“Life is more like wrestling than dancing.” — Antoninus, vii. 61.

Jared had always been a strange man. Not in a bad way, mind you: just a curious case. I had no reason to believe that he had finally snapped, that someone had finally driven him over the edge the way children will sometimes push one another into the deep end of the pool. As he led us up the hill along an ever-narrowing deer path, however, I could not ignore my growing sense of unease. I should have turned around long before we ever got to that clearing, but then again, hindsight is always 20/20.

Jared had been one of my pledges at a once-distinguished university in Essex County, Massachusetts, an institution which has since fallen on hard times like the rest of us. Officially, fraternities and sororities were prohibited by the university, but behind closed doors, all kinds of things were permitted so long as they stayed out of the papers.

Living apart from friends and loved ones, often for the first time, many will inevitably turn to one another for security. The tribal instinct among human beings is immensely powerful, and as natural as breathing. Jared had been one such lonely case.

He had recently ended—or, rather, had been forced out of—his first long-term relationship. Quietly, many of us were at first relieved to hear this. He and his lady-friend…God, what was her name? They had become codependent to an unhealthy degree. Jared craved her attention the way a junkie craved the needle, and she…she had him taking care of literally every last chore and errand for her. She enjoyed the power she wielded over him, getting more pleasure from that than she ever could from the physical acts…until she met another whose allure her instincts wouldn’t let her walk away from. Suffice it to say, Jared was a wreck. He would wander the campus grounds absentmindedly, as if a literal cloud encompassed him.

Perhaps one did. In any case, he was clearly someone in need of a friend, or at least a sympathetic ear, and our little society…we understood that. I know it may seem incomprehensible or even unbelievable to you now, but even in those dark days, there were those of us who still tried to do right by one another.

I think I must have been the first of us to approach Jared. I had met him several times previously and we had a few friends in common. He was a tall, thin man, with curly dark hair and a pale complexion; in other words, quite representative of the Portuguese of Rhode Island. My memory doesn’t tell me exactly how the first conversation went, but before long, several of us were meeting regularly and he seemed to be improving.

As is custom to our people, we tested him gradually, trying to gauge whether or not he might be a good fit for our number. Due to the official no-fraternities rule, we had to be very careful about who we took as a confidant, but eventually the majority ruled in his favor. There’s not much to be said about that; I still feel a sense of loyalty to them, even if they may all be dead for all I know. Long story short, we eventually admitted him, and, for a time, he really did seem to be doing well. The sense of belonging, of solidarity, of a secret mission: it all seemed to fill the gap in his life. It seemed to.

I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s say he had a new lady-friend about a year after [wow, I really can’t remember her name] left him. Initially, we took this as another positive sign; he really was turning over a new leaf. But gradually, things began to darken. The first sign of trouble, to me anyway, was the smell. Ever so slight, there were traces of smoke, of spices, and…something else on his clothes. I figured he was just going to some eccentric parties with his new girl…she struck me as that type. But things steadily got darker. Even as I relate this story now, the old scars on my forearm begin to ache, as if the memory of old horrors is trying to re-open my flesh.

I may have overlooked the whole thing had Jared not mentioned (in a drunken stupor) the visions they had at their “gatherings.” I was only half-listening at first, assuming it would just be a series of stoner stories, but what he described was so specific…

You see, adjacent to our old Essex County university was another campus. Originally, it had been a boarding school, but it had emptied out during the typhoid epidemic of the 1920’s. It was an empty—but admittedly well-preserved—set of ruins, resting on the New England countryside like a mummified corpse. Eventually, the state lowered the price they sought for the property and…I can’t tell this part without offering a bewildered laugh, such things only seem possible in New England, but a hospital for the criminally insane began to occupy the space.

For reasons that were never explained publicly, the hospital was closed only a few years later, and the freshly re-abandoned ruins and the woods surrounding them became a favorite hideaway for locals of all kinds. Stoners, new-agers, pyromaniacs, horny teenagers, paintball enthusiasts, high school drop-outs (not mutually-exclusive demographics) all heard the call to The-Woods-Behind-the-Ward.

The old scars are really starting to sting now, but I feel a duty to retell this story to the end. I only hope to God it is worth it. When I told the others what I suspected, we thought it best not to confront Jared directly. His mental balance was still somewhat fragile, and we didn’t want to reverse his progress, especially if we were overreacting or simply reading too much into the situation. They say that curiosity kills the cat, but an overabundance of caution can have the same effect. You can over-think yourself into paralysis. Had we acted sooner, things may have turned out differently.

Once again, I’ll spare you the rambling details, but eventually we encouraged him to invite some of us along to the next “gathering.” He took the idea completely in stride, with an enthusiasm that we should have found suspect, but we were all too eager to get to the bottom of this strange episode. And so we found ourselves following him through the Woods-Behind-the-Ward near midnight one autumn day.

In retrospect, it’s strange how predictable some horrors can be. It’s as if, deep down, we were all aware of what we would find there: the fire, the witch herbs, the totems, the dances…the other things. Maybe that’s part of the attraction of the horror movie or the Stephen King novel: you already know what you’re afraid of, you already suspect what needs to happen for you to confront that fear, but you need someone else to draw it out for you.

We heard the sounds long before we ever actually saw anything. Actually, as I think about it, we felt more than heard the beats at first. Drums, low, slow, and rhythmic, were sending acoustic waves down the hill toward us, washing the landscape like a heretical baptism. As we rose higher and higher along the deer path, we also began to hear a cadenced flute playing. And cheering: shrieks of joy or ecstasy like what one would have heard at Woodstock before karma came ‘round to bite them in the ass.

When it finally came, it came suddenly. Bill must have been the first of us to see it, for he shrieked aloud at a pitch I didn’t think him capable of and fell—or rather, convulsed—to the ground. Miller was next. His teeth began to clatter uncontrollably, even as the rest of his face grew white, almost lifeless. Andy had been third in line, but he seemed almost calm by contrast. He simply sat down, cross-legged as if in meditation and began to sway back and forth. I think the shock to his nervous system was too great to muster even a terrified reaction out of him.

For my part, it was Jared’s change I saw before the true horror showed itself. Having been at the head of our column, he had now turned to face us. His face had grown stiff, motionless, almost as if it were now a flesh-like mask. The combination of bonfire and surprisingly bright moonlight allowed me to see him more-or-less clearly, though I wish to Heaven it had not been so. His face bore a slight, insidious smile and a thick line of saliva was rolling out of the right side of his mouth. It was just the two of us on that path now, the others having slipped into either merciful unconsciousness or a fit of madness.

The other celebrants, such as they were, continued to shout, shriek, and cheer up the hill from us, seemingly oblivious to our presence. For a moment, Jared and I simply regarded one another. I was absolutely terrified—I won’t lie to you about that—but for some reason, I was able to keep my wits. That is, until it caught me.

My left arm was suddenly yanked back and to the right, spinning me almost 360 degrees. I was able to keep my feet, though only barely, and found myself confronted by five robed figures. Startling though this sight was, what absorbed my attention was rather what lied at their feet.

What is was that grabbed me wasn’t exactly a shadow, but it was some kind of blackish mass. Its shape kept changing, at first resembling a cloud hovering over the Earth, then seeming to develop four limbs and appear as a wolf. Finally, it sprouted many appendages. The only comparison I can make of it in this stage is to an octopus, but even this is not a fair description. Why my mind didn’t shatter then I cannot guess, yet I remained sober. Terrified, but sober. Confronted by such a sight, the last thing I expected was a sucker-punch to the side of my head, but as the poet of Providence said, “from even the greatest of horrors irony is seldom absent.”

I woke up in the midst of that cultic throng. I was not restrained, but rather was sitting amidst several others on the edge of the tree line. The main group of celebrants was dancing in a circle single file throughout a surprisingly large clearing. Though I had walked these woods many times, I had never stumbled upon this place. The drums and flutes continued to play, emanating from a band near the center of the circle, but it was only from this close vantage point that I could identify the other aspect of this ritual.

Pipes, almost comically large, like caricatures of old Indian pipes, were being passed among the participants. The smell suggested neither tobacco nor marijuana, I have no frame of reference for it. As each participant took his or her turn at the pipe, a shadow seemed to hover above their head, much like the one which had grabbed me earlier. In this way, they too almost seemed to dance.

I refused it when the pipe reached me, causing a minor disruption in the proceedings. Several participants converged on me, determined to force my acquiescence, but I held strong. Somehow, I understood that participation had to be willing, that one could not be coerced. After a few moments of such struggle Jared appeared again, grabbing me by the hair and pulling me toward the center of the circle.

The drums never changed a beat, though the flutes had ceased their song. The circle of celebrants began to tighten, converging along with me toward the center. Upon reaching the band, each of them donned similar dark robes to the first group we had confronted. Jared yanked me to my feet, managing to tear out a decent chunk of my hair in the process.

It was just such an opportunity that I was waiting for. The crucifix bracelet I wore had been hidden under my long shirt sleeve until this point, but as everyone was distracted, I slipped it out to my palm like an assassin’s dagger. Quickly gaining stronger footing, I thrust it on Jared’s cheek. The shriek was horrible, but it was enough. Just as Professor Danforth had suspected, the shadows, or whatever they were, could only appear it the midst of the rhythmic drums. If this sound was drowned out by a louder wave, they would have to disperse.

But he hadn’t guessed that it would be so violent a process. We were all thrown to the ground as if a bomb had detonated in the distance. Light began to appear and disappear from the wood-line, as though it were being pulsated into and out of some Beyond. Jared began to convulse and squirm next to me, but I once again held the crucifix to his head. Whether it was truly spiritual power or merely the perception of such on his part was at that point irrelevant to me. It was only when one of the robbed figures struck me that I lost this grip, along with consciousness.

My friends and I were found in the woods the following day. The police suspected that our group had been drunk, that we had stumbled and fell trying to take a shortcut home. The fact that no one else seemed to have a clear memory didn’t help to convince them otherwise. Though my memory remained mercilessly clear, I decided to remain silent given the circumstances. The cultic celebrants were no longer to be seen, not even leaving a trace of their activity behind. But what disturbed me more was that the clearing itself seemed to be gone, as if it had been ripped out of this world altogether.

Though I have combed through those woods several times since, I have been unable to find it. Though my rational mind prevents me from accepting this possibility, it remains a simple fact that it disappeared along with the hideous events of that night.

Jared has since checked himself into a rehab center and has made real progress. I don’t think he clearly remembers anything either, but his change in disposition is heartening in any event. The others of our merry band seem to have convinced themselves that the police’s version of events is actually true, and I do not think it worthwhile to argue otherwise.

The only physical traces of any kind proving that this night ever even happened are the horrible scars on my arm, where that (shadow?) had grabbed me. But even these only appear when the moon is full and the stars are right. The wise men of Essex County say this proves that the source of the damage was not corporeal.

I leave this record in our archives as a warning. Though none in the current study body will likely return to that spot, I have the horrid sense that future classes may do so. The cult, or whatever it was, is almost certainly still out there, and those things they summoned are still at large, lurking on the threshold of our sanity. I shall hide several copies of this testament across campus in our traditional places to help ensure its survival.