Chapter 5 – The Cult

Taking advantage of the fact that I was spending the Christmas holidays with my wife and daughter at my grandparents’ house in Viana do Castelo, I decided to explore another of the diary entries I had found.

This time, my curiosity focused on an important place of my childhood. Since I was a little boy, I heard my father and grandfather tell stories about the ruins of the San Francisco convent. Among them, was an old rumor that the place was used for strange rituals popularly known as Macumba. I had never found any evidence of it, until, reading the diary, I came upon an entry about a cult that met in the convent.

As usual, the timidity of my predecessor hadn’t allowed him to watch the whole ritual, and he only saw a small part through the gate rails.

Using again the excuse that I was going to visit an old friend, on the night of the first Monday after Christmas, the day of the week in which the diary said the cult gathered, I went up to the convent. When I was a kid, it was situated in the middle of a forested hill, and it took a long walk to get there, so I was surprised to see that now there were urbanizations almost to the first gate.

I parked behind one of these new houses, turned on my lantern, and headed for the forest. After passing a muddy area, certainly a remnant of the construction of the urbanization, I arrived at the gate that, long ago, protected the road that went up to the convent. Of it, only part of the portal remained, for one of the columns had fallen or been knocked over.

As soon as I crossed it, I found myself surrounded by eucalyptus, acacias, and the occasional pine tree. The forest now started there.

I began to climb the path. The rough paving, made up of large, irregular stones, was not easy to walk on, even with the help of the flashlight. I stumbled several times. Luckily, it hadn’t rained for some time, or the smooth stones would be impossibly slippery.

Halfway up, just before a tight turn, I found an old Calvary. It showed signs of ashes and smoke. If these were due to the cult that I was there to investigate or to a more mundane cause, I can’t say.

Finally, after the turn, I reached the final slope. Shortly after, my flashlight illuminated the main gate of the convent. An arch supporting the statues of three saints housed it, and a wall more than two meters high branched from it. To a casual visitor, there would seem to be no way to get in, because a lock and chain kept the gate shut, but I wasn’t a casual visitor.

Beside the gate was a very steep, almost vertical, climb where someone had heaped stones and excavated steps. I climbed it without great difficulty and entered a narrow path that penetrated the dense vegetation. I advanced for a few tens of meters, the wall of the convent on my right. Here and there, there were minor gaps, but none big enough for me to enter.

Finally, I arrived at the place I was looking for; a second entrance opened to a staircase that led down to the convent’s yard. Long ago, there must have been a gate there, but it preceded my first visits.

I entered and finally was in the convent itself. With my lantern, I swept the buildings around. Embedded in the wall that separated the yard from the raised terrain and the path, were two small chapels. They had no doors and were empty except for creepers and weeds. Their stone roofs were broken and full of holes. On the opposite side stood the ruins of the main buildings: the church and the housing and working areas.

But I didn’t go in right away. First, I went to the base of a cavalry in the center of the yard. The cross itself was no longer there, but the vaguely pyramidal base formed by four layers of stone was. According to my predecessor, it was there that the cult performed its rituals. In fact, the signs were everywhere. There were dark red spots all over. Here and there, I saw feathers, certainly belonging to chickens used in sacrifices.

With such clear evidence that something was really happening there, I entered the ruins of the buildings in search of a place to hide and wait for the appearance of the cultists. According to the diary, they only showed up after one in the morning, so there was still plenty of time. I used it to visit the site and see what had changed since my previous visit, more than twenty years before.

The first thing that struck me was that the remnants of the upstairs floor, which I had still seen as a child, had completely rotted away. In fact, the only sign that there ever was an upper floor was the stairs that led to nowhere and the partially ruined but abnormally high for a ground-floor building walls.

After visiting the old kitchen, with its huge fireplace and decorated limestone sink, I went to the church. It had long ago lost its roof, though the rusty chandelier, attached to the walls by equally corroded metal cables, still held its place. There was nothing left of the altar or of any other decorative element. I had a hard time crossing to the main entrance. The tomb slabs that, when I was a kid, covered the ground had been torn away, leaving huge holes difficult to cross.

When I arrived at the small dirt churchyard, I found the slabs heaped in a corner, some whole, others broken, in which the buried’s names and dates of death and birth could still be seen.

I then entered the cloister. As the wooden upper floor had already disappeared, it was completely uncovered. In its center, the small space reserved for the monks’ garden was now filled with weeds and brambles. Some of the columns that bounded it and that once held the ceiling had fallen, if by the action of the elements or by vandalism, I can not say.

It was then that I saw the perfect place to hide: the old bell tower. From the ruins, there was no way to reach it, since the door was on the second floor, that didn’t exist anymore. I went out to the back of the convent, where there was access to the hill and the fields, some small support buildings and, of course, the base of the tower. After circling the later, I found a small secondary entrance less than one meter high. I almost had to drag myself through the ground, but I managed to get inside.

As had happened to the upper floors, the stairs had disintegrated. Fortunately, the tower was narrow, so by pressing my back, feet, and arms against the walls, I was able to reach the top with just some effort. I now had a privileged view of the entire convent, especially of the yard where the cult was supposed to meet, and I doubted anyone would see me there.

I turned off my flashlight. It wasn’t even midnight yet, but I feared that the cultists would appear sooner than expected or see my light in the distance.

I had been waiting for almost two hours when I began to hear a song coming from the end of the path that had taken me there. A moment later, behind the curve, an orange light appeared. I fixed my gaze there, for I knew I was about to see what I had come for.

From behind the curve came a line of people, all holding lamps. Some also brought cloth bags, inside of which something moved.

I confess I was surprised and even disappointed. Perhaps because of movies and television shows, I expected figures in long black hooded robes. However, these were normal people in everyday clothes.

The cultists went up to the gate and then took the same narrow path I had used to come in. After a short while, they were all in the yard, around the base of the Calvary. Nothing could be heard but the hymns and the clucking of the chickens in the bags.

Suddenly the voices became quiet. One of the cultists, a man with long, disheveled hair, went up to the improvised altar and began to chant a new song, this time at the top of his lungs. After a few minutes, one of the other cultists opened the bag and passed him a chicken. With a small knife that he produced from his belt, he cut the throat of the animal and let the blood drip on the stones.

These steps were repeated for a half hour until all the bags were empty. Then the cultists uttered a cry in unison. The ground started to tremble. Gradually, a crack opened on the floor in front of the makeshift altar. An orange-red glow projected out from it. It was as if it were a passage to Hell itself.

The cultists stared at it as if hypnotized, for a few moments, until a gigantic red fist, larger than a person, came out of it. Under the expectant gaze of the cult, the hand opened, releasing about a dozen strange humanoid beings. These were small, about half a meter high, and covered with a short black fur. Two tiny horns crowned their heads, which also had sharp snouts and pointed teeth.

With great enthusiasm, the cultists ran after these imps, picking them up and stuffing them into the bags where they had brought the chickens. At the same time, the hand disappeared, returning to the abyss, and, as soon as the last imp was caught, the crack closed.

Satisfied, the cultists returned the same way they had come, this time in complete silence. Not even the imps, stuck in their bags, made any noise.

I let the light from the lamps disappear behind the curve and waited about half an hour before descending from my hiding place and going back to my car.

Although it was the first journal entry I investigated involving humans, it was probably the one that left me with more questions. Who was in that cult? What were they going to do with the imps? To whom belong the hand that brought them?

I went home thinking about it and even lost that night’s sleep. The possibilities made me shiver. I would only get the answers much later, but they would surpass everything I could imagine.


Chapter 3 – The Procession of Souls

After my discovery of the Faerie Bar, and having confirmed that the account on the diary I had found was not only fiction, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. My wife, my friends, even my co-workers noticed that I became distracted. But I had decided not to tell anyone. At that time, I wasn’t sure how that knowledge could affect us, and I feared it might endanger them.

As such, I had to wait some time until I had an opportunity to embark on another expedition without arousing suspicions. This opportunity came when my mother-in-law got sick and my wife, along with our daughter, went to take care of her.

After my meeting with Alice, I wanted to let some time pass before returning to the Faerie Bar, so I decided to explore another place. After re-reading some of the diary entries, I decided to travel to Gerês and visit an old abandoned village in the mountains where, supposedly, during the night, the dead rose from their graves and left in a procession along the slopes and valleys.

When I left my house, it was still day time, but when I entered the road up the mountain, the sun had already set. Although Gerês’ highest slopes didn’t have many trees, darkness made it difficult to find the village, even with the help of a GPS. Finally, I decided to stop on a small space at the side of the road, near the point where the village was supposed to be.

I got out of the car and started looking around. With the help of my most powerful flashlight, I found the ruins I was looking for just below where I had parked.

The roofs had already collapsed, as had many walls and wooden floors. Everywhere, fallen beams rose in the night sky, like the ribs of gigantic animals.

With my flashlight’s help, I looked for the best way to down. There wasn’t really a path, but between boulders and brambles, I managed to find a passage.

After stumbling and slipping, narrowly avoiding some spectacular falls, I arrived at the abandoned village. Its narrow streets, by themselves already narrow and clogged with rocks, were covered with debris, brambles, and weeds, making them quite difficult to walk through. The silence of the night was only broken by the sound of animals crawling away and the hooting of the owls taking refuge in the ruins.

Finally, I got to what was left of the local church. The top of the bell tower had already fallen, as had the roof, yet the facade seemed intact, though an empty alcove above the door made me suspect that there had been a statue of a saint, now missing. It had probably been stolen by someone to sell to collectors.

Beside the church, surrounded by a low wall of loose stones, I found the place I was looking for: the cemetery. According to the diary, it was from there that the spirits of the dead departed for their nightly procession.

Tombstones, broken and worn, filled the place, along with pieces of rotting wood that once must have been crosses.

I sat on the outside, leaning against the wall, and waited for midnight, the hour my predecessor recorded he had started seeing the ghosts. It was late autumn, so it was already cold in the mountains. In part, I was thankful for it, since it was the only thing that prevented me from falling asleep.

When the hour finally arrived, I was not disappointed. Just as the clock on my cell phone struck midnight, I looked at the graves. Over these, shapes began to appear. At first, they were practically invisible, but gradually they began to take on translucent white forms. These were people wearing ghostly versions of the clothing, hats, and scarves typical of that region until very recently.

As they took their final shapes, the spirits left the cemetery and began descending the slope, while above the graves new forms appeared. I let them all join in the procession, before beginning to follow them.

I went down a path, crossed an old stone bridge, and even walked through a Roman road. The ghosts traversed miles of ground for almost two hours.

Suddenly, to the north, I saw a white line descending another slope like a gigantic albino serpent. It didn’t take me long to realize that it was another procession of souls.

Three more appeared shortly after, coming from valleys and mountains, and, one by one, joined the first one and continued advancing towards the east. More than a procession, they now resembled a military column.

Then, to my surprise, the dead began returning to the ground. Little by little, they disappeared through the soil, until none remained on the surface. I was alone again, in the darkness of the mountains, with my flashlight.

I approached the place where the ghosts had disappeared and searched, without much hope, for some way to follow them. After almost half an hour, I found a hole in the ground big enough for me to get through. I pointed the flashlight to it. It wasn’t particularly deep, it was only about five meters, and I thought I saw a cave from it to the west.

I didn’t have any climbing equipment with me, but the wall of the hole had enough hand and foot holds for me to get down without much difficulty. In a few minutes, I reached the bottom and confirmed that there really was a cave. I pointed my flashlight at it and saw that it stretched for a hundred meters, then it changed direction.

Carefully, for I didn’t know how the dead would react if they found me there, I entered the cave. I reached the bend without any problem, but as soon as I turned it, I found two ghosts. Despite my precautions, they spotted me immediately. After all, without the light of my lantern, I couldn’t see anything there, but it denounced me clearly.

I looked back, thinking of running away, but I would never be able to reach the surface before they caught up with me.

The ghosts approached slowly and carefully, as if they didn’t want to frighten me. Although I was suspicious, I waited for them. They didn’t seem aggressive.

One of them held a candle, which he stretched out toward me he reached me. Fearfully, I grabbed it. At that instant, it turned into a human leg bone. Startled, I dropped it and took a few steps back.

The two ghosts burst out laughing.

“His face,” said one of the spirits.

For a moment, I stared at them, astonished.

“I’m sorry, my friend, but I couldn’t resist,” said the ghost who had handed me the candle.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“The spirits of the dead, of course. Not everyone is lucky enough to rest in peace.”

They seemed friendly, so I decided to keep asking questions:

“Why do you come here? Why don’t you stay in your graveyards?”

“Because at the end of this tunnel lies our city. We only stayed behind because we saw you following us and decided to have some fun, “said the ghost of the candle, smiling.

“City?!” I said with amazement. “The dead have a city?”

“Of course,” replied the other ghost. “We’ll be around forever. We need a place to enjoy ourselves. Come on, we’ll show you, as compensation for the scare we gave you.” 

I followed them through the tunnel for about five hundred meters, past several bends. At last, we came to a gigantic cave, larger than any I had seen before.

We were on a ledge on one of the walls, but the cave went down for several hundred meters, its bottom being only visible thanks to the pale glow of the ghosts.

There were many more ledges on the walls beyond that where I stood. On the larger ones, there were buildings of all of Portugal’s historical periods. Awed, I saw Iron Age roundhouses, Roman villas, medieval huts, country houses, Pombaline buildings, and even a large multi-storey condominium, among others. Nothing connected the ledges to each other, for ghosts just floated between them.

Contrary to what had happened in the Faerie Bar, my presence in the City of the Dead did not go unnoticed. All the ghosts passing by looked at me with a mixture of curiosity and surprise.

“It’s been a long time since someone alive set foot in here,” said the creature that had given me the candle.

“I never even heard of that happening before,” said the other.

Suddenly, from the depths of the cave, another spirit appeared, looking angry.

“What have you idiots done? You bring a living one here, especially now, with all these disappearances?”

“Sorry, Mr. President,” said the two ghosts in unison, staring at the floor like two admonished children.

“Disappearances?” I asked curiously.

“Yes, some ghosts have disappeared in the last few months,” said the spirit that had given me the candle.

“It never happened before,” added the other. “The dead have always increased, never declined.” 

“Can’t you keep your mouths shut?!” Shouted the president.

He turned to me.

“And as for you, get out of here while you can. And don’t even think about coming back. We will move the entrance.”

The president’s tone left no room for discussion, and I did as he said.

On the way back to the car, and after, as I drove home, a question never left my head: how could the dead be disappearing? After my visit to the Faerie Bar and a closer reading of the diary I found, the existence of ghosts, or even of their incredible city, didn’t particularly surprise me, but this issue sent shivers up my spine. At the time, I didn’t quite understand why, but I would eventually find out.

Chapter 1 – The Book

The story of how I met the Witches of the Night is long and complex. To tell it in a way that everyone understands, I must explain the world that exists parallel to ours, which most people don’t know exists. As such, I will start with what, for me, was the beginning: the event that made me aware of this world.

From a young age, I have been interested in urban exploration. At the age of thirteen, I joined the Braga urban explorers group and, over the years that followed, I explored the ruins of warehouses, factories, monasteries, and many other interesting buildings. But it was only in my thirties that I dared to do a solo exploration.

It was of a house in the parish of Palmeira, on the outskirts of Braga, that I had discovered during one of the many visits to the Dona Chica Palace that the group had organized. Although I drew attention to the house, no one else showed interest in exploring it. It was a small home, with just a ground floor, and with nothing to distinguish it from those that surrounded it. But something about it drew my interest. Perhaps because it reminded me of my great-grandmother’s house, or because it was old enough to contain artifacts of the life of yore, not found in any modern house.

Whatever the reason, on a morose Sunday afternoon, when my wife went to visit her parents with our daughter, I drove to the old house. Taking care that the neighbors did not see me, I entered through a window whose glass and shutters had been broken by vandals.

On the other side, I found what was to be expected: a room full of broken glass, syringes and destroyed furniture. Anything of value had long been plundered. Still, I didn’t give up. Carefully, fearing to find some squatter, I continued exploring the house.

I entered the corridor, which gave access to two more rooms. Passing over the remains of broken doors, I entered the bedroom, which didn’t look any better than the living room. In the window, agitated by the wind, danced the remaining rags of crochet curtains. Clothes, from black dresses to felt hats, covered almost all the floor, clearly torn from the rotting closet and discarded for being worthless. Oddly enough, and despite the interest that antiquaries nowadays have in such furniture, an iron bed, with its white paint almost entirely replaced by rust, was still in the room, but upside down and tossed into a corner. The mattress had been removed and laid flat against the wall. It was covered in red, yellow, and white stains, and a shiver went up my spine as I thought of all that could have happened on it.

Then I went into the last room, the kitchen. The floor was littered with smashed crockery, and the cabinets were broken into and emptied. Everything else had been taken away.

Discouraged, I prepared to go back home. Unfortunately, there was nothing of interest in that house. The other urban explorers were right.

I was about to leave the kitchen when a metallic glow in the tiny pantry caught my eye. There, between broken shelves and nauseous remnants of rotten food, I found a door. The glow belonged to a primitive latch, which I opened immediately. On the other side, I found a stone staircase that descended into darkness. As I did when I explored a structure, I had a flashlight with me. Its light revealed a basement at the bottom of the stairs, apparently untouched by the vandals. Maybe the lack of daylight in there had kept them away.

Step by step, since I didn’t know what awaited for me down there nor how robust were the stairs, I descended. At the bottom, I found a veritable time capsule from mid-century Portugal.

In one corner, I saw an old manual sewing machine, still with the cast iron pedal and the belt that transmitted the movement to the needle. In a table next to it, there was a charcoal iron. I could almost see smoke coming out of his little chimney.

On the other side of the basement, next to a rotting fabric sofa, I found a cabinet containing a tube radio, its yellowish plastic testament of its antiquity.

On top of all surfaces, there were testimonies of past times: oil lamps, slabs of slate, jars of ink, ink pens, etc. However, my gaze fell mainly on a wooden chest that lay on the floor beside the stairs. Curious, I opened it. It wasn’t locked. Inside, I found albums with photographs, some of them certainly more than a hundred years old. It was sad to see those pictures of lively groups, couples dancing and dinner parties and thinking that most, if not all, of those people were gone.

Among the albums, however, I found a small notebook. I opened it and found that it was a diary. Normally, I never take anything from the places I explore, nor do I think that any urban explorer should do it, but having an account of the life of yesteryear was too tempting, and my curiosity got the better of me, as usual.

I left the house with the book in my pocket. I wanted to read it right there in the car, but dinner time was approaching.

When I got home, I put the book down and went to prepare the meal with the rest of my family. Despite being somewhat curious about its content, I dined calmly and even helped my daughter with her homework.

At last, I sat down at my desk and started reading. The stories in the diary were, in fact, interesting, fantastic, even, but in a way I didn’t expect. They mentioned hidden places in cities, mountains, and even the sea, and encounters with fairies, vampires, witches, goblins and innumerable other mythological and imaginary beings.

Was it a work of fiction, or the reverie of a madman? At the time, I couldn’t consider another hypothesis. But I also couldn’t stop reading, because many of the stories were in or near places I knew.

When I finally went to bed, it was almost two in the morning, and I only did it because I had to work the next day. Still, with much effort, I was able to push the book away from my mind long enough to fall asleep.