The insects were screaming. Their millions of collective wails, echoing in desperate unison, conveyed to Davy a distinct mix of horror and pain. It was very annoying.
Davy paused to think about this. Should he feel guilty for getting irritated by the vast ocean of insect screams? Part of him certainly empathized with the mass display of suffering taking place around him. On the other hand, the constant, endless noise was making it hard to think, which was extremely annoying.
Davy tried to internally rationalize his guilt. This was a haunted house that was meant to scare him, right? These insects must be an illusion then. They couldn’t be real. But then Davy wondered if his own apathy towards the pain existing around him was meant to highlight that the true thing to fear in this house was himself?
Davy thought this sounded stupid. It also made him uncomfortable. Davy decided to stop thinking.
Steve did not share any of Davy’s conflict. He approached the giant spider. The spider stood in what appeared to be the ruins of an ancient stone fortress. Crumpled walls stood behind it. It was also totally surrounded by moat. There was no water in the moat, however. Instead, there was a foul-smelling sludge, a mix of brown and a putrid green.
Steve walked up to the edge of the moat, looked down at the rancid liquid, and after a moment of contemplation, dipped the top of his shoe into it. As he lifted his foot, the liquid dripped off in chunks. Davy, watching this unfold from behind, did not like what he saw.
Steve looked up at the spider with a mild frown. “So what’s your deal?” he asked. “Do you have some big, scary challenge for us?”
The spider glared at Steve. “Pathetic mortal,” it bellowed. “You fail to understand who stands before you. I am Bastiomandus, Guardian of the Endless Forest of Perpetual Blight!”
Davy thought to himself that the Endless Forest of Perpetual Blight was pretty unwieldy. He sidled up to Steve who was also thinking to himself.
Steve looked back at the gargantuan spider. A sly smile appeared on his face. “Bastiomandus,” he said. “That’s a kind if stuffy name. Can we call you Mandy?”
The spider was quiet for a moment.
“Yes, I would like that, actually,” she said sheepishly.
Davy hesitantly began to talk to the spider. “So, um, Mandy? Could you help us out here? We need to get out of this forest as part of a haunted house challenge.”
Mandy groaned. “Haunted house? Did Barnaby Willow-Tree of whatever send you here?”
Davy nodded. “Yeah, he wants us to get through here in order to get a magic sack that’s also an artifact, I think.”
Mandy growled indignantly. “Geez, I told Barnaby a thousand times to stop sending people in here for his stupid haunted house! I told him, ‘Look all these jerks you send to the Endless Forest of Perpetual Blight keep scaring all the bugs and making them freak out and stuff,’ and he’s all like ‘Sure, whatever, I guess I can stop sending people into the Endless Forest of Perpetual Blight,’ but then he keeps doing it, and I’m like ‘Hey man, what’s your problem?’ and he always goes ‘Well you’re a giant spider and there’s all the old meat and bugs, so where else am I going to send people when they want a haunted house and stuff?’ and it’s so annoying!”
Davy was not expecting this turn of events. He looked at the spider again. Its black eyes glistened in the foggy sunlight. Its mandibles were dripping with some kind of fluid. Davy felt a shiver race up his spine. It wasn’t that he was afraid of spiders, he thought. He just didn’t like looking at them, because they made him monumentally uncomfortable. Davy realized it sounded like there wasn’t much of a difference between these two things.
He waved at Mandy. “I’m sorry about Barnaby. We didn’t know about that.” He paused. “Could you still help us get out of here? It would calm the insects down.”
Mandy sighed. “Fine,” she grumbled. “You see that door right there?” She gestured her large spider head to her left. There was a door there not attached to anything.
“Huh, how did we not see that before?” Steve asked.
“Yeah, that turd Barnaby put that there,” Mandy scowled. “It’ll take you to Level 3 or whatever. The last test and stuff.”
Steve slumped forward in exasperation. “Of course there’s another test.” He turned to Mandy. “So what’s the catch? I take it we can’t just go through the door.”
“Yeah, I wish,” Mandy laughed. “I want to get this over with more than you do. But the door is locked. And the key is in this moat.” Mandy lowered her head towards the brown, viscous liquid surrounding her on all sides.
Davy looked at the moat as well. It smelled awful. Like someone took the hair off a dead dog, burned that hair and then sweat all over it.
Mandy could sense Davy’s apprehension. “Do you have the courage to complete this daunting challenge?” she asked in a low rumbling voice.
Davy took a step back. The thought of having to submerge himself into this liquid gave him the urge to vomit. There was no way he was getting in that moat.
Steve dove in headfirst. Viscous chunks of the brown liquid splash onto Mandy’s face.
“Ew, gross!” she shouted.
Steve’s head emerged from the moat. “So, what kind of key are we talking about?” he asked, a wry smirk on his face. “I’m feeling around down here, but I haven’t gotten anything.”
“Ugh, it’s like a regular-sized key,” Mandy growled. “It’s metal and stuff. I’m not a keymaster or whatever.”
“No problem, Mandy. I got this,” Steve replied. He sunk back down into the filth. Davy watched his head appear further down the moat a few moments later.
“Steve, what is wrong with you?” Davy shouted.
Steve’s responded in spurts as he continued to dive back into the filth.
“It’s like I was…saying earlier…this guy wanted us…to be scared…but he is…conflating fear…with disgust…Barnaby…is failing to understand…how to actually…create horror, and…he’s relying on…our sense of disgust…to compensate for…this house of horror’s…shortcomings.”
“Sure, that could be right,” Davy flatly stated. “Or maybe it could be that you want prove that you don’t get scared easily, and you’re taking that to a disturbing extreme. There are probably dead animals and crap down there.”
“Oh yeah, there’s totally dead animal crap down there,” said Mandy. “I can tell you that for a fact.”
Steve resurfaced again holding something. “I found it!” he exclaimed.
“That’s a jawbone,” Davy said. “I don’t know what animal it’s from.”
Steve looked at the jawbone in his hand. It was covered in what looked like a kind of fungus.
“Huh,” he said. “Weird.”
He dove back into the moat.
Davy sat down several feet away from the moat. Mandy looked at Davy and tilted her large spider head.
“Is he always doing stuff like this?” she asked.
Davy shrugged. “Kind of. Never seen him dive into nasty brown liquid before. But he likes being the bigshot. Guess he always wants to show the world how tough he is.”
“He thinks covering himself in dead animal crap makes him look tough?”
Davy leaned back and tried wiping some off the blood on face with his sleeve. “He doesn’t always think these things through.” He paused. “Still a good friend though.”
Mandy was puzzled. “Your friend is freakin’ weird.”
Davy laughed. Steve popped up near the edge of the moat, gasping for air as he climbed out of the liquid. Davy realized Steve had been down there for a while. Davy also saw that Steve was holding a rusty, metal key.
“You okay, Steve?” he asked.
Steve grinned. Or at least he tried to grin before he began coughing up brown liquid from the moat. “Oh yeah, I’m fine,” he managed to say after composing himself. “Something grabbed me down there. Held me down there. But I got the key.”
“You almost drowned in that stuff?” Davy asked, trying to keep himself from gagging.
Steve scoffed. “Nah, I can hold my breath for a long time.” Wasn’t a problem. Didn’t feel like I was going to die or anything.” He tried to laugh, but ended up coughing up more filth.
“Oh, that was probably Terrence. He lives in the moat, and he’s a total jerk,” Mandy chimed in. She looked down into the moat. “Terrence, you’re such a jerk!” she shouted. “Sorry I forgot to tell you about him. My bad,” she said to Steve and Davy.
“No problem,” Steve said, wiping several brown chunks off of his clothes. “Wasn’t a big deal. Nothing I couldn’t handle.” He walked up to Davy and handed him the key. Davy did not want to touch that key and pulled his hand back, which resulted in Steve dropping the key on the ground.
“You smell terrible,” Davy stated.
“Huh, I hadn’t noticed,” Steve replied as he picked up the key. He walked up to the door as Davy followed. Davy watched him fumble with the lock for a few seconds before he managed to get the door open. Looking through the door. Davy could only see pitch blackness. Davy was getting tired of seeing doors with pitch blackness on the other side.
“You ready to go?” he asked Steve.
“You bet,” Steve replied.
They both turned around back to Mandy. “Thank you Mandy, for your help in this task,” said Steve with a tone of unnecessary formality.
“Yeah, thanks,” echoed Davy. He wanted to make sure he was polite to the giant spider in case this was something giant spiders took very seriously.
Mandy grunted. “Yeah, sure.” She looked back at the two people in front of her. One covered in blood. The other drenched in moat filth. “You guys should totally take showers or something when you get out of here.”
“You don’t need to tell me twice,” Davy replied.
“Oh and tell Barnaby to leave my forest alone,” she added.
“Will do,” said Steve.
As Mandy—formerly known as Bastiomandus, Guardian of the Endless Forest of Perpetual Blight—watched the two humans walk through the door towards their final challenge, she noticed the moldy jawbone from before stuck to the seat of Steve’s pants.
“That’s so gross,” muttered Mandy.
“So gross,” echoed Terrence.