Story: No Contest

(I had originally conceived this story as ending differently, but when I came up with the current version, I just couldn’t resist!)

“Alright, kids,” the counselor announced, a devilish grin stretching across her face.  “You know what time it is!”

Jack nodded vigorously, bouncing up and down with excitement.  He had been waiting for this moment all day.

“That’s right!” she responded.  “It’s time for our scary story competition!  I want you to share the most terrifying tales you can imagine, and the camper with the most depraved imagination wins bragging rights for the whole summer!  Muahahahaha!” the counselor finished with an over-the-top evil laugh.

Jack had to sit on his hands to contain his enthusiasm.  The atmosphere was perfect.  The campers were seated on log benches around a vigorous fire, surrounded by darkly foreboding trees through which the wind rustled like something alive.  Jack had always adored the bizarre and frightening – it was in his nature – but tonight, horror stories weren’t the only thing that had him excited.  The other reason for his anticipation was seated directly across the circle…

Dante met Jack’s eyes and smirked, his soft, shiny black hair falling roguishly across his brow.  Unlike Jack, he looked calm and collected, with more than a hint of arrogance about him.  Jack grinned back challengingly, jaw clenched tightly in anger.  That guy’s demeanor really pissed him off; Dante seemed to think he was so much better than everybody else.  Oh well, thought Jack, he’ll quit smiling soon enough.  Right after I win this thing. 

“Now!” exclaimed the counselor, “Who’d like to start us off?”

“Ooooh!  Me!  I would!”  Jack yelled, waving his hand in the air like a madman.  Across the circle, Dante gave a snort of derision.

“Alright, Jack,” she agreed.  “Let’s start strong!”

“Yeah!” Jack exclaimed.  He couldn’t stand waiting, especially when he was this pumped up.  Under the circumstances, most people would have been more nervous than excited, but Jack was young and reckless, and the possibility of losing barely registered in his mind.  “Everybody listen up close, ‘cause this is gonna be the scariest story ever told!  The terrifying tale of… THE SWAMP THING!”

Swamps are some of the scariest, most dangerous places in the whole world!  They’re putrid and mucky, with hidden pits of quicksand just waiting to suck you up and bury you forever.  Huge trees are everywhere, dripping with vines and moss to tangle you up and big, snaky roots to trip you.  There’s always fog creeping over the ground, so you can barely see where you’re stepping.  And that’s not good, because there are all kinds of dangerous animals in the swamp: crocodiles and snapping turtles and giant boa constrictors that could swallow you whole! 

But the most dangerous thing in the swamp is one that few people know about.  Most believe it’s just a legend, but it’s as real as you or me.  It hides beneath the water and muck, in bogs and marshes and anywhere even remotely swampy.  There’s probably one hiding not far from this campsite, in some low, wet place in the woods.  It isn’t picky as long as it can find enough mud to bury itself in.

You’ll never know if you pass one by, though.  It won’t poke itself out while you’re snooping around.  But it knows you’re there.  It feels your footsteps on the ground; it feels them vibrate in the earth and stir in the water.  It watches you, and it waits.  Waits until you’re nice and settled in, until you feel comfortable and safe.

Then it rises out of the bog, slowly and quietly, hidden in the mist and the trees.  It’s got a humanoid figure, but its looks are far from human.  It’s enormously tall with thick limbs like tree trunks, dripping with weeds and algae and muck.  No one knows what it looks like under that muck; it’s so completely caked in slime that it looks like the bog itself came to life.  The only place that isn’t covered is its mouth – a dark, gaping hole too huge to be natural.  It doesn’t have fangs or anything, but that’s because it doesn’t need them.  It could swallow a grown man whole in one gulp!

 If it wanted to, that is.

What it actually does is much worse.  It sneaks up behind you, through the mist and the trees, looming taller than you’d imagine possible – but you won’t see it until it’s too late.  By the time you realize something’s behind you, it will already be close enough to grab you by the throat.  You may turn around in time to catch a quick glimpse of it before its huge, mucky hands close around your neck, but that’s the best you can do.

Once it’s got you by the throat, it forces you to the ground, sitting on your chest and crushing you with its bulk.  Then it takes a fist and shoves it into your mouth, cramming it with vile, swampy gunk; with mud and weeds and rotting fish.  It shoves the muck down your throat, more and more and more of it, until finally you choke to death on the revolting slime.

But that’s not even the worst part.  The worst part is, it won’t let your soul escape from your now useless body.  You’ll stay trapped in that hunk of flesh as the creature drags you back to the swamp and buries you, deep under the muck and slime, then joins you beneath the swamp.  There you will stay for years, decades, centuries, as your body decays and the scavengers invade your every orifice… until you become one with the swamp.

And finally, one day, you’ll feel something stir in the muck around you.  A hapless traveler will wander by, unaware of the danger… and as he passes, you will feel a strange compulsion.  You will rise, slowly and dreadfully, out of the mud and slime.  You will rise… as a new SWAMP THING!!

The other children clapped as Jack finished his tale, though across the fire Dante smirked patronizingly, as if he had found the story cute.  Jack, however, was confident about his performance, and stuck out his tongue at the infuriating boy.  Let’s see YOU do any better, Jack’s expression said.

“That was very good, Jack,” the counselor commented.  Jack beamed proudly.  “Anyone think they can best that?”

Jack fully expected Dante to take a shot at him immediately, but the boy sat calmly and observed as another camper tentatively raised her hand and stuttered, “M-may I try?”

“Of course,” the counselor said with an encouraging smile.  “Go for it!”

The girl took a deep breath, furrowing her brow in concentration.  She looked like she was trying to imagine them all in their underwear.  She’ll probably just end up stuttering through the whole thing, Jack concluded dismissively.  But when she finally spoke, her voice was strong and measured, like she’d memorized the words by heart…

Most people see the campfire as a point of safety, right?  It is light in the darkness, heat in the cold.  It wards away shadows and wild animals, along with any horrors lurking in the darkness.  As long as we’re within the fire’s warm glow, perhaps roasting a marshmallow, we feel protected from the wild.

How ironic is it, then, that a campfire may in fact be a source of greatest danger? Oh, nothing will go wrong if you care for it properly.  Keep it in the fire pit, tend it carefully, and – most importantly – be sure to put it all the way out before you go to sleep.  You may be tempted to cut corners, ignore the few remaining embers and go straight to bed.  However, you mustn’t succumb to this temptation.  For if you leave even a single spark unquenched, if you leave those smoldering embers unwatched into the deepest, darkest part of the night… well, you may get back more than you bargained for. 

Beneath the moon, at the stroke of midnight, the dormant remains of your once-welcoming fire may give birth to a dark child.  An observer might see the ashes begin to shift, the orange embers to glow a bit brighter.  He might watch in puzzlement as an amorphous shape began to form in the remnants of the blaze, writhing like some strange animal.  And he might recoil in horror as the shape solidified and took its first, questing steps out of the pit.  The malign spirit, the fire elemental…

The flame salamander.

“Salamanders aren’t scary!” Jack interjected loudly.  The girl jumped with surprise, then glared daggers at him.  Jerk, she mouthed.

“Now, Jack,” the counselor scolded.  “No interrupting!  Be quiet and let her finish.”

“Whatever,” Jack murmured, scuffing his shoes in the dirt.  The girl took a deep breath and haltingly resumed:

W-well, at least, that’s what they’re called.  In truth, they don’t always look like salamanders; it’s just one of their favored forms.  They may also emerge looking like snakes, or rats, or great, hairy spiders.  No matter how they appear, though, they are NO animals.  Their bodies are made of ash and charcoal, their veins of embers; their hearts are white-hot, blazing sparks of purest flame incarnate.  They have but one purpose, one irresistible drive – to burn every living thing within their reach.

Leaves, wood, flesh, bones… it does not matter to them.  They exist merely to consume all life and transmute it into flames.  Dead matter doesn’t interest them, only living plants, living animals… living humans.  Some salamanders will crawl into the woods, turning the landscape into a raging forest fire in mere moments.  Others, however, will flock straight into nearby TENTS, crawling inside sleeping bags and pajamas, making nests in campers’ hair.  Unlucky victims will wake to a sensation of uncomfortable heat, only to realize seconds later that they are on fire.

Many victims panic, try to smother the flames searing into their flesh, but few of them succeed.  The salamanders are wily and persistent.  Even if you try to shake them off, they will stick to you like glue, crawl and slither around under your clothes so quickly that you don’t know where to slap.  If they can manage, they may even crawl into your mouth or ears, roasting you from the inside out.  Many will seek out the zippers of sleeping bags and weld them closed before setting the fabric on fire, trapping their victims inside burning cocoons of inescapable heat.

And even if, by some miracle, you manage to escape the ambush, you’ll emerge from your tent to find a massive forest fire raging all around you.  But this is no ordinary fire, oh no.  Any fire set by salamanders is, by nature, a SENTIENT fire – a stronger, more voracious fire elemental forged from the salamanders and the lives they have consumed.  The sentient flames will twist and warp into various shapes – a bear, perhaps, or a dragon – all with gnashing teeth and burning eyes staring hungrily in your direction. 

No matter how fast you run, you cannot escape.  The fire is all around you.  Within moments, the flames will fall upon you like an avalanche, melting your flesh and reducing your bones to ash.  But that isn’t the worst part.  Not by a long shot.  The worst part is that fire elementals consume not only your physical body, but your soul as well.  After such a fire is done with you, NOTHING is left.  You are erased, scrubbed from creation, and no force on earth can ever bring you back.

A brief, solemn silence followed the end of the tale, in which only the crackling of the campfire was audible.  Then the campers began to applaud – Louder than they did for my story, Jack noted resentfully, refusing to clap along.

“That was wonderful!” the counselor exclaimed.  “Very creative!”

“Mine was creative, too,” Jack muttered under his breath.  Nobody seemed to hear him.  For the first time, it occurred to Jack that he actually might lose.  His stomach churned nervously as he contemplated what that would mean for him.  Jack glanced almost instinctively up at Dante, who met his eyes with a particularly nasty smile.  The look sent a shiver of fear up his spine.

Stop it, Jack thought to himself.  You’re being ridiculous.  You took care of all this in advance, remember?  You’re NOT going to lose.

“Well, who wants to follow that up?” the counselor asked, looking around the circle eagerly.  Now will be when Dante butts his ugly head in, Jack thought, but once again he was wrong.  After a few moments of silence, another girl slowly raised her hand.  She had a somber, lonely aura about her, staring fixedly into her lap so that her long, oily bangs obscured her eyes.  She said not a word, but the counselor recognized her immediately.

“Alright, we have a taker!  Do your best!”

The girl slowly withdrew her hand, then sat still and silent for a seemingly endless moment.  Jack was just beginning to wonder if she’d changed her mind about competing when she spoke in a low, rasping voice…

Death.  It is the greatest of all mortal mysteries and the deepest of all mortal fears.  How many countless hours have been spent contemplating Death?  How many philosophers have been enthralled by visions of the afterlife?  The obsession with Death is equaled only by the fear of Death… and of anything associated with Death.  Even the most idyllic cemetery becomes a place of terror come nightfall.  Carrion birds and other attendants of Death are greeted with loathing wherever they tread.  Even Death Itself has been personified in various ways, assigned hierarchies of servants and messengers to carry out Its grim duties. 

And of these harbingers of Death, perhaps none is more dreaded than the banshee.

The banshee is an evil spirit said to haunt the homes of people soon to die.  It appears as a pale, emaciated woman, draped in a shroud of ashen gray.  However, banshees are rarely seen – they announce their presence in other ways.  A banshee’s shriek is described as the most piercing, bone-chilling sound imaginable, comparable to nothing else. It is a wailing screech both high and low, dissonant and grating, and has even been known to shatter glass.  It wedges itself into your brain like an ice pick, filling your head with a cold, resonating pain. 

However, the sheer loathsomeness of the sound is not the only reason to dread it.  According to legend, a banshee only cries when someone within earshot is to die within a fortnight.  In bygone times, banshees were associated with certain ancestral homes, gliding about the house and wailing every time a family member was about to die.  The louder and shriller the wailing, the more tragic and unexpected the death to come.

As despised as banshees were, though, they were rarely seen as CAUSES of death – merely OMENS, Death’s heralds and messengers.  Oftentimes, they were even construed as mourners, crying a harsh lament for the death soon to come.

This, however, is utterly wrong.

Think about it.  If banshees are messengers of Death, why do they only appear to certain people?  Why not wail for everyone?  This leads us to a crucial omission in their mythology.  You see, banshees do not merely shriek to warn of approaching Death.

They shriek to strike fear into those who have incurred their wrath.

As I’ve said, banshees are evil spirits – spirits of the dead that fail to pass on due to resentment or hatred.  These evil spirits wander about their tombs, festering with violent spite, waiting to unleash their fury upon the first unsuspecting passerby to provoke them.  Perhaps you took a shortcut through the cemetery and walked across one of their graves.  Or maybe you knocked over a vase of flowers dedicated to the spirit’s memory.  Whatever the details, your perceived disrespect will be met with dire consequences.

From that day on, the spirit will follow just a few steps behind you, constantly looking over your shoulder.  You won’t notice it much – just an eerie feeling of being watched every now and then, a cold spot in your hallway, a subtle movement in the corner of your eye.  But make no mistake, it is always there.  Lurking in the depths of your shadow.  Staring at you with venomous malice.  And as your death approaches, it will rejoice, for its vengeance is at hand.

The banshee will begin to wail, striking fear into your heart.  For days, the sound will follow you, startling you when you least expect it, echoing in your deepest nightmares.  Then, when Death finally arrives, you will see the banshee for the first time:  its dark, pitiless eyes boring holes into your very soul; its gaping, bottomless mouth shrieking your funeral dirge with malicious glee. 

As the light fades from your eyes, the banshee will take your arm in a cold, vice-like grip and begin to tug you down – out of your body, beneath the Earth, and into the very depths of Hell.  There, both of you will be consigned to the torment of the damned for all –

“Hey!  You stole my ending!”  Jack interrupted.  “That’s way too similar to how I ended mine, right Counselor?”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake, Jack, she didn’t steal anything!” the counselor scolded exasperatedly.  “Honestly!  Go ahead and finish, dear.”

“It’s okay.  I was done,” the girl responded, sounding even gloomier than usual.

The counselor sighed.  “Very well.  That was a lovely story, don’t you agree?”  The campers applauded politely, even Jack grudgingly joining in.  “Now, does anybody else want to have a try?”

Across the fire from Jack, Dante finally raised his hand.  “I’d be happy to, if you don’t mind,” he said, his voice smooth and mellifluous.

For a moment (though he would never admit it) nervous butterflies filled Jack’s stomach.  As good as the girls had been, this would doubtlessly be Jack’s stiffest competition.  After all, Dante was no ordinary boy.  He possessed a wily nature and a silver tongue, and just like Jack, he had more than pride on the line in this contest.  Despite his anxiety, Jack couldn’t help but smile as he contemplated the spoils of victory.  You just wait, Dante, Jack thought, by the time this is over, you’ll be CRYING.

“Go right ahead!” the counselor assented, beaming.

Turning away from the counselor, Dante slowly scanned the ring of campers.  His arrogant smile faded into a look of solemn concentration; however, there was still a mischievous spark which never quite left his eyes.  He locked gazes with each of his peers in turn, and when Jack’s turn came, he could have sworn that he saw one corner of Dante’s mouth twitch upwards into a smirk.  Jack shivered despite himself.

Finally, Dante finished scanning the circle and began to speak.  “Listen well,” he intoned in a low, sinister voice, “for the tale I spin is one of creeping death, of helplessness and despair in the face of unthinkable evil.  It is a tale that answers little of how and even less of why, but presents the unforgiving world in all of its dark glory.  Ladies and gentlemen:  the tale of the Forest Walkers.”

Dante made a sweeping gesture, and suddenly a log in the fire broke with a resounding *CRACK,* sending crimson sparks into the night air.  To Jack’s intense chagrin, the noise startled him enough to flinch.  Dammit, that’s no fair!  he thought.  But he forced himself to remain silent as Dante began…

Now, I want you to imagine a nice evening stroll through the forest.  What do you see?  Perhaps you think of golden twilight trickling through the canopy, of lush foliage, of wildflowers and berries.  Or perhaps you imagine birdsong, the sound of a babbling brook trickling through the woods.  A lovely scene, is it not?  But beneath this idyllic façade lurks a brutal truth which most of the world likes to ignore.

Even on the most beautiful day, a constant battle of life and death is taking place all around you.  The bird calls that you hear may in fact be warning cries, signaling the presence of a hawk.  The second those notes fade out, their singer may feel razor-sharp talons gouge mercilessly into its flesh, crushing its fragile heart in their grasp.  Right now, somewhere in this forest, a deer is taking its last breath as wolves tear into its still-living flesh, devouring it as it bleeds out onto the ground.  Elsewhere, a fly is caught in a spider’s web.  Hopelessly entangled, it can only struggle in vain as it waits for the predator to puncture its body and pump it full of poison, dissolving it into mush.  Later, a parasitoid wasp may lay eggs inside that very spider, turning predator into prey as the newly hatched young devour the paralyzed arachnid alive.

And yet we walk through the woods and feel perfectly safe – tranquil, even – because humans consider themselves ABOVE this dance of life and death.  Though we may be frightened of meeting a wolf or bear, all it takes is a rifle by our side and we feel in control again, no longer beholden to the capricious cruelties of nature.  The idea of a creature that could prey on us with immunity, a creature before which we would be as helpless as a fly in a web, is completely foreign to us.  “Surely,” we reason, “with our great intelligence, we are no creature’s prey!”

Oh, but how wrong we are.

For there is indeed a creature which preys upon humans.  Many, actually, but one rises above the rest as an unstoppable, ruthless killer.  In the few places where their existence is recognized, these are known simply as… the Forest Walkers.

The Forest Walkers are like nothing else in nature.  Indeed, there is very much of the “supernatural” about them, at least by our current understanding.  They lurk in gaps between dimensions, existing in a constant state of flux.  This grants them powers far beyond any ordinary creature:  powers to see and hear across dozens of miles, to traverse great distances in the blink of an eye, and, perhaps most frighteningly, a power of camouflage so profound it renders them all but invisible.

If you are unfortunate enough to stumble across one of these creatures, you will never realize it is there.  It may be standing right beside you and you will not see it.  It may brush its long, gnarled fingers across your arm, and you will think it merely a branch, even if you are looking straight at it.  (Forest Walkers have been described as tree-like in appearance, but no one truly knows if this is the case, for the few that have seen them and lived were unable to identify where the creature ended and the forest began.)  Some particularly sensitive individuals may feel a chill or a sense of being watched in the presence of a Forest Walker, but even these signs are few and far between – easily dismissed as mere fancy.

At least, until the Forest Walkers WANT you to notice them.

They will desire this, you know.  Perhaps not at first, but after following you for a time, they will start dropping hints of their presence.  Initially just enough to startle you or make you uneasy – the snapping of a twig, perhaps, or a movement in the corner of your eye.  But slowly they will escalate, filling your head with the sounds of footsteps, of low growling, of rustling and dragging and the clicking of claws.  They’ve no need to conceal themselves.  Once you have wandered into their territory, once they’ve determined to hunt you down… well, you’re already as good as dead.  It is now their privilege to play with you at their leisure, enjoying the sweet taste of your mounting panic.

As you continue your doomed trek, more and more Forest Walkers will gather, like vultures to a carcass.  Eventually it will seem as though the forest itself is turning against you:  branches grabbing at your arms, grass tangling in your legs, thorns ripping across your skin.  Enjoy this time, for once the Forest Walkers have tired of playing and decide to get down to business, mere terror will seem sweet as honey in comparison.

You see, the Forest Walkers don’t merely kill their victims.  They don’t subsist on human flesh.  They feed upon emotions – on hatred, on malice, on envy and grief and horror and disgust and all things that agonize the human soul.  They will seize you and immobilize you, locking their gaze onto yours with eyes like infinite voids.  And as you look into their eyes, all of your worst memories will resurface in vivid detail, playing through your mind as though you are actually living them.  Once you have run out of memories, the creatures will begin on your nightmares, playing out your worst fears with horrific realism – enough to convince you that they have come to pass. 

This process may take hours, even days, and all of this time the creatures will cluster around you, sucking down your agonized emotions like children at their mother’s teat.  However, it won’t last forever:  eventually your emotions will be sucked dry, leaving nothing behind but a cold, unfeeling lump of flesh without the will to even move.  

They will leave you alive, though you’ll most likely die of thirst in the following days.  On the off chance that you’re found before death, the doctors will probably diagnose you catatonic, and you will live out the remainder of your “life” as a vegetable, still and unresponsive on a hospital bed.  Finally, you will die, and nothing will be left of you but the barest whispering of a consciousness, the meanest entity which could possibly be called a “soul,” condemned to a purgatory of unrelenting nothingness for all eternity.

A reverent hush followed Dante’s tale.  The silence seemed to spin out infinitely, with no one wanting to be the first to break it.  Even Jack had been so enthralled that he’d forgotten to interrupt.  Finally, the counselor began to clap, followed by the rest of the circle.  Jack sat thunderstruck, torn between envy and grudging admiration at Dante’s performance.  There was no doubt that, in a fair contest, Dante would completely trounce him.

Luckily for me, though, Jack thought, an unpleasant smile twisting his features, I cheated!

“Well, Dante, that’s the best story I’ve heard in the history of this camp!” the counselor exclaimed, elated by the depths of her charge’s depravity.  “I daresay we have a winner!”

The smile slipped off of Jack’s face like taffy, replaced by a look of utter shock.  Wait… WHAT?  he thought numbly.  No way… That’s impossible!

“Why thank you, Miss Counselor,” Dante replied, and though he addressed her, his eyes were locked intently upon Jack.  That nasty, wolfish grin spread across his face again, and Jack’s heart sank.  As the other campers applauded and cheered, it all became too much for Jack, and he leapt from his seat and took off into the woods.

Jack ran for several minutes, ignoring the others’ cries for him to return.  When he finally stopped, leaning against a tree to catch his breath, the camp had fallen so far behind him that even the fire was out of sight.  The dark forest surrounded him on all sides, just barely illuminated by the cold light of the moon.  Suddenly, a twig snapped behind him, and Jack’s first, irrational thought was that it was a Forest Walker.  The frightened child spun around only to see Dante, looking eerily unruffled by his trek through the woods.

“You promised,” Dante stated simply.

“N-No,” Jack protested, too shaken to argue coherently.  “I mean… Y-you can’t… I demand a do-over!”

“No do-overs, no modifications, no backing out.  We both agreed to that, remember?”  Dante chided patiently, a mischievous smile still playing across his lips. “We have it in writing.  In blood, no less.”

“B-but… this is impossible!”

“Are you really that arrogant?  Of course it’s possible.  It just happened.  You bet that you could win the camp’s story contest, and you lost.  Now it’s time to pay up.”

“NO!” Jack shouted, and in his hysteria he lost control of himself.  A guttural roar tore from his throat as savage flames erupted around him.  His skin flushed a vivid crimson and his horns and tail sprung into full view.

Dante watched the enraged demon with mild amusement, as though observing a petulant child’s temper tantrum.

“You don’t GET IT, you sorcerous sonofabitch!”  Jack roared.  “You CAN’T have won because I HAD MY MOTHER POSSESS THE GODDAMN COUNSELOR!  She should have picked ME!!!”

“It was a lesson you had to learn, dear,” a feminine voice interrupted.  Behind Dante, the counselor emerged into the clearing.  “And I find that experience is the best teacher.  Cheating is all well and good, but clumsy cheating is just embarrassing.  Not to mention risky.  Besides, you NEVER ought to trust others.”

“B-b-but Mooooom,” Jack stuttered, dismay and betrayal evident in his voice.

“No buts,” Dante smirked infuriatingly.  “You lost, so in accordance with our contract, you’re now my familiar.  You must serve me loyally until the day I die.  Now, transform yourself into a frog and come sit in my pocket.  I should be getting back to camp.”

Jack gave one last, pleading glance at his mother, but got only a stern glare in return.  Sighing reluctantly, the demon disappeared in a puff of smoke and reappeared as a small frog.

Dante picked up the frog and pocketed it with a grin, then turned around and started back toward the campsite.  As he passed the counselor, however, she whispered into his ear (softly, so that the frog couldn’t hear):

“I hope you won’t forget our bargain, boy.”

For the first time, a shiver drifted down the young conjuror’s spine, and his self-assured smile faltered just a bit.  “Of course not.  It ought to be a much better challenge.”

As Dante walked away, a vicious sneer twisted the counselor’s features.  “Oh, my naïve boy,” she breathed, licking her lips rapturously, “I’m afraid it will be no contest.”

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