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53. Tent

As soon as they stepped through the door, the group found themselves in an entirely new location that clearly did not look like the inside of a tent. Davy sighed. This seemed to happen to him a lot. Davy wondered if he would ever be able to really trust any door to actually bring him where he thought it would ever again.

Davy looked around. This time, they were in a small square room. He looked down at the tile floor that was arranged in a checkered pattern. Instead of walls, the room was covered by thick velvety curtains. At the other end of the room sat a coffee table flanked on either side by a plush armchair.

“Great,” Davy grumbled. They were in the enemy’s domain now. The domain of the Iron League of Reference Humor.

Steve walked up to the end table. He picked up a half-full cup of coffee. “Gross,” he said.

Davy heard the faint sound of music in the distance. A slow, jazzy tune, with a deep bass and a woman’s voice singing over it. It made Davy uneasy; he wanted to get out of this place.

“What do we do now, champ?” Connie asked Davy. “You think we should take a peek through any of these curtains?”

“I guess so,” Davy answered. “There’s something we need to find here. Let’s just look around and see if anything stands out.”

Davy approached the nearest curtain and grabbed it. Without turning around, he continued speaking. “We need to be careful though and make sure we stay away from the Iron League,” he said. “We can’t do anything to let them know we’re here.” He pulled back the curtain. “So it’s really important that we all stick together.”

Davy turned around and saw that his friends had disappeared.


He realized that he was also now in a completely different space than before.

“I didn’t even walk through a door this time,” Davy whined.

Davy looked around, the curtain he was holding seemed to evaporate from his hand. He suddenly felt very cold. Davy looked around and saw a barren snowy landscape in almost every direction. Was this supposed to be the North Pole? Davy thought he saw mountains off in the distance. Maybe this was actually supposed to be Antarctica? Why would this tent try to make it look like he was in Antarctica? Was this a reference to something?

Davy took a step back and bumped into something. It was a building. It wasn’t very big, but it was probably warmer inside than out in the fake tundra. Davy was feeling his body freeze in the cold, so he figured he might as well try to get inside. He looked around for an entrance and found a heavy metal door. He found the handle and struggled to pull it open. It felt like this door hadn’t been opened in years.

He finally got the handle down and listened to the door creak agonizingly as he pushed it.

He heard a commotion behind him. He turned around and saw a dog far off in the distance. A helicopter shortly came into view a well chasing after the dog. Davy heard a man shouting from the helicopter in a language he didn’t understand. In another moment, the dog disappeared over a hill, and the helicopter—maintaining its pursuit—soon followed out of sight.

“That can’t be a good sign,” Davy said to himself as he stepped into the building.

The entire building seemed to be abandoned. Flickering fluorescent lights barely lit the interior, made up of metal walls, a concrete floor, and exposed pipes. Davy walked past a small room with what looked like radio equipment, though none of the electronics seemed to be in working order. Was this some kind of old research station?

Davy heard something scuttle behind him. As he turned around, he managed to catch a half-second glimpse of something small shuffle around a corner. From the little Davy was able to see, it looked like it was about the size of a basketball. It also seemed to walk on what looked like spider’s legs.

Davy swallowed nervously. He had recent past experience being up close with a spider, and Davy knew that wherever that thing was, it was not a spider.

Davy knew he probably should get out of here. He was still in the Iron League’s tent so there had to be some way he could get out of this space. Davy also had a feeling that the key to getting out was probably through a magic door that would instantaneously transport him somewhere else.

He began to hustle down the hallway, opening every closed door he could find. None of them were taking him anywhere. Davy heard the shuffling return from the end of the hallway he had come from, only now it was a little louder and deeper. Davy picked up the pace, but he still couldn’t find a door to take him away.

He finally looked at the end of the hallway he had been moving towards. There was a wooden door that stood out from the metal doors he had been opening. Davy figured this was his way out. He turned around and saw there was something at the other end of the hallway staring at him. It looked somewhat human-shaped, but seemed to be covered with massive grotesque growths. The majority of its body was covered in waves of flesh.

“Hi, nice to meet you, but I need to go,” Davy said. He bolted towards the wooden door. He didn’t look back, but he could hear the stomping of the creature behind him. It was chasing after him. Davy tried to run faster, but it seemed the creature was gaining.

The door was only a few feet away. Davy clenched his teeth as he reached it and pulled it open. He felt something—maybe a hand—graze the back of his head as he jumped through the door. All of a sudden, Davy was out of the research station and felt the light drizzle of rain on his head.

He looked around. The creature was gone, and he was now in a jungle.

“I guess it could be worse,” Davy muttered as he set out to find his friends.


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38. Burglary

The lizard people and the one owl person clustered together outside of the former Barnaby Willacre’s Hideous House of Horrors. It was the middle of the night, and no one else was in sight. The boss lizard addressed the rest of the group.

“All right, blokes,” he said in his exaggeratedly Cockney accent. This circus tent here is where we saw that nerd and his nerd friends go into earlier this evenin’. We know that he has two of the boss’s artifacts that he brought in with him. I says that we go in while they’re asleep and snatch ‘me right up! Right under their noses! It’s a good old-fashioned burglary!” The other lizard people chattered in agreement among themselves. Alan, the one owl person, raised his hand. The boss lizard’s eyes narrowed upon seeing this.

“Alan,” he growled. “Did I leave something unexplained? Do you have a problem with what I said? Because I sincerely consider it a fundamental failure on my part if I didn’t properly convey myself to you.”

Alan lowered his arm meekly. “Well, boss,” he stuttered. “It’s just that, we’ve already tried to stop the Steward twice now, and failed both times. And we’ve been reprimanded by the Grumblegator both times as well.” Alan cleared his throat nervously. “Do you, uh, do you really think we need to try a third time? Especially without telling the Grumblegator?”

The boss lizard stared at Alan blankly.

“I’m just afraid the Grumblegator has lost all faith in us,” Alan continued. “I don’t think he even talks about us anymore.”

“Alan, you damned beautiful creature,” the boss lizard growled back. “I’m one hundred percent positive that the Grumblegator talks about us all the time. In fact, I believe any objective observer can cite several instances in which the Grumblegator expressly mentions us in some fashion.”

The boss lizard clenched his hands into fists. “But I’d be a damned liar if I denied how enraged I am that your concerns are so valid. Your caution makes me so furious. So furious that I don’t think things through like you. Some nights I find myself sitting in the shower, fully clothed and crying my eyes out as I let the icy cold water flow over me. All because I genuinely wish I was more like you.” The boss lizard flexed his biceps in rage. “It just makes me so mad!”

Alan wrung his hands together and looked to the side. “Look, I’m sorry guys. I don’t want to be a stick in the mud. You all seem really excited about going into the circus tent, and I don’t want to be the one to keep you from having a good time.”

The boss lizard approached Alan, and put his scaly his hands on Alan’s feathery shoulders. “Alan,” he growled. “You know that Ryan’s Special Dreamboat is a group of stone cold badasses that will never marginalize the feelings of its members. We will not go in there if you don’t think it’s a good idea. I will not lose an ounce of respect for you if you think we should back out.”

The boss lizard knelt down into a thinker pose and flexed his calf muscles. “Because I respect you just so damn much already,” he added.

Alan took a step back. “Uh, well, I know that this is, like, really important to you guys, and I’m just happy I get to hang out with you and stuff. If you all want to go in and beat up that kid…” He clumsily put his hands on his hips. “Then you can count me in!” he shouted awkwardly, his voice cracking as he said this.

The boss lizard stood up straight. “Alan, you inspire so much rage within me, knowing that I will never be even a fraction of the noble, whimsical spirit that you are. I will be eternally I your debt for giving this mission your blessing.” The lizard backed up and addressed the entire group. “Okay, chaps. You know what to do!”

The others nodded. The groups rearranged themselves into the pyramid stack formation they had created on the road to Heaven’s Head. Once they were in formation, they all changed in unison.

“We are Ryan’s Special Dreamboat! OO-RAH!”

The boss lizard stood at the top of the pyramid, beaming with pride. He looked down at the ground.

“Uh, okay guys. Let’s get down. This isn’t really doing anything.”

The other’s nodded in agreement and got back down on the ground.

The boss lizard lifted the entrance flap to the tent. “All right, chaps! Let’s move out!”

The group shouted a war cry and charged into the tent.

The next thing they knew, they were in a dark and dusty hallway. There was purple, peeling wallpaper on either side and cobwebs hung down from the ceiling. A nearby window conveyed there was somehow a lightning storm outside.

“Guys, this is one of be scariest things I have ever seen in my whole life,” one of the lizard people stuttered.

“I completely agree,” the boss lizard whispered. “I don’t believe it is possible for this to get any scarier.”

The ghost of a rough rider came out of the wall in front of them. It stopped to look at them. It stared blankly in half-surprise, half-confusion, as if it wasn’t expecting to run into anybody.

One of the lizard people screamed in terror. “It’s the ghost of Theodore Roosevelt, here to haunt us all!”

“Theodore Roosevelt!?” the boss lizard exclaimed. “He’s the scariest United States president!”

The group began to panic running in all directions. More ghosts began to fly in to see what was going on, which only exacerbated their fright.

The boss lizard, in his terror saw a door at the other end of the hall. He read somewhere that even the scariest ghosts were weak to doors, so he began to sprint for it. He stopped in his tracks when he remembered something important. He found Alan off to the side, cowering his hands over his eyes. The boss lizard approached Alan and nudged him.

“Alan,” he growled furiously. “We need to move! You know damn well I would never be able to forgive myself if I left you behind in this really, really scary hallway! Come on!”

Alan gulped and sprinted after the boss lizard. The two of them made it to the door and stumbled through.

They were now in a forest. Meat was hanging from the trees around them.

“This is somehow even scarier than the last room,” the boss lizard muttered. He turned around and stumbled over Alan who had been paralyzed with fear. The boss lizard looked up and saw a giant spider right in front of them. It did not look happy.

“Who are you losers?” it asked. “What are you doing in my house?”

The boss lizard collapsed on the floor. “You’re a scary spider!” he mumbled.

The spider scoffed. “My name is Bastiomandus,” it bellowed. It was quiet for a second before adding, “But most people call me Mandy.”

Mandy looked down at the lizard and owl people in front of her. “What are you turds doing? I don’t think Steve invited you. You need to get out.”

The boss lizard watched as a flash of bravery appeared on Alan’s face. The boss lizard was enraged with joy to see Alan seemingly step up and finally believe in himself.

Alan approached the spider. “We are Ryan’s Special Dreamboat, and we are here to burgle your artifacts!”

Mandy appeared to smirk. “Oh, really?” she laughed.

Alan saw there was what looked like a river of brown liquid next to the spider. The liquid began to ripple as Alan saw something completely indescribable and infinitely more terrifying than anything else they had seen so far rise above the surface.

“What did they say?” asked Terrence.

“Oh, they want to burgle us and stuff,” Mandy answered.

“Cool,” replied Terrence. “Let’s get them.”

The boss lizard promptly decided that coming might have been a mistake after all.

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14. Sack

Barnaby Willacre looked happy to see them. “You made it!” he exclaimed with a warmth that seemed to be in direct contrast to the skeevy circus man Davy met before he had entered the tent. Davy and Steve were back in front of the tent again, having walked out of the same opening they had previously walked into to start their challenge.

Barnaby saw that Davy was covered in blood. “What happened to you?” he asked.

“I got bled on,” Davy answered.

“The meat forest, right? That place is weird,” Barnaby said. He then caught a whiff of Steve. “Don’t tell my you actually got into that moat,” he said, his hand over his nose.

Steve nodded confidently. “I had to get the key!”

Barnaby sighed. “You know I left a net there. A big net. By the moat,” he said.”You weren’t supposed to get in there.”

Steve stood still with a strained, blank look on his face. After a second he seemed to regain his composure. “No big deal. I enjoyed the challenge,” he said in a way that made it clear that he in fact, did not really enjoy the challenge.

Barnaby wrapped his arms around Davy and Steve in an uncomfortable group hug. “I’m just so glad that you two made it through and that I get to give you the artifact!”

“Wait,” Davy said. “You wanted us to succeed?”

“Of course,” Barnaby replied. “You’re the one from the prophecy. The one Lady Gut Possum said would help save us.”

Steve wiped some of the remaining sludge from the forest off his sleeve. “So you know the Possum Lady?” he asked.

“Of course,” answered Barnaby. “She’s the one who gave me the Ember Sack of Unrelenting Sorrow.”

“So why did you make us go through the haunted house if you wanted us to get the artifact?”

Barnaby shrugged. “I don’t know, that’s her thing. Something something hard work.” He wrung his hands together apprehensively. “By the way, what did you think? My wife and I worked really hard on it.”

“Your wife?” Davy asked.

The ghost woman from the haunted hallway–still wearing a burlap sack on her head–floated up out of the ground and next to Barnaby. She was the size of a regular person now. But she was also still a ghost.

“Yes, I can’t believe I forgot,”Barnaby exclaimed. “This is Jean. She’s my ghost wife.”

Davy hesitantly extended his hand. “Nice to meet you,” he said. He tried to shake her hand. It didn’t work, because she was a ghost. His hand went through hers.

Jean maintained a polite smile. “Nice to meet you too,” she said. “We’re happy you have proven yourself, but you must keep moving. We have sensed that the dark forces we are trying to avoid have made it to this world. These forces are also aware of the prophecy against them and are likely looking for you.”

“Well, that sucks,” Steve interjected.

Davy was a bit more worried than Steve about the forces of darkness that may now be pursuing him. “What should we do now?” he asked Barnaby and Jean.

Barnaby pulled something out of his pocket. “Take the sack. It will sap the willpower of those who oppose you,” he said, handing the Ember Sack of Unrelenting sorrow to Davy. “And head southeast to the coast. Your city called Heaven’s Head? The next artifact will be there. Your task will be more clear once you arrive in the city.”

Jean held her hands together and looked at Davy and Steve. “Anything else? she asked.

“Yeah,” Steve replied. “What about my house?” He pointed at the tent behind him.

Barnaby sheepishly held the back of his neck. “That was your house? You lived in a restaurant? Sorry, but it’s gone now. Sorry, I didn’t think anyone lived there.”

Steve wasn’t happy “Where am I supposed to live now?” he shouted.

Barnaby raised his hands to his sides. “Uh, well the tent is still there. You can live in my hideous house of horrors. You should be able to travel freely around it now that you’ve completed it.”

Steve wasn’t sure how to take this news. “…so I own a haunted house then?”

“I guess so,” Barnaby answered.

Steve thought this over. “I guess that’s kind of cool,” he finally said.

It seemed Barnaby could sense that the situation was getting awkward. “Well, I’m glad I was able to help you on your quest. Get to Heaven’s Head. We’ll be keeping track of you and wishing you the best.” He turned to Jean. “Come ghost wife! Let us be off!”

Jean jumped onto Barnaby’s back and held her arms around his neck. Barnaby started shaking for a few seconds before he began rise up in the air. Flames were emitting from beneath his feet. Barnaby continued to rise, like a rocket taking launch. Suddenly, he shot up into the air, a jet stream following him. Once the couple had disappeared into the sky, Davy turned to Steve. “That was really weird,” he said.

“They gave me a haunted house,” Steve said,oblivious to Davy. “Not sure if that’s cool or not yet.”

“So, ready to go to Heaven’s Head?” Davy asked.

“Don’t you have class tomorrow?” Steve replied.

“Yeah,” Davy answered. “But this is more interesting. And if dark forces are after me, I’d rather they didn’t find me in class. The professor might notice me and ask me to answer a question or something,” he added sarcastically.

“Okay,” Steve said. “I’m gonna see if there’s a shower in my haunted house. Wanna meet at the bus station in an hour?”

“I’ve got a car. I can drive,” Davy replied.

“Yeah, but I got a rewards card with he bus company. Just two hundred more miles with them and I can get a cappuccino machine.”

“Okay, fine,” Davy said. “I’ll get packed and see you there in an hour.”

“One more thing,”Steve said. “The Ember Sack of Unrelenting Sorrow? Can I have it?”

Davy looked the sack in his hand. It was an artifact, sure, but he noticed it also smelled really bad. Like Barnaby had been holding it in a sweaty place for a long time.

“Sure,” he said and tossed the sack to Steve. “I guess I’ve already got a golf club.”

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13. Floor

They finally reached the bottom, and it was dark. The faces in the wall had long disappeared. Now, there was nothing in front of Davy and Steve, save for an imposing expanse of infinite darkness.

Davy reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. He turned on the phone’s flashlight and pointed it forward. The infinite darkness mostly remained, but now it was moderately less threatening.

“I get the feeling we’re close to the end of this thing,” Davy whispered to Steve, as they began to venture into the darkness.

“Good, it’s about time,” Steve huffed. “This whole thing has felt really drawn out.”

“Yeah, it’s like, did we really need three different stages of this?” Davy replied. “I don’t mean to harp on anyone, but couldn’t Barnaby have just put the ghosts, the spider, and the faces in one place? Maybe rent out a warehouse and put them all together there? It seems more economical that way.”

Steve shrugged. “At least it would probably be shorter.”

Davy waved his wand back and forth, shining the phone’s light all around him. Darkness in every direction.

“We’ve been doing a lot of walking too,” Davy added. “As in, that’s pretty much all we’ve been doing.”

“It’s too passive,” Steve chimed. “Barnaby Willacre put us in this haunted house, and all we’re doing is walking and occasionally stopping to let people act all spooky in front of us. Then we keep walking. We’re not getting to take an active role in any of this, and it’s making the horror less compelling.”

“Well, you did have to find that key,” replied Davy.

Steve scoffed uncomfortably. “Yeah, but that was super easy. I could do it again right now–no problem–but we’re not in the forest anymore, so I can’t. But I totally could if we were.”

Davy saw a faint light in the distance. Was this the way out?

“Come on Steve, I think we’re almost there,” he said.

As they approached the light, Davy wondered if this really was the end, or if it was just another so-called challenge. Suddenly, in the darkness above the light, a giant red neon sign appeared that said, “EXIT.” While this confirmation was convenient, it didn’t really do much for Davy’s already muted sense of horror. Was anything else going to happen or was the darkness really the big finish? Davy sighed as he figured it really wasn’t going to be that easy. This house needed to end.

They were close enough now that the they could discern for certain that this actually was a door. When it was about twenty feet away, however, Davy saw shadows shambling in front of him, blocking the light of the exit.

Steve saw the shadows as well. “Finally,” he said. He looked up at the darkness above him. “Come on, Barnaby! Let’s see your big finish!”

As if on cue, the area was suddenly awash with light. Davy saw the stone floor of the circular room around him. The light was coming from a series of Medieval-looking sconces adorning the walls. The door was just on the other end of the room, flanked by two mirrors on either side. And in the middle of the room, between Davy and the exit was some…fleshy thing.

It was round, bulbous, and pulsating, about the size of a van. Just a mound of flesh. Also, sprouting from the top side of the sphere was a gaggle of what looked like human legs flailing lazily in the air, the feet pointing in various directions.

Davy was less disgusted than he was confused. “What is that?” he asked Steve.

Steve was just as dumbfounded. “This is the big finish?”

“Are we supposed to do something?” Davy asked. “Is there anything keeping us from going through the door?”

“I’ll check,” Steve answered. He walked around the flesh creature towards the door. The creature did not react. Davy watched Steve approach the door, turn around and walk back. “The door’s wide open,” he said when he got back to Davy.

“So, the end is a foot monster?” Davy said to himself. “Does it do anything?”

The skin on round part of the creature began to move. Apparently, there was a giant eyeball there. The eye opened and stared at Davy and Steve.

“Well that’s something, I guess,” he said.

Davy turned to Steve. “You ready to go?” he asked.

“Hold on a second,” Steve replied. “I want to climb it.”

“Climb it?” Davy exclaimed. “Why?”

Steve placed a foot on the side of the foot monster. The skin folded upon itself, giving Steve a foothold. “I dunno, I just wanna see what this is.”

Davy sighed as he watched his stupid friend climb a foot monster.

After thinking to himself for a moment, he shouted to Steve. “Do you think we might be too cynical?”

“Cynical?” Steve replied. “What do you mean by cynical?”

Davy paused to collect his thoughts. “I mean, this is, what, third or fourth time that we were meant to be scared, only for that scary thing to turn about to be harmless, and then all we do is make jokes and keep moving,” he said.

“I can’t help it if there have been no stakes so far.” Steve was on top of the creature now, holding a leg in each hand to keep his balance. “Dude! There’s a mouth in here! On top of the monster. It’s covered by the legs, but there’s a giant tongue waving around and everything!” He laughed. “It’s so gross!”

Davy wasn’t satisfied. “I mean, is this quest just going to be us pointing at weird stuff and be smartasses the whole time?”

“Nah, I wouldn’t worry about it,” Steve said, sliding down the mass of flesh and back onto the floor. “This is just the beginning, right? It’s always gotta start off easy. I bet our lives will be in mortal danger soon enough.”

Steve wiped his hands on his pants, his back to the creature. “Besides, nothing excuses this haunted house from being a walking cliché. Next thing you know, we’ll find outvote foot monster was dead the whole time or something.”

He turned around. The monster was gone. In its place was a solitary tombstone.

Steve covered his face with his hand. “I don’t believe it he said.”

“You ready to go now?” Davy asked.

Steve began walking past the mirror to the door. “Yeah, let’s get out of here,” he said. “This has been the least scary experience of my life.”

He then stopped, because he saw his reflection did not move with him.

The two looked at their reflections in the mirror. Their reflections stood still staring back at them. Davy then noticed the two reflections growing wrinkles. The hair of Davy’s reflection turned grey. Steve’s reflections hair fell off on the top of his head. The skin on the reflections began to sag as the figures themselves hunched over. They aged at a great pace, decomposing before Davy and Steve’s eyes before turning into mummified corpses and finally, into two piles of dust.

Davy laughed when the display had concluded. “Heh, that was pretty heavy,” he chuckled. “What did you thinks?” he asked, turning to Steve. Steve eyes were wide, his mouth wide open. He looked beyond terrified.

“I’m, uh,” he stuttered, before finally managing to utter, “Am I going to go bald?”

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12. Oubliette

“What the hell is an oubliette?” shouted Steve.

“It’s like a dungeon, but where the only entrance is in the ceiling,” answered Davy.

“So when I said, ‘Hey, where are we?’ why couldn’t you just say, ‘Oh, looks like some kind of dungeon?'” asked Steve. “Why’d you have to say, ‘Oh, we’re in an oubliette!’?”

“It’s a fun word to say, and it’s not like it comes up in everyday speech often,” replied Davy. “No one says, ‘Oh, I gotta stop by the oubliette on the way home from work.’ This is like the one time in my life when the word will ever actually be relevant. I wanted to take advantage of it.”

To Davy’s credit, he and Steve were walking through an actual oubliette. The door in the forest brought them to a small room with stone walls and a single hole in the floor. Steve had jumped through the hole with no hesitation and yelped in pain as he landed a few feet below on something hard attached to the seat of his paints. Davy approached the hole very much with hesitation and saw there was a ladder.

The oubliette was deep and circular. The hole had brought them to a platform jutting from the wall at the top of the room. The platform narrowed into a ramp that spiraled along the round wall of the room and into the abyss below. Davy and Steve had been following the ramp down into the darkness. Neither of them could see how far down the ramp would go.

“Okay, so we’re in an oubliette,” Steve ultimately conceded. Are we going to see some spooky dungeon stuff? Creepy torture devices? Rats and other assorted vermin? A fat, dopey prison guard with a British accent whose keys are stolen by a prisoner with a long stick while he’s asleep?”

“I dunno, man,” Davy said, looking over the edge of the ramp. “I’m not an oubliette expert.”

“Oubliette expert?” Steve chimed. “You mean oubliexpert?”

“Oubliexpert?” Davy was momentarily silent. “Heh.”

Steve noticed there were faces in the walls. They were human faces, embedded in the stone. Their expressions conveyed various forms of agony. He nudged Davy as they continued walking down the ramp. “Hey, Davy. Did you notice this?” he asked pointing at the nearest face.

Davy stopped walking for a second. He looked at the face. It was a man’s face; his eyes were closed, but his mouth was wide open as if he had paused in the middle of a scream.

“Huh,” Davy grunted. “Has it been like this the whole time?”

They both looked behind them. The wall was littered with these faces. They were all considerably discernible now that Davy and Steve knew they were there.

They continued walking.

“Like, I know I’ve been talking smack about this place since the beginning,” Steve said. “But really, I think this one’s more on us. Faces in the wall? That’s something we should probably have picked up on sooner, you know?”

“I mean, I guess it’s kind of cool,” Davy answered. “It’s subtle, I guess. The fact that you aren’t beaten over the head with it and that you are left to discover it on your own. That can be scary.”

“But not here, though,” Steve replied. “There needs to be some kind of payoff when you do discover it. There’s nothing going on here.”

Suddenly, all of the faces in oubliette began screaming.

“Well, shoot,” Steve said.

Davy looked at the faces as they continued moving. Each face was contorting itself into a different ghastly position. Every one of them sounded like they were in absolute torment.

He turned to Steve. “Didn’t we already get this with the spooky ghost hallway? The shrieking and all that?”

“What!?” Steve shouted. “I can’t hear you over the screaming faces!”

“Didn’t the ghost hall already do this!? The bugs too!?” Davy shouted back.

“Yeah, they did, right? There’s got to be a new angle or something.”

“What!?” Davy shouted.

“SIN!” the nearest face began to wail. “This is my eternal fate!”

“Okay, there it is,” Steve said.

“I have sinned in life, and I have met my just reward!” screamed another nearby face.

The remaining faces began to follow suit, screaming variations of this phrase.

“Yeah. That’s the new angle,” Steve tried to explain over the collective wails of the faces around him.

“What!?” Davy shouted. “I can’t hear you!”

“I SAID, I THINK I—hold on a second,” Steve said. He turned, facing the center of the dungeon. “PLEASE SHUT UP,” he screamed as loud as he possibly could.

The faces did not shut up.

Incredulously irritated, Steve turned towards the nearest face and flicked him in the nose.

The faces fell silent at once.

“Hey buddy, what’s your problem!?” shouted the face whose nose Steve had flicked. It was a middle-aged man with chubby cheeks and a mustache.

“Hey, what’s my problem?” Steve yelled. “You’re the one with the problem, guy. I was trying to have a conversation and all you faces wouldn’t shut up!”

“Well hey loser, maybe you need to learn to appreciate the gravity of your situation,” the mustached face retorted, over-enunciating the word gravity. “It’s all eternal damnation up in here. You should be taking this more seriously.”

“Eternal damnation?” Davy asked. “Didn’t we specifically ask Barnaby about that? This is something we were told would not be an issue for us.”

“Ooooh, no, you’re wrong,” the face haphazardly bellowed. “My fate is also your fate! Anguish until the end of time! Ooooh!”

“No, you’re right,” Steve answered, ignoring the mustached face. “He’s probably just trying to get us all spooked up and stuff, but we should be fine if we keep moving.”

The face looked back at Steve. “Well look at Mister Big Man here! That’s some Grade A Pride you’ve got there. That’s one of the big ones, you know. Let me show you how we treat prideful jerks like you down here—”

Steve laughed. “Oh yeah, what are you going to do about it? Hope I lean against the wall so you can bite me?”

The face gritted its teeth. “Yeah, maybe I will! You don’t know who you’re talking to! When I get my hands on you, I’ll—”

Steve flicked him on the nose again. A brown chunk of filth from the forest came off Steve’s finger and got stuck right below the mustached face’s nose.

“Augh! What is that smell! That’s awful. What the hell have you been into!?”

Davy looked around. The other faces were whispering among themselves. Another face—that of an older woman who was slightly to the right and slightly above the mustached face—cleared her throat.

“Excuse me sirs,” she began, speaking in a dignified, aristocratic voice but with a nervous look on her face. “We have just discussed the matter among ourselves, and we have decided that it is in everyone’s best interests if we cease the tormented wailing.” She anxiously looked down at the mustached face who was still struggling with the filth below his nose.

Davy awkwardly waved at the aristocratic face. “Hey, uh, we appreciate it,” he said. “Have a good day,” he said to the trapped souls who had been cursed to eternal torment.

Davy and Steve began to continue walking down the ramp. The mustached face saw this and began cursing out Steve again. “Yeah, walk away, you big coward. Knew you didn’t have what it takes to mess with me!”

“Hold on a second,” Steve said. He walked back up to the mustached face. He scooped up as much of the brown muck on his body as he could into both of his hands. He then smeared the muck all over the mustached face.

“Oh no, come on! Why!” The mustached face struggled to no avail to cope with the smell. “This is—ack!—this is so disgusting! I know I’ve already been suffering eternal anguish, but this is just so, so much worse.”

Steve ran ahead and caught back up with Davy. “I’m sure there’s a rule somewhere saying you’re not supposed to harass the damned like that,” Davy said.

Steve wiped his hands on his pants as they both ventured further into the depths ofthe oubliette. “Hey, just because you’re suffering eternal damnation, doesn’t mean you’re allowed to be a total turd,” he retorted.

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11. Spider

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.

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10. Forest

The air was sick with rotting meat. That was because the forest was filled with rotting meat. Virtually every tree in this forest had a number of rusty chains bolted through its branches. At the other end of Each of these chains was a meat hook adorned with a cut of putrid meat of indeterminate origin. This cavalcade of rancid flesh was all a secondary concern to Davy, however. Because Davy was covered in blood.

If Davy had looked up, he would have seen one of these hanging cuts of meat twist itself on its own accord as Davy walked under it, blood erupting from within like water being forced from a wrung-out towel. This blood had to land somewhere, and it just so happened to be on Davy. If Davy had seen all this happen, he would have been thoroughly disgusted.

But Davy did not see this.

Because of all the blood.

Davy was not taking this well. “Am I going to get hepatitis?” he asked Steve with no intention of masking his panic. “Because this seems like how you get hepatitis.”

Steve did not share Davy’s concerns. This forest had left him less than impressed. He was not happy to discover that Barnaby Willacre’s Hackneyed House of Horrors did not end at that hallway. Still, when he and Davy walked through that door at the end of the hallway, he hoped that maybe Round Two would provide something that could pass for at least a little scary, maybe if you squinted your eyes and didn’t look at it directly.

But no, it had to be meat in a dim, foggy forest that freely dispensed blood like candy. Steve’s new surroundings offended him on a fundamental level. Ignoring His friend’s manic ramblings, Steve happily explained the nature of this offense to Davy.

“Look, there’s this common conflation between fear and disgust,” Steve stated. “People think they’re the same thing, but anyone who says that doesn’t really know what horror is.”

Steve paused. He thought about how intelligent he must sound right now.

“This guy says he’s gonna scare us, but all this blood and meat is just evoking our disgust, right? No one’s afraid of rotten meat.”

I don’t know, the late James Whale,” Davy replied. “I’m pretty afraid right now. Afraid that I’m gonna catch hepatitis.” Davy wished he knew more about hepatitis.

He looked down at the ground. He and Steve had been following this path for a while now. They had been following it from the beginning; it was there at the door they walked out of. Davy had no intention of straying from the path. This was because Davy and Steve’s path was not a path in the sense that it was an identifiable trail. Rather, Davy and Steve had been following this path, because it was the only patch of land that was not covered in insects.

Davy looked to the left again. Moths, cockroaches, beetles, mantises, they were piled on top of each other. Squirming in every conceivable way, but not actually moving anywhere, as they were so entangled with each other.

“So what are your thoughts on the insect party going on all around us, Steve?” Davy asked. “Is it not sufficiently appealing to your discriminating sense of fear?”

“Bugs are disgusting, not scary,” Steve retorted.

“I think you’re drawing a needlessly particular line here.” Davy remarked. “I don’t think anyone has tried to distinguish fear from disgust as strongly as you are.”

“What can I say?” said Steve. “I just have high standards.”

“That or maybe you just try really hard to make sure no one thinks you ever get scared,” Davy muttered. Davy was not in the best mood.

Because he was covered in blood.

A large, scaly dragonfly flew through the fog and landed on Steve’s forehead. Steve brushed it off and kept walking.

“Dragonfly’s aren’t even gross,” he complained.

“How much longer you think we’ll be here anyway?” Davy asked.

Steve grumbled. “I dunno. This dumb fog. I can’t see three feet in front of me.

“This haunted house has been a lot of walking,” Davy remarked. “I thought this would be more, uh, of an active experience.”

“Yeah, I get you,” Steve said. “You know, maybe find the key, sneak around a monster. Something like that.”

Davy shrugged. “Sure, but instead, it’s been ‘Walk in one direction and watch stuff happen’. What’s that about?”

“So yeah, we saw some ghosts, and some blood fell on you,” Steve said looking to Davy behind him. “When are we actually going to do something.”

A deep and raspy voice echoed through the forest. “The time for you to prove yourself is now. Prepare to face the greatest challenge of your lives.”

Davy and Steve looked around to see where the voice was coming from. They found the answer when they looked straight ahead and saw the massive spider staring straight back at them.

Davy smiled. “Okay, this is a good change of pace,” he laughed. Steve laughed as well. The spider did not laugh.