Updated: Nov 8, 2022
5000 years ago
In the small, secluded village Kendraa somewhere in the middle of 500,000 km2 of desert and home to only about three hundred or so people, residents halted their work of woodcutting, ceramics, and making dung cakes and rushed into their Wigwam huts. Five minutes passed, and then the village’s mukhiya, Ram, a fifty-five-year-old who looked like he was thirty, began to patrol, scrutinizing whether everyone had secured themselves in their huts. From the way the villagers had run and how Ram was inspecting the village, it was crystal clear that it was their routine; each of them was aware of the regular impending doom that escalated at or after dusk.
After everyone had locked themselves in, and when Ram found no one outside still working or wandering around, he locked himself in his own hut. Two other huts flanked it on each side, and they stood only a few inches away from the dirt road.
In one of the huts near to Ram’s, a child sat with his father.
“I’m scared, papa,” said a boy after a brief look at his father, who was sitting on the ground against the wall. The man secured his child in a hug with an expression of dread, startled at his son’s rush of feelings. Then he forced a fake smile, patted his son’s back, and kissed his forehead, assuring him that he was safe with his dad. The boy’s fear vanished, and he smiled back. All the while, the child’s mother sat against the wall opposite, hugging her knees and crying silently, keeping her face hidden in the hollow between her legs and breast to prevent scaring her son.
In one of the other huts, another wife cried, this one hugging her husband. “She ate my brother last month, my sister last week, and your brother yesterday. I don’t want to lose you.”
She was talking about an evil lady who visited the village after dusk and enjoyed massacring humans and eating their flesh.
A sense of apprehension dangled over every hut.
* * *
At the end of the desert, in a cave a few miles away from the village’s border, a churel (witch) named Dali glowed in the moonless night. She began to consume negative powers from the environment, levitating herself with her eyes closed and hands wide open. Dali, whom no one could kill with any weapon known to man, appeared out of nowhere about a year ago and had resided in the cave near Kendraa Village ever since. She did this not only because she had found humans to hunt but also for her own security.
Though it was true no one could kill her with any type of known weapon, the villagers didn’t know that she had a fatal flaw: she could be captured in any object and killed by fire. She knew if she began hunting humans in a bigger kingdom, a king might find a tantrik, the one who has thorough knowledge about mysticism and magic rituals, rishi (a sage), or someone else with this knowledge. They might capture with the help of a devotional hymn, black magic, tantra, or curse, or even execute her. But Kendraa Village was secluded; very few people knew about it, and it was rare that a traveler or a rishi passed by.
The villagers believed in God. They worshipped God, day and night, and they knew devotional hymns well. Yet, there was no one strong enough to use one against Dali—not enough to weaken her and capture her, and certainly not to terminate her. That was the reason Dali was completely safe here.
* * *
“I have heard that churels become strong on the moonless night,” said a teenage girl to her sister in the hut that stood in the center of the village. “Is it true? And if it is, how?”
“Everyone believes it,” said the sister. “So it must be. I don’t know exactly how. But people say the negative vibes we spread every day through our anger, jealousy, and other bad feelings become the churel’s fuel. She sucks this energy on the moonless night, and she becomes much more powerful.”
* * *
The wind whooshed as Dali exited her cave. Ten feet tall and two hundred years old, she was an ugly churel with a wrinkly dark face. She walked toward the village on her abnormal feet, which pointed backwards, looking around with her pure-white eyes and smiling broadly, showing her uneven, rotten teeth. When she was halfway to the village, she began to levitate, gliding the rest of the way with lightning bolt speed.
When she reached Kendraa, Dali halted in the air over the huts in the center. She looked around with a grin on her face, happy to find everyone had locked themselves in their huts due to the terror she wrought.
She let out a booming laugh in her croaky voice.
“She’s here,” screamed a girl, hiding under a blanket in horror.
“Everything will be alright, sweetie,” whispered the girl’s mom, stroking her back.
The girl stayed quiet, not reacting to her mother’s warmth.
“On this moonless night, I will gain more powers. I will become immortal,” Dali’s voice rang out, loud enough to enter every ear inside the huts. “After having the flesh and blood of more than two hundred.”
Camels grunted from where they were tied to skinny wooden posts, yearning to run away to protect themselves.
Everyone stayed absolutely quiet, trying not to breathe to avoid producing even the slightest sound, sweating profusely in trepidation of their death. Dali’s cackle wafted through the air, scaring the hell out of the villagers who were praying to God for help.
Suddenly, the camels rose into the air. Dali then began to squeeze their bodies by only staring at them and clenching her right fist. She sucked out their blood, which floated out of the animals’ crushed bodies and into her mouth.
The night grew darker, and the wind whooshed faster and faster, rapidly swirling the sand in the air, as if Mother Nature herself was upset for the innocents.
The empty bodies of the camels fell to the ground; it seemed as if they were not corpses but bags full of shattered skeletons. No trace of blood or flesh remained.
Dali licked the blood from her lips.
Her eyes rolled over the huts as another grin came over her face.
The villagers’ hearts beat even faster; they knew their death was nearing. All of them wished for a miracle that could save them from Dali. They continued praying; many of them asked for God himself to come to earth and end Dali’s after-life.
Each day before now, Dali had come to Kendraa to kill only one of them, but tonight seemed special for her. She seemed to want to have a party. She wanted to kill almost the entire village in a bid to become immortal, and now only God could save them. Or, more precisely, their courage and hidden skill to fight the churel. Their ability to sing a devotional hymn, find the courage to face the churel and the courage to fight her. That could save them.
Dali soared in the air, glaring at the huts and generating a violent fire bolt. The huts suddenly ignited in fire and everyone rushed out. Seeing the villagers trying to run away from her, screaming in angst, Dali laughed aloud. She was enjoying this more than she had on any other night.
She began capturing people—children, youngsters, women, even those who were pregnant, elders—stopping them from escaping one after the other and consuming them. The desert reverberated with the villagers’ gut-wrenching screams.
Ram and some other villagers had managed to escape her grasp, and they now stood on the dirt road, watching as she killed their friends and neighbors. They felt miserable watching their beloved ones die, but they were also afraid and helpless. As mukhiya of this village, it was Ram’s duty to keep everyone safe from the outsiders, solve the issues between the villagers, and make sure there was no crime. He was the decision-maker for the inhabitants and caretaker of the village. He had to come up with something to save them all from this bloodthirsty churel.
He looked around with wet eyes, hoping to find something that could help him kill Dali. However, before he could find something, in the distance to his right, his blurred vision glimpsed a man-like image coming toward him. He rubbed his eyes and squinted to get a better look.
Ram saw a rishi, about seventy years old, coming out of the darkness. He had a divine muscular physique and was walking toward him, holding a kamandal (container for holy water) in his hand.
Hearing the churel’s laugh and the villagers’ painful screaming, the rishi paused, fixing his glower on Dali. Then he paced to the village and stopped beside Ram. He looked into Ram’s wet eyes, down to his folded hands and then back to his face. He understood that Ram was requesting he saves his village and the villagers, as many had done so before in other towns and villages plagued by cruel kings, asuras, or churels.
The rishi marched toward Dali in rage.
Dali stopped her killing and locked her fury-filled eyes on the rishi, who stood right before her.
“Stop killing these innocents,” he said in a voice full of strict, threatening order. “Or, I’ll have to kill you.”
“I’m powerful,” said Dali, laughing at him. “You can’t kill me; you’re just a human.”
Dali’s mind was full of her own ego; she had been easily killing the villagers for a year. In her arrogance, she had forgotten that this rishi could set her on fire and end her terror forever. In this moment, she believed she was the most powerful being on the earth.
“How dare you call me an ordinary human,” he raged. “You have made a life-threatening error. I’m a divine rishi. I warn you one last time to leave this place.”
“I’m not afraid of you, ordinary human,” sneered Dali.
The rishi shifted the kamandal to his other hand and took some holy water from it.
Dali kept grinning at him. “You can do nothing.”
Enraged at the insult, the rishi replied, “I curse you—if you kill one more human, his blood will turn into poison for you, and you will burn in an intense fire.”
With that, he threw the water onto her body.
“Let’s see who wins!” said Dali, staring at him, her voice showing her importance.
She extended her arm and grabbed a young pregnant woman nearby by the neck. Her husband screamed and ran after his wife. When Dali brought the woman near her face, she glanced at the rishi, before locking her gaze on the woman’s scared eyes, and without pause, she thrust her sharp nail into the woman’s stomach. She pulled it back out, and she showed the nail, dripping with the woman’s blood, to the rishi. She was mocking him—his curse would fail.
The rishi stared at her with his intense look of anger, and when Dali brought the nail to her mouth to suck the blood, a lightning bolt struck her. It was as if her negativity—which she had spread throughout the galaxy—was coming back for her. She roared in pain.
The rishi smiled, seeing his curse had worked, and he happily murmured, “Har Har Mahadev!”
Dali began to cough and choke, and the pregnant woman slipped from her hand. Dali tried to attack the rishi, but the poison spread through her body swiftly, stopping her powers and weakening her.
The villagers watched in awe as her body began to steadily turn green. Before she died, she said, “I’ll return. I’ll return, immortal.”
The poison spread through her nerves from top to bottom and choked her completely. Her paralyzed body, now completely green, fell to the ground and ignited in fire.
The villagers stared at her burning body, blank expressions on their faces. Meanwhile, Ram quickly ran to the rishi and touched his feet to have his blessings.
The rishi gave a quick touch to his head. “Long live,” he blessed.
After Dali’s dead body had turned to ash, the rishi sprinkled some holy water on it, and it disappeared.
The villagers bowed to him, an act of thanks for protecting them from the wicked churel, and after showering his blessings on them, he left the village.
The white Mahindra Scorpio Jeep ran along the deserted road. Rahul kept his foot glued to the accelerator as he followed the route to Jaisalmer under the clear blue sky and the burning sun. His and Elisa’s cell phones had lost signal, so Elisa, his girlfriend, was directing him using the paper map. It had been three hours, and Rahul had been driving without a pause. So far, they had only had a sandwich they bought in a restaurant near Nathdwara that morning. Their stomachs lurched now, craving food.
“I’m hungry as hell,” said Elisa.
“There must be a restaurant or something coming up soon,” said Rahul, and just then, his eyes fell upon a building on the right side of the road that looked like a restaurant. It was about fifteen feet away from the road in the desert. He accelerated, and the engine roared. Slowly, they came to a halt near the building.
Rahul lowered the window and read, “Manu Da Dhaba.”
“Mənu Də Dhabə!” Elisa said, pronouncing the words correctly, tilting her head, and squinting at the name on the vinyl awning.
“Would you like to go here?” he asked, unsure whether she liked spicey food. He had heard from his parents that Dhaba food was delicious, even better than five-star restaurants and hotels in the cities. But his and Elisa’s relationship was only eight months old, and he had never heard her mention Indian food before. In the United States, they spent their time in Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, and American restaurants like Red Lobster.
Elisa gently pushed him back into the seat so she could get a closer look and asked, “What does this mean?”
“Manu Da Dhaba,” he answered. “An eating house.”
Elisa licked her lips. “I’m hungry as hell. I’m going in.” She unbuckled herself and jumped out of the Jeep, running toward the eating house, her brown Michael Kors’ Nouveau Hamilton purse hanging on her shoulder.
“Hey! Wait for me,” he shouted, hanging his head out of the window.
“I’m sorry. I can’t,” she shouted, laughing, as she entered the dhaba; Rahul grinned as he pushed his head back and murmured. “Alright, girl. Let’s see what you order!”
He saw a board indicating that the parking lot was behind the building, so he drove around and parked up. He fixed his hair, looking in the rear-view mirror. When he was satisfied with his appearance, he stepped out and entered the dhaba through the back door.
“So—” He stopped as he found Elisa sitting on a chair at a round table, gaping at their map. He was alarmed to see that it was covered in water. The map was their only solution to reach Jaisalmer and explore more Rajasthan cities, but it was now drowned. A metal water jug, now empty, lay next to it.
“What did you do?” he asked in a blend of shock and panic, still staring at the map.
Elisa startled and looked up at him. Worried, she stood up from the chair, shifting her distressed gaze from him to the map and back. “I’m sorry. I was marking a few more places we need to visit. But I accidentally nudged the jug and spilled water all over it. I’m so, so, so sorry.” Her eyes were almost wet with tears.
He swiftly grabbed her in his arms and tried to calm her down, patting her head, “No worries, my dear. I’m sorry for the way I reacted. We’ll find another map. I’ll ask someone here.”
“I hope you’re not upset with me,” she said.
“Not at all. It’s humans’ error to make errors,” he said. “I could have done this as well. It’s just a mistake. Don’t worry. I love you.” He smiled.
“You’re so sweet,” she said, tightening the hug for a fraction of a second. “I’m glad to have you in my life. I love you, too.” Her worried face glimmered with a smile.
Rahul kissed her on the head.
Still in their hug, Rahul looked around and saw a young couple, only a few years older than them, exiting from the back door.
“I’ll be back in a moment,” he said, making to walk after the couple, but at that moment a young server wearing a white shirt—not tucked into his khaki pants—arrived to serve the food Elisa had already ordered. On seeing the spilled water, he pointed to the next table and said, “Excuse me, could you please move over here? I’ll clean this up.”
At his words, Rahul stopped. He must have a map. “Thank you,” said Elisa in a soft voice, giving a quick appreciative smile.
They moved to the next table and waited for him to serve the food.
“What’s your name?” asked Rahul as he placed the bowl of sabji and a plate of two Garlic Butter Naans down.
“Bhim,” he answered, now setting up the dishes for them.
“From Mahabharat, an ancient Indian epic?” joked Rahul, smiling. The waiter chuckled as he served them Garlic Butter Naan.
Rahul cleared his throat in hesitation. He looked at Elisa and then the waiter. “Could you please do me a favor?” he asked after a moment.
“It’ll be my pleasure.”
“Could you please arrange a map for us?”
Elisa’s face flushed with embarrassment.
Bhim was holding a serving spoon halfway over the bowl, the orange-color Paneer Sabji within ready to be poured onto their plates, and he glanced at the wet map on the previous table. It had become so wet that it would fall to pieces if he tried to pick it up. “I could try.”
He served the sabji and then left the table, leaving the bowl there for them to serve themselves more if they wished.
“You knew what to order?” asked Rahul, wanting to change the subject to divert Elisa’s attention from what she had done to the map.
“My boyfriend is an Indian guy, so I know a little about Indian food.”
Rahul smiled; his plan was working. He could feel it in her excited voice.
“Oh, really?” he said, “but I don’t remember hearing anything about Indian food from you.”
“That’s because you never talked about it, even though I love talking about your culture,” said Elisa. “You turned yourself into a complete American. You always want boiled vegetables, eggs, buffalo wings, chocolate chip cookies, cheeseburgers, and so on. It was completely fine for me that we didn’t eat Indian food together, because I was waiting for the right moment to surprise you.”
“Wow!” said Rahul, and gulped down a bite. “When did you learn all this?” He hummed. “I must say you do surprise me. I find it amusing, fabulous, fantastic.”
Elisa let out a quick laugh.
“I’m glad to hear that,” she said. “I learned to cook some dishes from YouTube,” she added, tearing the naan with her fingers and dipping it into the sabji, “the revolutionary platform of entertainment and education.”
Bhim returned and interrupted them, “I’m sorry, sir.” Rahul and Elisa looked up at him expectantly. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t find a map.”
“You have no map?” asked Rahul in shock. He believed employees of any dhaba would usually keep maps, just like any restaurant or hotel would, especially if it was at a deserted place like this.
“I asked my boss, the proprietor, and he tried to find one but could retrieve none.”
“Are you sure?” asked Elisa before Rahul could say something, using a smooth flirty voice, a broad smile on her face.
“I’m sure, ma’am,” said Bhim, his tone slightly changed. It was as if Elisa’s voice melted his heart somewhat and made him feel shy.
“Please find one for me,” insisted Elisa, her voice now completely sensual, her smile so damn cute, and her gaze completely alluring as she played with her hair.
All the while, Rahul remained silent. He knew what she was trying to do. She was attempting to lure the waiter to do her bidding.
Bhim’s lips quivered, and he looked down at the floor, not able to manage to look at Elisa anymore, perhaps finding it hard to release his words. Anyone could have fallen for her. Even as her boyfriend, Rahul had to stop himself from kissing her at that moment.
“I-I’m so-sorry, ma’am,” he stuttered in hesitancy. “We really don’t have any map.”
Elisa looked at Rahul, chewing her lip.
He sensed her disappointment. “Let me try,” he told her, speaking by moving his lips in a way that didn’t let out any words. It was a common trick he used with Elisa when playing games with their friends, or in any situation where they didn’t want another to hear their words.
Rahul shifted his look to Bhim.
“Even if you have one map that you can’t give us to take, please let me look at it,” Rahul asked, suspecting that Bhim might be lying. Perhaps they needed it for themselves. “I’ll take a picture of it on my cell phone and return it to you guys.”
“I’m extremely sorry, sir.” Bhim looked at Rahul with his face dropped, finding himself helpless. “We have no map.”
He walked away before they could continue.
Rahul couldn't eat any more as he had satisfied his stomach, and Elisa seemed to have finished too, leaving some food on her plate. Perhaps she was also full, or perhaps she was just distressed. They just stared at each other with worry. Neither had an idea how they’d reach Jaisalmer.
For a moment, Rahul thought about going back to Nathdawara the way they came, but he didn’t remember the way. I could have asked that couple. Then, I would at least have a map’s picture in my phone.
“I’m sorry,” Elisa said.
“It’s not you,” said Rahul. He didn’t want to make her upset or cry. “I was just thinking that I should have gone after that couple.”
“We can check if they’re still outside.”
“They left over forty-five minutes ago. I don’t think they’d be outside still.”
“Let’s test our luck!”
Rahul left the dhaba, and Elisa rushed out after him after leaving some rupees on the table, believing it also included some tip for Bhim.
Both stood at the back door and scanned the parking lot, but the couple had already left in their car, the evidence being the stripes on the sand going away toward the asphalt.
* * *
The sun was heading back toward its home as the night approached. The Jeep was still racing even after four hours of driving. Miles and miles they went, but only the desert was visible around them. There was not a trace of hope of them reaching their destination. The route seemed to be secluded; not even one car passed them. In the middle of the colossal desert, the Jeep seemed like a rat running around in the middle of nowhere, trying to find something to feed its stomach.
“Where are we?” asked Elisa. “Oh, damn God! I should have been more careful.”
“Hopefully, we will reach Jaisalmer soon, if I have mysteriously caught the correct route.”
“I feel miserable. I’m extremely sorry for my silly error,” said Elisa.
“It could also have been me.” Rahul glanced over at her, then he fixed his vision back on the road.
When his eyes captured something in the distance, he accelerated in excitement.
The car slowly came to a halt near a timber frame sign board. He lowered the window and read, slightly craning his head out to see: KENDRAA VILLAGE.
He was surprised at finding a village in the desert. He looked at Elisa, who seemed to be thinking the same thing.
Narrowing her eyes as if she were thinking something deeply before letting the words out of her mouth, Elisa said, “I don’t think I saw this village on the map.”
“Are you sure?” asked Rahul.
Elisa looked at the board, then down, as if she was trying to recall the map on her knees. “Yes. I’m pretty sure this village wasn’t on the map.”
“If that’s the case,” said Rahul, “it may be an abandoned village, so we might not find help. But there’s a better chance to try there than wait for someone on the open road.” He looked at the dashboard and his eyes widened in dismay as he noticed the fuel gauge. “We’re running out of fuel,” he sighed and shook his head.
“We better find someone here!” said Elisa, her voice full of concern.
Rahul looked up at her, then out at the colossal dry landscape. They were in the middle of nowhere, where human essentials could be barely found.
He exited the car, and Elisa followed after him.
“I hope we find kind people here,” said Rahul, standing with Elisa at the edge of the asphalt, trying to get a clear look of the place. Their eyes were fixed in the distance, about a thousand feet away, where the hundreds of small triangle-shaped huts stood peacefully.
“That’s so negative, Rahul. Can’t you think, we will find kind people?” she asked. “Be positive, honey.” She stroked his hair, but his worried gaze was shifting around, careful of any danger.
“My grandma used to tell me to stay alert, especially when you accidentally find yourself somewhere where you shouldn’t be,” he said. He instinctually took out his cellphone from his jeans pocket. As he did so, he accidentally pulled out a locket along with it. It fell onto his shoes.
Elisa bent down and picked it up. She ran her fingers over the pendant. It was made of diamonds. “Wow! So beautiful.” She gazed at him and asked, “Where did you get it from? And when?”
“It’s a long story,” said Rahul. “I’ll tell you another day.”
“No. Please tell me now. We have nothing to do here.”
“All right,” said Rahul. “In brief, my grandma gave me this locket to keep me protected from negative energies like ghosts and spirits.”
Elisa hummed. “My boyfriend needs protection from things that don’t exist,” she chuckled.
“It’s not funny!” defended Rahul, unlocking his cellphone.
In every places Rahul had visited in Rajasthan in the past two days eating pizzas and sandwiches, he had seen people raising their cellphone in the air to catch signal, and it seemed to work for some of them. And so, Rahul decided to give it a try.
“What’re you doing?”
“Trying to catch the network,” he replied, “to call the police for help.”
“Seems like you now want to become a complete Indian,” she chuckled, looking at him as he struggled to extend his hand high enough.
After a few seconds, Rahul frowned. Still no signal.
“Stop stressing, honey,” said Elisa. “We’re wanderers. Let’s explore this place, and we’ll find someone to help us. At the same time, you can take photographs for our Instagram account, and I’ll shoot a video for my YouTube channel.”
“We don’t know whether this place is safe or not. I hate haunted and strange places. I only visited Bhangarh Fort yesterday because you wanted to,” said Rahul. Suddenly, his eyes fixed on the locket in Elisa’s hands. “Give me that, please.”
“No. I’m throwing it away,” mocked Elisa.
“Please don’t tease me, babe,” said Rahul. “Please give it to me. I don’t want to lose it and then go crazy, feeling like a ghost will haunt me.”
“Don’t cry, my baby boy,” said Elisa, laughing. “Here it is,” she said, extending her arm.
Rahul took the locket from her hand, and as he was putting it back into his pocket, an orotund voice came from behind, “Do you need help?”
Both spun around to see an old man standing right in front of them. He was wearing a black cloak and holding a long wooden stick as if it were a cane; the right side of his face was burned, and he was suffering from camptocormia—a medical term that Rahul knew, thanks to one of his good friends who was a doctor. Every time, he spoke to this friend, Rahul learned a new medical word, one of which was camptocormia: a bent spine.
Looking directly into Rahul’s eyes and then shifting his look to Elisa, the man said once more, “Do you need help?”
Elisa grasped Rahul’s hand; her gaze fixed on the man. Rahul’s lips quivered as he tried to speak. The stranger’s sudden appearance and his strange appearance had troubled him for a moment.
However, suppressing his feelings, Rahul finally asked, “Who are you?”
The man kept his blank stare locked on his. Elisa tightened her hold on Rahul’s hand.
The man’s silence somewhat bothered him, and before the man could introduce himself, Elisa whispered, “Why on earth did we have to encounter this creepy guy?”
Panicked thoughts were rushing through Rahul’s head. Is he a bandit? Is he here to loot us and kill us?
Rahul and Elisa stared at each other, and Elisa edged back, trying to hide behind him, believing Rahul could protect her. Rahul remained standing in place, looking out the corner of his eyes to verify whether any more people, partners of this man, were standing around them, blocking their way of escape. When he saw no one, he focused on the man and waited for his reply, trying to suppress his fright.
Elisa remained half visible behind Rahul, her worried eyes also fixed on the man, her fear escalating.
“Pardon me if I scared you,” said the man, observing the expressions on their faces. “I didn’t mean to.”
Rahul and Elisa stayed quiet and continued listening.
“I’m Dansh,” said the man after a short pause. “It seems like you lost the path.” Dansh smiled. “I know I look a little creepy because of my burned face. That is what bothers you and many other people, I can understand. My look generates a ball of fear inside other people.”
Rahul and Elisa glanced at each other.
“Trust me, sir,” said Dansh. “I have met many like you. Lost wanderers. And you don’t have to worry about anything. I’m a guide here. I could help you explore this place if you want, or I could show you a path back to the city.”
Elisa ceased her grip on Rahul’s hand. It was as though, inexplicably, she suddenly felt light and free. I can’t judge him just because of his face, she thought. Now that she had heard something sweet from Dansh, something that could help them reach their destination, she wasn’t afraid anymore.
“I’m sorry,” said Elisa. “We didn’t mean to insult you. We just weren’t expecting anyone else to here. I believe there is a tragic history behind your scars.”
Dansh nodded. “It happened when I was a kid.”
“My commiseration is with you.” Elisa pursed her lips.
Rahul still was looking at Dansh suspiciously. His grandma used to tell him ‘Trust everyone, but not blindly’. However, Rahul felt that he had a valid reason to not trust Dansh: he was a stranger, a stranger with a harrowing physique and a burned face, just like how the horror movies presented villains. And as you often learn in movies, it was often the kind, helpful person you later found out was the villain. “Do you want to explore the place, Rahul?” asked Elisa.
Rahul glanced at her and then fixed his gaze on Dansh. Then, with no agitation in his spirited voice, he said, “It will be great if you just show us the way back to the city.”
“I know I can’t force you to explore the village,” said Dansh. “But it will be my pleasure if you do so.” He paused for a moment. “I will accept whatever you will give me in payment.”
“Please give a moment while we decide, sir?” Elisa said as she took Rahul aside near the car. “Tell me the truth,” she said, looking at his face. Rahul was looking at the huts in the distance. “You think he’s a sinner?”
Rahul locked his eyes with hers. After a short pause, he sighed and peeked at Dansh. Then, as if he had a mastery in reading people, he said, “he’s a crook. I can bet.”
Elisa peeked at Dansh, who was also looking away at the desert in the distance. “No doubt he looks scary because of his appearance. I was also scared. But we can’t judge him by his looks. He’s an aged person. He’s trying to earn some money, showing his village to the lost travelers.” She waited for Rahul’s reaction, but he stayed quiet. “Please. Let’s explore the place.” When she tried to take Rahul’s hand, he let her take it, and she folded her fingers over his. “For me. Please.”
Rahul continued looking at her. He knew they had little choice but to accept his help. They were lost; it was getting late, and they had no idea where to go. After a brief pause, he sighed. “All right. Just for you.”
Elisa gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. Rahul smiled, looking at her contented face. Then he shifted his gaze to Dansh. His smile disappeared. “I don’t think I can trust this guy, though.”
“I believe you will learn to!” said Elisa. She turned and stepped back toward Dansh, grinning. “We would like to explore the village with you, please.”
A broad smile appeared on Dansh’s face. “It’s my pleasure. I will also arrange a place for you to stay for the night.”
“Wait,” said Rahul. “We could give you only 5000 rupees for tonight. We’ll leave tomorrow early morning.”
“That’s fine,” said Dansh as he extended his hand. Rahul took out the money from his wallet and handed it over.
Dansh securely put the money in his cloak’s pocket. Then he walked ahead of them. “Let’s go,” he said, his gaze fixed on the sand.
Elisa and Rahul followed as he continued to walk toward the village, Elisa’s thoughts filled with enthusiasm at how she could create a vlog on this place, and Rahul’s with concern and doubts about Dansh.
I hope he’s not a sinner, butchering people as you see in some horror films.
I hope he’s not a wizard performing dark magic to sacrifice people to bring something to life.
Whatever it is, I just hope we at least get a chance to escape.
Five years earlier
Four people in black cloaks stood on the asphalt road near the board that read, KENDRAA VILLAGE. One of them, a short, robust guy, was flanked by three tall men, two on the right and one on the left, and had a wooden stick held tightly in his hand. He wasn’t using it for support to stand, but as if he were holding a weapon in fury.
“This is it,” he said, his voice filled with exhilaration. “We reached our destination!”
“My superior!” said one of the tall guys, keeping his head down, not daring to look directly into the short man’s eyes. “I trust your abilities and knowledge. But, are you sure this is the place where Dali died five thousand years ago?”
The guy smiled, looking straight at the triangles in the distance, which were clearly the villagers’ huts. He walked forward and knelt at the edge of the desert. He took some sand in his fist and brought it near his mouth. He closed his eyes and chanted a spell, trying to sense something. Then he widened his eyes. “This is the place. Through my exceptional skills in dark magic, I can see her dying with a rishi’s curse.”
The other enchanters nodded in agreement.
The guy stood up and continued toward the village, the other enchanters marching after him.
When they reached the village, they encountered a tall, skinny man, the mukhiya, Banjeet. “How can I help you?” he asked.
“I’m Dansh,” the short man said. He pointed at the tall, muscular man on his right. “This is Teryo.” He pointed at the man standing beside Teryo. “He’s Unan.” And then he ended with the man to his left. “This guy’s name is Krito.”
Nearby, the villagers had stopped working. Their eyes were fixed on the enchanters, filled with an eagerness to find out their identity.
“I’m Banjeet. I welcome all of you to our beautiful village. And sure, I’ll be happy to help you in any way I can. It’ll be my pleasure.” Banjeet offered his hand to Dansh, who he took to be their leader, and Dansh shook it.
“Thank you,” said Dansh with a fake smile. “We’re here to find a cave where a churel died thousands of years ago.”
Banjeet stood silent, staring at them in shock. “Churel’s cave?!”
Some villagers walked up to Banjeet and stood behind him. Their facial expressions clarified that they knew about the cave and its history—their ancestors had passed the story down. No one had ever come here asking for the cave. Dansh asking about this place was suspicious. Perhaps these villagers believed in the superstition that Dali would return if a master of dark magic woke her, just as Dansh had heard when he had started learning about this place.
As the villagers scanned him and his other companions, Dansh saw the dread in their eyes. “We’re creating a short film based on the true events, a horror story,” he said, quickly inventing a story. “We’ve come from afar.”
He waited for Banjeet’s response. When he remained silent, Dansh’s anger began to boil into an uncontrolled fury. He did not come here to have his time wasted.
“I’m sorry. I can’t help you,” said Banjeet. The villagers nodded their heads behind him, staring at Dansh and his friends, trying to understand who they really were. From their baffled look, it was clear that they’d never seen anyone like these men in their black cloaks before. And because of that, the villagers’ eyes narrowed, and doubting wrinkles appeared on their foreheads as they wondered whether these men had come here with ill intentions.
Before Banjeet could ask them more about themselves, Dansh and his men glared at each other intently. Dansh’s gave them a signal with his eyes.
They moved with a vampire’s speed. Dansh grabbed Banjeet’s neck while his cronies did the same with three other villagers. The rest stepped back in alarm.
“Where. Is. The. Cave?” Dansh asked, tightening his hold on Banjeet’s neck, his eyes filled with fury.
“Eh- It’s … at … e-end … of … vill-age.” Banjeet struggled to force out the words from his throat, gesturing in the direction with his hand; he was choking.
When Dansh ceased his grip, his men freed the villagers.
Banjeet held his neck, trying to relieve himself from the feeling of nearly choking, and the other three men did the same. Their mouths felt as if they were dying from a lack of oxygen. One grabbed his neck with both hands and inhaled and exhaled deeply, scared that he was running out of breath.
After a brief stare at Banjeet, Dansh gave him a warning in a low voice. “Don’t tell anyone we’re here to wake up the churel. The moment you do, or anyone else does, everyone will die. I’ll kill every one of you with black magic, no matter where you are in the world.”
His nostrils flared. He pushed Banjeet aside and rushed in the direction of the cave. The other enchanters went after him.
The villagers stood like statues, gaping and gazing; every face was filled with horror, and Dansh’s words echoed in their ears: we’re here to wake up the churel.
* * *
It was late in the day, and the stars were shining along with a half-moon in the dark sky. Many villagers sat outside their huts, upset.
Banjeet, sat on the charpoy outside his hut, disturbed. His short, chubby wife, Maahi, sat beside him smiling, but he didn’t feel her presence.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, but no reply.
Maahi put her hand in his, where it rested in his lap. Banjeet flinched and looked at her, pulling his hand from her tender grip.
“What’s wrong?” she asked once more, dragging her hand away.
“I-I’m sorry.” His eyes shifted from side to side in embarrassment. Then he looked down at the sand.
Maahi slowly put her hand on his shoulder and said, “I’m your wife. Your troubles are my troubles. I’d be glad if you shared what’s troubling you.”
Banjeet pushed himself slightly backward and straightened. He looked at his wife and said, “I’m worried about the villagers.”
“I could understand.”
“I’m afraid if he actually wakes up churel, no one will survive,” said Banjeet.
“Indeed. Yet, I don’t think he could really wake her. I mean, how? She died five thousand years ago.”
“As a leader, it’s my duty to keep everyone safe,” replied Banjeet. “Yet if I’m correct … if Dansh is actually excellent at witchcraft and wizardry and a master at necromancy—” Banjeet paused for a moment and looked around. “—I will fail.” His eyes filled with misery as they locked with Maahi’s. “Many of us will die. He will kill each of us, and those he doesn’t will probably be taken by the churel, the strongest churel of all time.Dali, the brutal, hair-raising, wicked, vicious, heartless, bloodthirsty, heart wrencher.”
Before his wife could reply, a scream grabbed their attention. They stood up and turned around, staring in the direction it had come from. About ten huts away, Banjeet saw Dansh. He stood with one arm wrapped around an eleven-year-old boy’s neck. The boy’s parents were sobbing as they kneeled at Dansh’s feet, begging him to free their son. Dansh’s three followers stood behind him as always, surveying the villagers, ready to stop them if any dared to attack.
Banjeet rushed over, leaving Maahi behind.
“What are you doing?” he yelled, standing close to him.
“Mukhiyaji!” said a young villager in his twenties. “I thought they were joking about waking up the churel, but they really do know the magic. I saw them appearing out of thin air in places where I swear nothing had been there before. Nothing like a door, or a tunnel entrance, or anything.”
An old man who was standing beside the boy backed up his words, and a few more people nodded in agreement.
Banjeet had already believed Dansh when he had told them about waking up the churel, and he shifted his eyes back to him. Banjeet’s glower was intense, and he hoped his own threat was clear. But Dansh remained steady, glaring back at Banjeet and holding the boy, as if offering his own threat in return.
All the while, still at Dansh’s feet, the boy’s parents kept pleading for him to leave him alone, but their painful voices failed to reach Dansh’s ears. He was enjoying the moment.
They stood up and rushed to Banjeet for help. After all, Banjeet was the mukhiya, the best person to come up with a solution to save their son.
“Please save him,” they begged, hands clasped and a clear hope in their wet eyes.
Banjeet held their hands in his. “Please calm down,” he said. He wanted to reassure them by saying something like I’ll save him, but he couldn’t. He had sensed the wickedness in Dansh’s voice when they first met.
Maahi had followed Banjeet and now stood behind him, waiting for a chance to help the parents calm down. As Banjeet looked at her with warmth, she walked forward and took the parents aside, kindly putting her hands on their shoulders.
“Leave him,” Banjeet shouted at Dansh, his voice filled with anger.
“What can you do about it?” questioned Dansh.
“We’re hundreds!” said Banjeet. “You’re only four. Together, we can defeat you.”
Dansh laughed aloud, and other enchanters grinned after him.
“Still,” Dansh locked his eyes on Banjeet. “We’re stronger than you. Would you like to see a demo?” Without waiting for Banjeet, he turned to his friends. “My fellows, please show them your flairs.”
The enchanters walked forward and stood beside him, just as they had previously: two on the left and one on the right. Together, they closed their eyes and whispered a spell in a foreign language, a language of wizardry. A gigantic fireball appeared behind them at the end of the village. The villagers stepped back in horror, staring at it as it moved toward them. The village sounded with their screams of help, but there was no one who could stop the fireball. Slowly, as the fireball continued to progress, huts began to ignite.
Banjeet couldn’t figure out where to look and who to help. The villagers began sobbing and screaming aloud. Banjeet, like everyone else, knew that no one in the village could fight the enchanters. From now on, Mukhiya would be just a fake title for him. The new leader was Dansh, whom everyone must follow if they wished to survive.
“Please, stop it,” Banjeet begged. “We believe you’re stronger than us.” He had to suppress the pain of losing his honor, but more than that, he couldn’t keep seeing the villagers weeping as they lost their properties.
Dansh smiled. Before the fireball could reach them and then continue to burn the entire village, he thumped his stick on the ground, and in a second, it disappeared. Everyone’s huts transformed back into how they had been before, unburned. The enchanters opened their eyes, stepped back, and stood again behind Dansh.
“I let you go,” said Dansh, “but make sure no one ever tells anyone about us. If anyone dares to reveal my existence here to any outsider, I’ll kill that bastard, the traitor.” He looked around, but many of the villagers were still frozen in horror. “Is that clear?” he shouted.
Every villager fixed their eyes on Dansh and, crushing their feelings for a moment to not rage out, answered him. “Yes. As you say.”
Dansh smiled through the corner of his lips and ceased his grip around the boy’s neck. The boy had been on the brink of death, but he fell to the ground and desperately tried to regain his breath.
Dansh mysteriously disappeared into the air with his men.
The parents ran to their son, the mom patting his back to help him breath as his dad helped him sit up. One of the villagers ran to his hut and brought some water. The mother poured it down her son’s throat, and slowly he began to return to his senses.
The other villagers, along with Banjeet and Maahi, looked with fright and pity in the direction of the cave.
Rahul and Elisa followed Dansh toward the village. A broad smile on Elisa’s face was the proof she was excited to discover the beauty of the village and the surrounding desert, and Rahul was glad of it. He was pleased to see Elisa happy, even if it was with the creepy stranger, Dansh.
If Dansh is an evildoer, I hope I have the courage to fight him, he thought.
His footsteps slowed, and his hand made its way into his pants’ pocket, where he kept the locket secured.
Dansh kept walking without glancing back.
Elisa was busy shooting a video of the beautiful desert, following the sand as it migrated from one place to another with a wave of smooth wind. She did not notice that Rahul was left behind.
With every step slowing down in the storm of his dubious thoughts, Rahul’s grip tightened on the locket.
When Elisa finally stopped the recording and turned to her left, expecting to see her boyfriend, she halted and looked back. She narrowed her eyes, wondering why he had slowed down, and impatiently waited for him to catch up.
But he then stopped, about three feet away from her, looking at her as she gazed back at him.
“What’re you doing?” she asked.
With his hands in the pocket, he said, “I’m sorry. I was just having some nightmarish thoughts—like what if he’s a wicked tantrik who might transfer a ghost or something into my body?”
“What’re you talking about, boy?” Elisa chuckled.
“I’m not joking.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“How do you want me to explain to you?”
“I think you need rest. Please keep walking, babe. Then we’ll find somewhere to sleep for the night,” said Elisa. She looked at Dansh who still hadn’t noticed they had slowed down. “Let’s go, before he goes out of sight.”
“I’m sorry. You’re right. I need rest. Let’s go,” said Rahul. “I just hope it’s a nice place to spend the night, and that he’s a good guy.”
Elisa held Rahul’s hand, and then they began walking again, slowly increasing their pace.
“Why are you keeping one hand in your pocket?” asked Elisa. “Are you comfortable walking like this?”
“I’m fine. Don’t worry.”
“Oh! I remember,” she said. “The locket’s in there! Right?”
“Yes. It is.”
“If it’s that important to you, why haven’t I seen you wearing it before?”
Rahul coughed, observing the distance between them and Dansh. When he believed their voices would be completely out of earshot, he chose to tell the story linked to the locket.
“We can survive with my grandma’s locket,” he said.
Astonished, she asked, “How?” Then she quickly said, before Rahul could continue, “I mean, I remember you told me the locket could protect you from ghosts and spirits. But that was just superstition, right?”
“If we somehow convince an evil to wear this locket, or somehow manage to direct the locket onto an
evil’s neck, the locket will burn that evil in fire.”
Elisa narrowed her eyes. He couldn’t tell if this was in bewilderment or because she didn’t believe what Rahul had just said.
“Do you really think the locket will kill any evil?” she asked.
“There are two stories. One is associated with a churel, and one with a daayan,” said Rahul. “My grandma told me these stories when she gave me this. Something happened to her when she was young,” Rahul took a short pause. “She was living in a village, and her college was two hours away in a city. One night, while waiting at the bus stop ready to go home, she encountered a girl, a gorgeous girl, who was crying. She asked for help, saying her husband left her on this deserted road to die, and so grandma brought her home.
“When they reached the house, the girl remained at the door staring at the Swastika symbol on the floor. FYU, Swastika symbol in India is used as a symbol of divinity and spirituality, not as a representation of Nazi Germany.”
“I know that. My history teacher from High School was American Indian. She told us about it.”
Rahul hummed. Then he said, “Good. Back to the story, Grandma asked her the reason for halting at the door.
“The girl didn’t react; she just stood there like a statue. After a moment, grandma tried to pull her inside the house. But as her leg touched the Swastika, she screamed, and she stepped back, stumbling. It was the Swastika that forced her out of the house.
“Grandma looked down in horror to check whether the girl had been injured but was surprised to see her ankles in front and feet positioned completely backward. Grandma hadn’t noticed at first as she was walking completely fine, like a normal person.
“She gaped at the girl’s feet for a moment, then her eyes and her long ponytail turned green. Grandma yelled, ‘Daayan!’”
“Wait! So, this story is linked to the daayan,” Elisa asked. “What’s the difference between them? I mean, between the daayan and the churel?”
“The daayan is much stronger than the churel. The daayan and the churel both have their feet turned backward and wear their hair in a long ponytail,” said Rahul. “The main difference is that the daayan targets young handsome men only, whereas the churel will attack anyone, but starting with pregnant women and children.
“But the daayan incident happened to your grandma?”
“Indeed. But the daayan likes to bring a doom on entire family. She first somehow manages to get a place in someone’s house, then possesses any man, married or single, living in that house. When she believes the man is completely under her possession, she marries him and begins the destruction of that family, killing a family member one after one, and at the end, the man she married. She does this only to increase her powers and stay young forever.”
“OMG! Daayan sounds much more powerful and crueler than the churel.”
“Indeed, she is. Anyway. Back to the story. The daayan, the wicked witch, tried to vanish, but before she could, grandma jerked this locket from her own neck and threw it on the daayan, where it stuck to her neck. She was unable to touch the locket, its divine powers sensed her wicked powers. It heated up, and the daayan burned in minutes.”
“So that’s the story of this locket!” said Elisa, gazing at Rahul. “Interesting! But no worries. You won’t encounter any daayan or churel here. And if you do, I won’t let her marry you.” She laughed.
Rahul’s mouth twitched with a quick laugh at her last words. Then he said, “You tease me so much, girl.”
“Just because I love you,” she said, smiling.
“I know, and that’s how I can keep you happy,” said Rahul. “I love you, too.”
They stopped. Their eyes remained locked for a moment, but then, realizing that Dansh could go out of sight and they might lose the path, Elisa broke the eye contact.
“We shall proceed!” she said.
Rahul looked at Dansh, and then continued walking with Elisa, hurrying to catch up. Both held each other’s hands as they moved.
After a few minutes of walking, Rahul and Elisa finally entered the village. A little way away from the asphalt road, it was full of wooden huts, each one taking up at least 100 to 200 square feet of land.
Elisa was grinning broadly as her eyes roved the village—she had found the most unique place to explore. Some villagers were out milking camels, a few older people were gossiping on a charpoy outside some of the huts, some children were playing hide and seek. From looking inside some of the closed huts, it seemed that the other villagers were either resting or doing chores.
The villagers were also observing Rahul and Elisa, all looking at their modern clothes and perhaps thinking, they must be lost wanderers.
Elisa was enjoying the moment, but Rahul had stayed quiet. He had doubts about Dansh and was having a hard time trusting the villagers. It wasn’t that he was suspicious or thought he was the only good person on the earth—he had traveled to many countries, and he liked to talk to strangers—it was just this sequestered place and the guy who looked like a creep.
“Why’re you not showing off your photography skills?” asked Elisa as she pulled out her cellphone, turning on the camera to film the village. “Come on. Take some pictures.”
Rahul smiled forcefully and took out his own cell. He would take some awesome pictures, as Elisa advised. He first took pictures of the children around him. Rahul always loved children, and at this moment they were making his heart feel a little easier, lighter of stress and fear.
Elisa could never stop herself from exploring any type of place: haunted or non-haunted, secluded or non-secluded. She truly was a real wanderer. Rahul loved her—there was no doubt about it—but she had one flaw: she trusted everyone blindly. He already had spoken to her about it plenty of times, but she was used to her gracious nature.
As she shot a video, Elisa made her way over to an old man who had a handlebar mustache touching his ears and a beard coming down to the middle of his chest. He was sitting on the charpoy with some other men who seemed to be his friends.
Seated, the man would stroke his mustache and beard every now and then, either trying to fix them or just because he loved patting them.
“What’s your name?” asked Elisa.
“Huh?” The man widened his eyes. He didn’t understand a word of English.
“Na English,” said a kid, looking around. Elisa looked at him and said, “Thank—” but the kid ran away when he saw his friends a hut away. Elisa smiled as she watched him reach them.
Elisa shifted her look back to the man. “Aap, ka. Naam. Kyah hain?”
She began the conversation in Hindi, pausing after every few words to first set them in order inside her brain and then on her tongue.
“Oh! Mera naam Hanspal hain.”
Rahul stood beside her, seeing her now beginning to struggle to talk to the man, mixing the two languages.
“Aap kaise … manage. To. Carry this. Lambi. Beard?” She tried to ask him, how do you manage to carry this long beard?
The man didn’t understand.
“Would you like to translate?” Elisa asked, shifting her cellphone to capture Rahul’s face in the video.
“It’ll be my pleasure.”
“This is a tradition from my ancestors, and I also love it,” said the man in Hindi after Rahul had translated Elisa’s question. “I’m used to it. I started growing my mustache when I was sixteen, and the beard at eighteen.” He spoke slowly, trying to recall the exact time he started growing his facial hair.
Rahul translated his answer to Elisa.
“Wow!” she exclaimed. “Sounds interesting.” Her grin broke into a quick laugh as she added, “I’d like to see my boyfriend this way, one day.”
The man didn’t understand once more, and he said in Hindi, “What?”
“Nothing,” answered Rahul before Elisa could try to translate it herself. “Let me tell you something,” Rahul said to her. “The villagers, especially the aged people, are very strict regarding their traditions. They don’t like when someone makes a joke out of it. The sweeter the villagers are, the harsher they may become, feeling disrespected for having their tradition insulted with a joke.”
Elisa focused on him and was thankful he explained before she could say something else and repeat the same mistake.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“It’s completely fine. I can understand. I didn’t know once. I learned this from my grandma.”
Meanwhile, Dansh, who all this time had stayed away from them, reached out and said, “Shall we proceed further?”
Rahul and Elisa turned around.
“Only a few more minutes, pleeease. I’m enjoying it here,” said Elisa, her voice sweeter than ever, especially when she elongated the word.
“No rush at all,” said Dansh. “Take your time.” He looked down, and his smile disappeared from his face.
Elisa continued to shoot on her cellphone.
“I felt irritation in his voice,” Rahul whispered in Elisa’s ear. “I really don’t know if we should trust this man.”
“Just trust me,” said Elisa, not stopping the recording. “Everything will be fine.”
Rahul glanced at her, then scrutinized their surroundings.
“The villagers who were having fun with us are now wearing an expression of distress. Their faces changed upon his arrival. I feel something’s wrong.”
“Please stop it, Rahul!” Elisa stopped recording. “Please stop judging him simply because he has a disability any other human may have.”
“I’m sorry. Let me talk to him.”
He walked a few steps toward Dansh, and Elisa started recording again, keeping the focus of her camera on Dansh and Rahul.
“I’m sorry,” he said, folding his hands in a prayer motion. “Can we please proceed?”
He tilted his head to lock his eyes with Rahul. “I have no complaints, I’m just waiting for her to finish her video.”
Elisa had sensed an irritation somewhere in Dansh’s voice when she had asked for more time where they were, though she could tell Dansh had tried his best to hide it. However, Elisa ignored her feelings. And now, it seemed that Rahul noticed this irritation too.
The next moment, as Rahul looked around, he found the villagers completely quiet, their eyes still fixed on them, worried looks on their faces.
Following his line of vision, Elisa also noticed the villagers’ worried looks. Yet, she threw away her thoughts once more. She had heard enough about Dansh being a bad guy to make her start to believe Rahul that he was an evildoer. Yet, if he was correct, then what?
What could be a reason for the villagers’ worried looks?
What did Dansh have planned?
What was Elisa supposed to do now?
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