Story: A Demon’s Game

(A loose follow-up to The Devil Game.  I liked it just as much, but it never got nearly as popular.  Go figure.)

Come to me, children, and follow my way,
Into the world of Darkness and Magic.
With all my power, I’ll show you the way,
To all your dreams, hopes, and illusions.

– DHT, “Magic Melody”

With quiet reverence, you ease open the delicate wrought-iron gate and step into the moonlit night garden. The faint fragrance of roses pleases your senses, and a soft breeze lightly tousles your hair to and fro. A fountain stands immediately in front of you, its centerpiece a dreamlike, abstract bronze sculpture whose twists and turns form the vague and distorted shape of a woman. Water flows in melodious, burbling streams from the tips of what seem like the statue’s beckoning fingers. Otherwise, the place is deathly silent. A brick path circles the fountain and splits off in several directions into the tangles of semi-wild foliage that represent the garden proper. Moonlight shines through gaps between broad, tropical leaves, amongst which bloom flowers of bright blue, garnet red, velvety purple, and inky black. It is a beautiful place, and yet its surreal atmosphere is, on a subconscious level, vaguely disturbing. The atmosphere seems charged as if with faint electricity, and the whole place carries a distinct aura of waiting.

This doesn’t deter you, however. In fact, it is in large part what attracts you. The darkness, the mystery, the dreamlike atmosphere, even the shadowy undercurrent of fear and menace… these things just add to the excitement and magnificence of the garden, bewitching your senses and drawing you almost hypnotically further in along the brick path betwixt the trees, hedges, and vines. As you pass about the fountain, marveling at the clear, sparkling water, you hear the iron gate creak shut behind you of its own accord. A strangely pleasant shiver of apprehension courses down your spine as your heartbeat picks up speed. Some small, rational part of your mind wants to leave, to get out right now… but most of it still wants to go further in, to explore, regardless of what dangers might or might not be involved. For most of your largely ordinary life, you’ve wished for something… magical… to happen to you, and that’s exactly what this place is. Magical. Even if it seems to be a dark sort of magic, you can’t simply walk away and leave it behind. So, nerves abuzz, heart fluttering like a little songbird, you slowly venture down one fork of the brick path, underneath a shadowy canopy of lush foliage, deeper into the garden…

Have you ever wondered why fears exist?

For those with even the roughest background in the sciences, an immediate answer would seem to present itself. Fear is our mind’s way of preparing and prompting us to respond to danger. You know, like the “fight or flight” response. What happens when you become afraid? You instantly become more attentive to your environment, senses honing in on any potential threat. Your heartbeat speeds up, readying for strenuous physical exertion. Your muscles clench and you begin to sweat, accomplishing much the same thing. Your hair stands on end – a remnant from ancestors many millennia past, whose hair grew thick enough that this might actually make them look larger and more threatening. You become both physically and mentally prepared to either defend yourself as best you can, or run away as fast as you can. It’s a survival mechanism, giving you the best possible chance against whatever threat caused the fear response in the first place.

However, if you look a little further, this explanation still leaves many questions unanswered. For instance… Being afraid of real and immediate threats makes sense from a survival standpoint, but what possible benefit is there to being afraid of things that, based on the best information available to us, do not and probably could not exist? Be honest now, how many of you actually believe that things like Slenderman, the Rake, and Smile Dog really exist and are capable of harming you? And how many of you have still been kept up late at night, filling comment boxes with almost religious litanies of “NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE,” racked with anxiety by the mere thought of them?

Where do such irrational fears come from? Where do our monsters come from?

Walking under the shadowy canopy of dark trees, surrounded by oppressive silence, you suddenly become aware of a strange but familiar feeling… the omnipresent, horror-story cliché feeling of being watched. You look about you with some anxiety, goosebumps rising across your exposed flesh, but you can’t see anything that might be watching you. Not that this means much with so many shadows and convenient hiding places at every angle. The full moonlight is brighter than on most nights, but still barely enough to see by – especially with so much of it blocked out by the tunnel of branches and leaves overarching most of the path.

You are getting more uneasy now, but you are not truly afraid yet. You wrestle briefly with whether or not to head back to the gate, but in the end decide to forge onward for a while longer. This is partially due to the same morbid fascination that drew you in in the first place, but there is another reason… since the feeling of being watched came to your attention, the dark passage behind you suddenly seems filled with a waiting menace, more so than the path in front of you. Even the easily explicable sound of leaves rustling in the breeze behind you now carries sinister implications.

A strange part of you is enjoying it – the adrenaline starting to trickle into your veins, the increasing acuity of your senses, the odd feeling in your heart and the pit of your stomach, like that of falling or flying… even the shivers now going down your spine seem to vaguely mimic those of ecstasy. These are some of the same reasons it’s fun to be at a horror movie or in a haunted house… but you’re not safe here like you are there. In a way, that edge almost makes it better, but in other ways, it makes it a whole lot worse. There have been a lot of forks in the path since you came in, and you decide to take the next one that leads off in the general direction of the entrance. Time to start heading for home.

One explanation for the existence of irrational fears – why we dream up and fear monsters that really don’t exist to threaten us – is just the overgeneralization of the fear response in the face of an uncertain situation. Consider… a hypothetical bunch of cavemen huddled around a fire, who suddenly hear a rustling in the bushes behind them. One guy freaks out and grabs his spear, one guy shrugs it off as just the wind, and one guy decides to go give their new visitor a hug. Obviously, if there’s a tiger in that bush, some guys are going to be more likely to survive the encounter than others. We’re hardwired to respond to ambiguous situations not with optimism or indifference, but with… well, with something along the lines of:

“ohshit, ohshit, OHSHIT, NOPE NOPE NOPE…”

In other words, fear. And in the absence of a concrete stimulus to evoke that fear, our minds just fill in the blanks with some of the freakiest shit they can come up with.

It only takes a little push to turn what should be a completely safe situation into an ambiguous one in our mind’s eye. You may have no problems walking down the dark hallway to your bedroom most of the time, but all it takes is a couple of hours browsing Creepypasta to turn that shadowed passage into a potential threat, one that makes your heart race and your hair stand on end. Or say someone sends you one of those dumb chain letters, one that says you’ll be murdered if you don’t re-post it five times in the next hour. Everyone knows those things are stupid, those things are STEREOTYPICALLY stupid, but somehow they still manage to spark a sense of unease, create that feeling of an ambiguous threat. It’s certainly enough to make somepeople forward them, even with the threat of social backlash from angry recipients.

But if the fear of monsters and demons is just an overgeneralized response, a maladaptive but unavoidable consequence of retaining the fear response to rational threats… why do we seek out and propagate stories of monsters? Shouldn’t we be doing our best to minimize the useless byproducts of our survival instincts? Ditching them the same way we ditch wisdom teeth that don’t fit in our mouths, or an appendix that’s about to burst?

What makes us want to seek out fear?

Your footsteps start to quicken as you continue down the dark path. You’d turned in what you thought was the direction of the entrance several minutes ago, but your surroundings just keep looking more and more unfamiliar. You now seem to be in the middle of what looks like a giant hedge maze, with thick, monolithic bushes rising up on either side of you. Deep, garnet red roses bloom from the hedges, bristling with wicked-looking black thorns, and their sweet scent in this enclosed space is becoming strong enough to be sickening. The path winds and forks, twists and turns too many times for you to count, and with dismay you have to admit that you are now completely lost.

Not to mention, on top of all that, your apprehensive feeling of being watched has been growing steadily worse with each passing moment. You’re seeing odd shadows, hearing out-of-place rustles and branches cracking in the foliage behind you. It’s not just paranoia, now; you suspect that you are actually hearing some…THING following you.

This is no longer fun.

You’re working hard to control your breathing, viciously trying to suppress the initial tendrils of panic now worming their way into your chest. You glance nervously behind you for about the umpteenth time since you got here… and this time, you see strange, luminescent yellow eyes staring intently back at you. You reflexively jerk back in terror and shock, jumping several inches off the ground and drawing in such a sharp gasp that it’s almost painful. You lose sight of the eyes for a moment due to your violent reaction, and when you look back… they’re gone.

But the damage has already been done. Your heart is now pounding like you just ran a triathlon. Panic is clawing at your mind like a wild beast, and it’s all you can do not shriek or collapse on the spot. For a moment you just stand there like a statue, rooted to the spot by helpless terror. Then, something seems to snap back into place inside your mind, and you turn and sprint blindly in the opposite direction, stumbling and scraping your arm against the rose-covered hedgerow on your right side. The sharp thorns cut deep, bloody gashes in your exposed flesh.

But you don’t care. All that matters is that… THING… behind you. You know it’s there now. You know it’s following you, and although you can’t be certain, you think you have a fairly good idea of what it wants. Instinct is telling you that those were a predator’s eyes. And your subconscious – or perhaps just your overactive imagination – is telling you that this predator is not just hungry for your flesh. It has been basking in your fear. It wishes to revel in your suffering and terror. The malice seething from it is like a palpable miasma pressing against your back, driving you to run faster than you ever have before.

And even if all of that is simply your imagination, even if the only things you can trust are the concrete facts you saw with your own eyes, you know one thing for certain. This thing is not human. Nor is it any animal you have ever encountered. Because… its eyes… those huge, piercing, bright yellow eyes…

It had SIX OF THEM.

There are actually a lot of reasons why one might go looking to be scared, some better than others. One good reason to seek out irrational fears is to better prepare oneself for dealing with rational ones. There is a prominent hypothesis which postulates that nightmares serve as a sort of mental “training,” allowing us to experience dangerous situations similar to those we might encounter in real life and practice different ways of handling them. Children often tend to have nightmares about being chased by animals or monsters, hearkening back to the days when people really did have to worry about being attacked by wolves or other wild beasts in the night. As we grow up, we tend to have more nightmares about situations that cause us fear and worry in our own lives: getting lost amidst school hallways, being late or unprepared for a test, etc. The monsters never really go away, however… after all, even modern life carries the distinct possibilities of, say, an intruder entering the house in the middle of the night, or wild animals attacking a group of campers.

So, we read through campfire tales and Creepypastas, all the while thinking things like “What would I do in this situation?” or “What should that stupid protagonist have done instead of investigating that weird noise alone?” (seriously, name me one horror story where you haven’t mentally bemoaned the main character’s stupidity at one point or another). And this, allegedly, better prepares us to deal with dangerous situations in real life. But, be honest, we aren’t all purely logical beings, seeking out scary stories for the express purpose of bettering ourselves. If anything, this reason is mostly subconscious. What actually draws us to such stories, creates our enjoyment on a conscious level, is something different.

When you think about it, the physiological response to fear… it can be almost like a high in a certain way, can’t it? It’s not just external substances that can alter one’s mental state, after all; one’s own hormones and neurotransmitters can do it too. Think of things like the so-called “runner’s high,” where intense exercise can make some people experience feelings of euphoria. Fear obviously creates more of a negative, uncomfortable feeling than a positive, euphoric one – it is, after all, meant to drive us away from danger – but there’s no denying that the adrenaline rush can make you feel more alert, more alive. It puts you in the moment. The feelings that fear arouses in you have the allure of novelty, even if prolonged or uncontrolled exposure is unpleasant. As long as you feel in control, as long as you are logically convinced you are in no real danger, scaring yourself can be… well, fun.

This is especially true for people who have grown up in privileged environments, people who have had little reason to experience true fear or the painful consequences that sometimes follow from it. People who feel a general sense of security and can shrug off the effects of a scary experience before they become truly uncomfortable. As a matter of fact, the modern lifestyle as a whole can make scaring oneself more alluring. Nowadays, anxiety is more of a prevalent problem than fear. Chronic low-grade anxiety over academic performance, jobs, relationships… the sort of stress known to increase one’s risk of heart disease… Fear can temporarily erase these worries, wipe one’s mind clean of everything except the here and now.

And it’s so easy to get oneself the right kind of scared: scared of things you’re pretty sure can’t actually hurt you. Of the unknown, rather than a concrete threat. The natural dangers that our ancestors used to indoctrinate themselves with knowledge of – a dark forest, wild animals, harsh storms – are now largely mysterious to us, buffered from our everyday lives by the trappings of modern convenience. We’re surrounded by technology whose workings might as well be magic for all that we understand about them, rendering any unusual activity – television static, a hacked video game, a strange camera – potentially terrifying. The unknown, the ambiguous, is all around us. Anyone with Internet access has a thousand tales of terror at their fingertips. It is so easy, so potentially gratifying, to scare yourself. And that’s what they count on.

The monsters, I mean.

Your breath comes in short bursts and gasps, now practically reduced to hyperventilation. Your thighs and calves are burning, feet throbbing, every footfall throwing another painful jolt of impact through your overexerted body. You’re not sure how long you can keep running, but every time you even think about slowing down, you hear IT behind you – leaves rustling, heavy breathing, branches cracking, teeth or claws clicking – and another burst of adrenaline forces you onward. Every time you turn a corner, you fear from the bottom of your heart that you will hit a dead end, wind up cornered, trapped like a rat by that… unnatural THING following on your heels.

But in that respect, at least, your luck holds. You might as well be running on a treadmill for all that you can tell from your surroundings. Every turn, every step leads you down an identical bushy corridor, and while IT does not seem to be catching up with you (yet), you feel as though you are making no progress at all. The only thing that seems to be changing is the sickly sweet fragrance of the roses, which grows more and more cloying with every step. Even drawing breath is becoming more of a challenge; you feel as though the scent is smothering you.

Finally, you turn a corner into new surroundings: a huge, circular courtyard that is likely the center of the maze. The full moonlight illuminates the open area more brightly than anywhere else you’ve been since you came here. As you continue to sprint towards the middle of the courtyard, you vaguely notice that its circumference is lined with statues, each pair flanking a gap in the hedges leading back into the maze. There is also a large statue/fountain in the middle, reminiscent of the one at the garden entrance. You scan wildly around the courtyard, trying to regain some sense of direction and determine which maze entrance leads back towards the gate… but your efforts are futile. You’ve completely lost all notion of where you are. Desperate, you glance up at the sky, thinking that perhaps you can recover some bearing using the stars. But there are no stars. Aside from the moon, the sky is a flat and featureless black.

You’re nearing the central fountain. You need to make a decision, NOW. Should you continue straight forward? Left? Right? Your life could very well depend on making the right choice, and you have nothing to give you even the slightest hint. You look back towards the fountain as you draw ever closer to it… then something in your head seems to click into place, and you actually SEE the sculpture for the first time. The image spotlighted by the pale moonbeams is enough to make you grind to a halt even in your panicked state, drawing back with an instinctive gasp of terror and revulsion.

Like the fountain at the entrance, this one seems to take the abstract shape of a human being… but this one’s distortions are far more terrible. Too-long limbs wind and bend into painful, impossible conformations, tipped with sharp, spindly fingers that look more like claws. The neck and spine twist at unnatural angles. Large portions of the sculpture seem to be… melting… bronze flesh sloughing and dripping off the frame. And the face… oh God, that FACE… the mouth is a wide, gaping rictus of pure agony, the eyes a pair of deep, asymmetrical black pits, empty yet still managing to convey an intense feeling of terror. The face seems to be melting worse than any other part of the body, warping into eerie funhouse mirror shapes like some horrid, deranged Dali painting. The fountain’s water, rather than streaming from the fingers as at the entrance, pours haphazardly from the figure’s eyes and mouth, falling with a dull splat into the dark pool below. And… is it just the light playing tricks, or is that water… tinted RED?

The final thing that you notice about the fountain is the dark iron figure half-submerged in the pool behind the bronze statue, resembling nothing more so than a giant insect, with its wicked front pincers gripped tightly around the poor ghoulish statue’s chest. You don’t get to investigate this second figure more thoroughly, however… because it is then that you hear IT. The harsh, predatory hiss echoing across the courtyard behind you. You turn around slowly, half-paralyzed with dread, and finally see the creature full-on for the first time.

Now, wait a minute, you’re likely thinking. Didn’t we just predicate that entire discussion on the basis that monsters aren’t real? What the hell is this “that’s what they count on” nonsense? Well, the conventional wisdom is certainly that monsters and demons don’t exist, and enough evidence is available that there’s very little reason to doubt this… but can you really be SURE? Can you really disprove the existence of something? After all, even the human race as a whole can’t look everywhere, investigate every possibility. Unexplained things happen all the time. Unsolved murders and disappearances crop up in almost every major city. People in small towns and on Internet chatboards the world over not only have stories of the paranormal, but will swear up and down that they are true. And let’s not even try to estimate the number of religious people in the world who believe in demons or the Devil as real entities capable of interacting with our world.

If this (admittedly paltry) evidence of the supernatural doesn’t convince you, think of it another way… does it really matter whether the monsters are real or not? There are plenty of things which don’t technically exist and still make huge impacts on our world. Consider religion… if even one of the world’s religions is true, it means that all of the other religions, all of the other gods which have ever existed, are not real. And yet, multiple extremely diverse religions have all had enormous influence over the course of human history. It’s the belief in something that is really important… the ability of that thing to get inside your mind and influence your thoughts, feelings, and actions. For instance, if you’re convinced that some otherworldly entity that no one else can see is torturing you – does it really matter, then, whether this entity really exists, or whether you’re simply experiencing intense psychosomatic pain, hallucinations, and delusions? Will it really change anything for you when all the treatments fail, when you’re dragged off raving and screaming by the men in white coats, whether you were ultimately “right” or not?

Fear can be fun, for a while, when you have control of it. But the things you fear don’t like to be controlled. They don’t want to be fun. All they want is a window, a way to get to you. A way to get you under their power. It doesn’t matter if they’re real or not… if this wasn’t what you believed that they wanted, then they wouldn’t be scary, now, would they? They’ll lure you in with the little thrills, the double-edged pleasures of goosebumps on your skin and adrenaline in your veins. They’ll fascinate you, hypnotize you, drive you to ever greater extremes seeking that dark satiation.

Instead of trading scary stories in the company of friends, you’ll start reading them alone, in the dark. Same with listening to narrations, playing scary games, watching horror movies… the ones that actually manage to create a sense of dread and paranoia in you will be your favorites. You’ll stay up later and later, convincing yourself that it’s just an irresponsible indulgence on your part, not that you’re afraid to go to bed. Eventually, the experience will start to lose its fun, wear on your nerves, and you’ll decide enough is enough. You’ll turn off your computer monitor and take a deep breath to calm and center yourself… but the paranoia will refuse to fade. You’ll go through your bedtime routine on edge, jumping at shadows; and when you finally climb into bed and crawl under the covers, sleep will elude you. You’ll hear sounds in the darkness and be unable to convince yourself that they’re just normal household background noise. You’ll catch flickering movement in your peripheral vision, find yourself unable to identify certain dark shapes on the floor and along the walls.

Finally, you’ll snap and give up on sleep, run around turning on every light in the house… but the paranoia still won’t leave you. What was that you just saw out of the corner of your eye? Did something just make a thumping sound behind that door? You’ll turn on loud, upbeat music, trying to drown out the fear, but it won’t work. In the end, you’ll simply huddle up against the wall, shaking, holding back tears, waiting in terror for morning to come and free you from this nightmare. The need to use the restroom may hit you before then, driving you away from the wall, down the hallway, and into the mirrored bathroom. As you look up into the eyes of your sick, terrified reflection, you’ll sense something… vaguely wrong with the familiar image before you. You’ll lean closer to the mirror, scrutinizing your reflection more carefully – and suddenly, a pale, ghostly visage will seem to swim into existence, translucently overlaying your own face like a hologram. As its mouth gapes and its empty, staring eyes bore into yours, a piercing scream will echo in your head, and you’ll stumble back from the mirror in terror. Suddenly, you’ll hit something behind you that wasn’t there before… a cold grip will close on your shoulder, and a terrible pain will pierce your stomach like a knife. When your family or roommates find you the next morning… who can say whether you will be lying murdered in a sticky pool of your own blood, or simply curled up on the floor in a catatonic state, insensible and shivering on the cold, sterile tile?

Or perhaps you’re too thick-skinned to be reduced to such a state by mere media exposure and isolation in the dark. Perhaps you’ll go even further seeking fear or trying to prove your bravery: take a walk alone at night, try an occult ritual you found online, travel to some supposedly “haunted” location. There’s always that one abandoned house in or near every town, the one everybody tells rumors about… maybe you’ll go there for a little exploring late at night. You’ll hop the fence, blatantly ignoring the “Keep Out” sign on the front gate, and slowly approach the house, jumping a bit as the front step creaks under your weight. The lock on the door will be broken, evidence of past teenage “explorers”… or, more troublingly, perhaps squatters utilizing the house. This thought will make your hand hesitate on the doorknob, realizing that there is a very real possibility of somebody, possibly unfriendly, possibly unhinged, residing inside the house at this very moment. But you’ve already come all the way out here, psyched yourself up for some paranormal investigation… you’ll decide to go in anyway, keeping quiet and palming your cell phone in case you need emergency assistance.

The house will be pitch dark, the weak beam of your cheap flashlight revealing peeling wallpaper, mildewy ceilings, a few pieces of dusty, rotting furniture, and wispy cobwebs strung across every surface. Despite the intense tension gripping your heart with every step you take through the house, your investigation of the bottom floor will reveal nothing of particular interest. So, slowly and carefully, you’ll ascend the creaky staircase to the second floor, worrying in the back of your mind that the unstable structure might collapse underneath you. You’ll emerge into a long hallway lined with closed doors, and your heart will begin to race even faster at the sight. Despite your trepidation, you’ll approach the first door on the right, turning the knob cautiously and easing the door open with a faint creaking of hinges… revealing only a small bathroom, empty save for a dirty sink, a cracked wall mirror, and a rusty old claw-footed tub. You’ll withdraw from the room after only a quick glance, but as you pull your head out from under the doorway, you’ll hear a sound off to your left that thrusts an icy spike of terror down your spine… the sound of faintly creaking hinges at the end of the hallway. Slowly, slowly, you’ll turn to face the noise, and the door at the end of the hall, which you could’ve sworn was closed before, will be ajar.

Gazing intently into the dark void between the solid oak and the rotting drywall, you will suddenly perceive the faint outline of a shadowy figure in the breach, dark eyes glittering as they stare you down mercilessly. A pale hand will curl around the edge of the door, throwing you into a full-blown panic and causing you to whirl about and bolt recklessly for the staircase behind you. In your haste, your foot will fall at an awkward angle across the top step, and you will be seized with a sudden feeling of weightlessness as you fall forward, then crash painfully onto the hard wooden steps, bumping and sliding about halfway down the staircase before your momentum is exhausted and you come to a halt. Lying broken across the splintered stairs, head swimming, body screaming with intense pain, you’ll hear footsteps crossing the hall towards you, echoing hollowly across the floorboards and onto the stairs. You’ll want to go back. You’ll want more than anything to go back. But it will be too late. As you gaze helplessly up at the shadowy figure approaching you, you’ll wonder whether this is the fabled monster that haunts the house, or a human being, a killer or a rapist… and you’ll wonder which is worse…

Somehow, some way, if you let yourself sink too far into the world of fear, THEY will worm their way into your life, into your mind. Enjoy yourself while you can, for as time passes, you’ll get more and more tangled up in their web, and when you finally begin to realize that you’ve gone too far – it will be too late. You’ll be nothing but the demons’ prey, hopelessly caught and unable to free yourself.

Can you feel them now? Can you feel their eyes on the back of your neck? They are watching you. They are watching you read this. Even if they’re not, they are watching you. If your heart is beating fast, if your mouth is dry, if you’re afraid to look behind you right now… they are watching you.

And they are hungry.

The creature stands in the opening between the enormous hedges, glaring at you with those six malevolent yellow eyes. You note dimly that the statues flanking it represent similar monstrosities: the entire courtyard is, in fact, lined with statues of vicious demons of every type and description. Some resemble enormous insects, wolves, reptiles… some are patchwork collections of animal parts, one resembling a cross between a wasp and a buzzard, another that seems to be part dragon, part goat… some look like horribly twisted human beings… and some bear no resemblances you can put a name to.

Of course, nothing inspires nearly as much terror as the LIVE abomination currently staring you down. At first glance, it looks somewhat like a giant centipede, with hundreds of jointed legs and thick armored plates running all down its back. It must be at least twenty feet long. As you look on, it raises the first few segments of its body into a vertical position, positioning its head nearly seven feet above the ground. You notice that its front six pairs of legs are much larger and more muscular than the others, equipped with enormous, razor-sharp pincers. You can see its mouthparts scissoring back and forth, clicking in anticipation. Huge mandibles slide horizontally together and apart, and below them protrude a pair of wicked-looking retractable fangs, pulsing in and out in a slow rhythm. Its eyes pierce you like icy needles; you can hear it breathing heavily.

For a moment you just stare at each other, as if in a trance. Then the panic hits you like a jolt of electricity, breaking your paralysis, and you turn and sprint blindly back towards the maze. For some reason, perhaps irrationally, you feel that the maze is safer. You spent so long in the warren of hedges before now without being caught, after all. Out of the corner of your eye you see the beast dart forward, accelerating at an impossible rate. It is moving more quickly now than it was before, armor clinking as it moves, hissing like a broken teakettle. You had a head start, but it is rapidly closing the distance.

You want to go back. You want more than anything to go back. But it is too late. You’re a demon’s game now, and you’ve ventured far too deep into the hunter’s snare to escape. Just before you reach the threshold of the maze, its pincers grab you about the chest, slicing deeply into your flesh and crushing up against your rib cage. Through the blinding pain, you can tell it has more strength left in it; it could snap you in half like a twig without much more effort. But it doesn’t. That wouldn’t be any fun. It wants to ENJOY this, for as long as possible. You shriek in helpless agony as its mandibles crush down on your arm, rending flesh and breaking bone. You close your eyes, unable to bear looking at the resulting carnage as you scream your throat raw. Pain erupts across various other parts of your body; you feel your left leg being ripped off at the knee. Tortured beyond belief, you wish desperately for death. Funny that pain, evolved to help fend off death by alerting us to damage, has become capable of growing so intense that it constitutes a worse fate than death itself. Even through the agony, you are afraid to open your eyes, to see the mangled wreck your body has become… but somehow, you can’t help yourself. As a particularly sharp burst of pain hits your abdomen, your eyes reflexively snap open. You get a brief glimpse of your body, a nauseatingly twisted mass of flesh pouring with bright red blood, before catching sight of something… even more horrifying.

A fang… a long, sharp, curved, dripping fang… moving straight towards your eye.

… Did I get you with that one? Are you scared? I bet you’re not, not really. A bit of clumsy gore, some clichéd “Big Brother is watching you” implications… none of it is anything you haven’t seen before, right? I’m pretty good at scaring the shit out of myself in my own mind, but conveying that feeling to other people is a horse of a different color. He says I’ll get better with practice, though, and I’m sure to get in plenty of that.

This whole story has been a long stream of logical-sounding, pseudo-scientific nonsense, of course. There are no real monsters – well, unless you count really disturbed humans as monsters – and you can’t go insane just from getting too involved in scary stories. So go ahead, turn out all the lights and read more of this stuff; watch a horror movie alone at night. Hell, go on a tour of a haunted penitentiary if you’d like, or grab an Ouija board and have a séance with your friends. Nothing will happen.

Even ritual pastas are totally safe nonsense. If you play hide-and-seek with a Japanese doll, it won’t come to life and chase after you. If you go to a gas station and ask the attendant for the “Holder of Fuel,” he or she will probably just stare at you like you’ve sprouted a third eye and ask what the hell you’re talking about. If you go to a church at midnight, perform a ritual, and look into a mirror, you won’t see anything except your own reflection staring back at you. At least, I know that I didn’t. There was no question-and-answer session, no rules violated, no mirror entrapment, and most definitely no soul-selling. No way I’d wind up serving someone who probably doesn’t even exist in the first place…working to lure others into the dark maze of the demons. That was all just a made-up story, and made-up stories can’t hurt you.

Although… I’d probably be saying that either way, wouldn’t I?

You awaken in a cold sweat, bolting immediately upright in bed. Your body still aches with the dull echoes of your nightmare, and it takes you a moment to get your bearings. When you finally realize you are safe in your own room, you sigh with profound relief and slump back into bed. The dream is still sharp and vivid in your mind. Dear God, it was so REAL. You didn’t think it was possible to experience that much pain in a dream. Did you REALLY feel that much pain, or is it just your memory playing tricks on you, skewing your perceptions of what happened?

Well, either way, it’s over now; and although you don’t think you’ll be getting back to sleep anytime soon, you can at least relax under the warm covers until morning. You adjust your pillow and draw the blankets closer up around your shoulders, snuggling into a more comfortable position. Upon settling down, you get the feeling that something is a little bit… off, and lie still for a moment trying to figure out what it is. Probably just the remnants of anxiety from your nightmare, you think. You draw in a deep breath through your nose… and suddenly freeze, sniffing at the air more vigorously.

In your room floats the faint, sickly sweet aroma of roses.

Suddenly terrified anew, you pull the covers up over your head and whimper. Outside, the wind howls. Something that may or may not be a tree branch knocks up against the window. You hear a thump in the hallway outside, a skittering in the vent across the room. Muffled breathing seems to issue from under your bed.

Helpless, hopeless, you curl up into the fetal position and begin to silently cry. You want to go back. You want more than anything to go back.

But it is too late.

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