up, even in dry season. It appears shallow until you reach your hand in, and find out that it’s just deep enough to swallow you whole. No animal will drink of it’s waters though they look clear and pure. And on a night like this, when the moon is just a pale sliver behind wispy black clouds, the pond’s waters glow red.
Mati stood over this pond, trying to see something in her reflection across its surface. But all she could see was the bones. She reached her hand into the water, expecting it to feel cold. But the water was hot, terribly so, and the fire arced up her spine and struck the back of her skull with the force of a concrete block.
And just like that Mati was gone from this world, off to the Paths of the Dead.
In the Paths everything moved slowly. Even Mati’s thoughts moved slowly, and it was a strain to simply command her feet to keep marching forward. Every action was like trying to run underwater, or thigh deep in mud. Mati’s first thought was that the pendant in her right hand had begun to glow softly, and so she clasped her fingers around it tightly so that no light could escape. But already strange, dark eyes peered at her from every corner of the jungle, from every tree hollow and ditch, each accompanied by sinister smiles and savage teeth.
The rain in the Paths of the Dead didn’t fall like rain in the living world. Instead of a furious, chaotic roar it sounded more deliberate; and the drops all struck the leaves overhead with a specific cadence, like the ticking of a clock.
As she struggled to move forward Mati heard beasts snarl and spit and sniff the air. Mati hoped that her preparations would be enough, and that whatever the creatures were they would simply remain curious, and not turn hostile.
As the noises around her grew louder, and the leering sets of eyes more numerous, Mati tried to will her feet to move faster. It was a fool’s errand. She felt like she was moving in a dream; running as fast as she could but getting nowhere, unseen danger and certain death breathing down her neck, indifferent to her efforts.
Time became a blur to her. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she knew they could hear it. And they wanted it. The life inside her. Everything around her was dark and oppressive. All that she knew was panic. She felt like she’d been running forever. Like she’d never be able to stop. The sky above was like a broken mirror, shattered galaxies dangling like shards of glass barely clinging to a frame, and every glittering star had been replaced by a deep black hole.
Tante had told her this was because all light died, at the end of things. In the paths the only light came from the burning of living souls that wandered here by mistake.
Faces emerged from the jungle. Lost souls shivering in the rain, rubbing their arms to keep warm. Their eyes and mouths were gaping holes.
“Don’t look them in the eye.” She remembered Tante’s words from decades ago. “Walk steady, and slow your breathing to still the pounding in your chest. If they catch up to you, run as fast as you can, or they’ll tear you apart trying to get to the heat inside of you.”
Mati began to run and closed her eyes. She heard moaning, and the rustling of branches, and the smacking of hungry jowls. She felt the cold breath of some dead thing at the back of her neck and the brush of icy fingers as something tried to grab hold of her arms.
And then it was over. The ground below Mati was transparent, like the clearest water, though it was solid below her feet. Before her was a tree with white branches that stretched high into the sky, and black roots that ran deep into the earth.
Nestled into the thick, twining branches at the base of the tree was The White Lady. She wore a dress made of rags but covered in glittering sequins, and it was long enough that it spilled out onto the ground at her feet. A thin veil, pockmarked with holes, covered her face. But the veil couldn’t hide the death’s head that lay just behind it; the hollow sockets of the eyes and the permanent grin.
The White Lady said nothing as Mati approached. But nonetheless, Mati heard a voice in her mind, a terrible echo that felt like ants crawling against the inside of her skull. “I met you as a child.” The White Lady said. “I told you the hour and the day of your death. And now is not. That. Time.”
Mati felt a sensation across her back, like broken fingernails scraping against her skin. “I’m here for another.” Mati said. “One who couldn’t make the journey for themselves.” Mati released her grip on the pendant in her right hand, and let it dangle in the air before her. The pendant glowed more brightly than before.
“This one I have a place prepared for.” Mati felt a serpent tongue flick her earlobe as The White Lady spoke. “A child, yes? Barely alive fourteen days. Yours? Did you ever give her a name?”
“Then you never will. Her resting place is inside.”
As Mati looked on the base of the tree shifted and split apart, and The White Lady was drawn inside of it. In her place was a cavernous opening that seemed to lead down into the roots of the tree. Mati gripped her knife tightly and stepped inside.
The path was dark, but Mati pressed forward, arms outstretched so that she could use the walls to steady herself and to feel the path ahead. Eventually the tunnel ended and Mati emerged into a forest unlike any she had ever seen before. The trees were impossibly tall, but not so dense that they obscured the sky above. Warm sunlight spilled down from between the leaves and covered the forest floor. Up ahead was a shallow pool of water so clear Mati could see the shape of every fish that darted past.
Mati reached into the water and grabbed a smooth stone. She lay the pendant flat on the ground and used the rock to crack it apart. As the pendant shattered a small blue light emerged, barely the size of a firefly, too light for gravity to pull it down to earth. It sat suspended before Mati’s eyes for a moment, and then, as a breeze swept down from the hills, the little light was lifted up and carried away. Mati watched it until it became too small and distant to see, and it was lost to the horizon like the setting sun.
Then Mati ran, out of the tunnel, away from the tree, and back into the jungle. She pretended she couldn’t hear the laughter of The White Lady echoing in her mind. Pretended she couldn’t feel the sharp claws and fetid breath and sticky saliva of a thousand beasts as they tore at her skin and tried to pull her down. Whatever happened now, she’d finished what she came to do. What happened next truly didn’t matter.
Mati drew her knife when they pressed in too close, and she sliced and hacked away at their flopping limbs like they were vines blocking her path. She felt teeth dig into her thighs, hands pulling at her hair. She cut and stabbed and screamed as she fought back; and all the while she wondered what she was bothering to fight for. She felt buried under the weight of rotting flesh. And she dug her way out, one hack of her blade at a time. At the end of it she stood on a pile of corpses, bleeding and bruised and near death, but still with her heart beating in her chest and breath in her lungs. She walked on.
At last she found the glowing red pool of water, deep in the heart of the jungle. Without hesitation, Mati dove inside.
Back in the world of the living, Mati sat by the edge of the water, coughing. Up in the sky the moon had begun it’s descent back down to the edge of the horizon. A fog was creeping in, seeping through the branches and the gaps between trees.
As Mati caught her breath and used her weary muscles to pull herself up, she noticed shadows flickering just out of sight. They darted past, flitting in and out of the corners of her vision. She realized they had her surrounded.
There were dozens of the shadows, and they moved in closer with every passing second. As they pressed in tighter the whites of their masks become visible, and their glowing red eyes. Witches.
One of the witches stepped out in front of the others. She walked to Mati’s side and slowly, almost cautiously, removed her mask.
“Tante?” Mati whispered, in shock.
“Child.” The witch replied in that all too familiar voice. “It’s time to come home. Are you ready?”
Tante’s face was the same as it was all those years ago, her hair, even the smell of her. The witch looked exactly like the woman that used to scoop her up in her arms and hug her tightly. The resemblance was uncanny.
Everything but the eyes.
Mati hesitated, and Tante looked at her sternly. “You made a deal.”
Tante extended her hand, and Mati took hold of it. “Yes,” she whispered through swollen lips, “I’m ready to go home.”
Tante handed her a white mask. Mati held it in her hands, running her fingers across it’s porcelain surface. The old ways are dying, she thought. Maybe this is just where I belong.
She placed the mask over her face. Her eyes began to glow with a hellish fire. Then she walked, side by side with the Witches, as they disappeared into the fog and the shadows.