Chapter 1: 0.1.1 - Trick or Treat
"We could go together, the three of us!" Jonathan suggested brightly as Ami reached over to steal a french fry from the platter that sat between them, dipping it into a small paper cup of mayonnaise and horseradish. "It's only open tonight."
"But what about Buddy?" Ami asked. Buddy lifted his head.
"What about Buddy?" he repeated, grinning.
"Don't you and DW have a date? The Manor's only open for the night."
"Oh, yeah..." He contemplated this for a moment, frowning seriously. "Well I guess we could bring him along. I'm sure DW's never been to a haunted house before that wasn't actually haunted."
Their laughter in response was cut short by the sound of footsteps on the floor and the appearance of a smoothly dressed and impeccably handsome gentleman. "Oh, believe me," came the satin voice of DW. "I've seen more horror than you can imagine. But I'll see what you humans can cook up for fun." He winked, then slid into the booth to place a kiss upon Buddy's cheek.
"Oh, hey you!" Buddy brightened considerably, like he always did when his boyfriend-slash-devil-slash-politician in the making appeared. "We were just talking about the haunted house that opened up in town, at the old Strand Manor."
"So I've deduced. And you're all... Fans of this sort of things?" A single promptly trimmed eyebrow arched into a sublime peak.
"Johnny is. They used to be his favorite when we were kids," Ami put in with a grin.
"We went every year together, until they closed it when we were ten..." He frowned. "I wonder why."
"Who cares?" Buddy answered in his own light, airy way. "They always have the best food, and I don't know about you but I could definitely go for some candied apples right now.
So it was decided and, unknown to any of them, what was supposed to be a night of fun was soon to turn dark.
The old Strand Manor was located far out of town, a great, imposing figure stuck between rows and rows of endless cornfields with windows like two menacingly dark eyes watching all who dared step foot upon the property. A winding driveway was the only entrance to the property, and Jonathan's car bumped and groaned all the way along its potholes and mud puddles with much complaint from the chassis. Yet they endured this all with a childish sense of anticipation swelling in the car, perhaps most of all for Jonathan, whose excitement swelled once the grand estate had come fully into view.
A rather sizable area of the front cornfield had been cleared away recently to make the mud pit that served as a makeshift parking lot. Several cars had parked here, and out from them came children clinging nervously to their parents, and teenagers rough-housing, ready to take on the world. Most immediate was the sound of laughter, but in the distance, the back fields that composed yet more of the horror attraction, screams of utter terror lit up the night air. A biting wind chilled them to their bones, and it was in those moments impossible to tell where it was that breeze which stirred the crops, or some insidious figure which stalked throughout. The crisp scent of earth and leaves and coming rain hung heavy over all the world. Jonathan had never felt more at home.
The four of them made their way across the rough parking lot to what might've once been a shed, but had been commandeered as a sort of tickets and concession stand. There were even t-shirts with fitting sayings, such as "I Survived Lector's Lair," and -to much amusement- "My Boyfriend Went to Hell and all He Brought me Back was this T-Shirt," with splatters of vibrant crimson blood upon it. Selling these was a young woman dressed all in black and donning ghoulish makeup. She looked like she was probably not far out of college.
"Welcome to Strand Manor!" she greeted them, perhaps too cherry for the eerie atmosphere, though she did attempt a devilish grin. "Which of our attractions are you interested in seeing?"
"All of them!" they chorused. The young woman's smile grew.
"Excellent." Turning, she reached back and retrieved for each of them a coffin shaped ticket, handing them to Jonathan, who surrendered their admission fee. "Is there anything else?"
"Yeah." Buddy meant over Jonathan's shoulder, his own smile broad and mischievous. "How much are those t-shirts?"
With their admissions paid for and DW now sporting the My Boyfriend shirt with an ironic sort of dignity, they were shown towards the apparently crumbling manor steps by a decidedly creepy butler. His nails were long and yellow, and his teeth were much the same, while his eyes were black as pitch. Jonathan thought that whoever had done his makeup deserved a raise.
"We welcome you to the Manor House," the butler's low-pitching voice bore out. "Left empty for so many years, it is said that a great many tragedies occurred beyond this threshold. Who knows what may be discovered? Who is to say what terrors you will find? Will you be boiled alive, or fed to the ravenous wolves? All that can be known is that no good can come to those who enter this house." On cue, the door slowly whined open with a noise that was eerily authentic, a great squealing howl to bring goosebumps to the flesh. "And who knows what dark magic may still linger? But beware!" The butler lurched forward. "For those who do not believe may find that the ghosts do not take kindly to a skeptic in their midst." Stepping back, the butler drew the rickety door wider, bidding them enter into the darkly lit home from which a strange green fog rolled out. They followed him, strung in by his words and their own excitement. Even DW seemed enthralled by the mystery of it all, crossing slowly over the threshold, the last to do so. Just as he had entered into the room, the door slammed loudly shut, earning a nervous laugh from the group.
The house was narrow, and they were brought through the large great room -lit by a flickering chandelier and filled with an eerie silence) immediately into a slender hallway. Here, the screams they'd heard before were magnified, coming from the walls and from the distance. Wails and howls rang throughout. From a portrait, a figure burst out, reaching their way. They were covered in blood and had a great, gnarled set of snarling, snapping teeth, a mouth that foamed and frothed. Their laughter in response was luminous as Buddy jumped towards DW. Their guide's lips curves into a wicked smile.
"You will take care to beware," warned the butler. "There is old magic here yet. Not all things are as they seem. Some have life to them we would not anticipate... Others have hidden dangers not yet seen." Above, from the ceiling, dropped a ghastly human head. It's eyes opened, blood shot and crimson stained, staring out with an eerily intelligent gaze. Somewhere, the sound of shutters banging and the great, long whining of howling wind pierced through the wooden walls. The butler's eyes listed about the room, searching silently before they landed in return upon the group.
"Come with me, come with me," he urged. "There is so much more yet to come."
Chapter 2: 0.1.2
What happens when a house has a mind of its own? And what if that mind belongs to a demon?
Exiting the house, the group was sans their guide as they stepped into the dark night. The wind had begun to whip about and the moon was blocked from sight by enormous clouds overhead. There was something eerie about the atmosphere, even for a scary farm.
"Where next?" Ami put in cheerily, breaking through the quiet that had settled.
"How about the cornfield?" Buddy suggested, now throughly recuperated from his earlier scare. DW arched his brow artfully, dubiously, as though doubtful of the fear a cornfield could inspire.
"The field it is then!" Jonathan agreed, as the group made their way across the lot.
The back field had been made into a giant maze, with three entrances and corn so tall it nearly dwarfed them all. "DW, why don't you pick which way we go?" Buddy suggested. His boyfriend considered this for a long moment, with a surprising seriousness for someone who appeared entirely amused by the whole process, before nodding to the right.
"I think this is the more fruitful choice," he decided certainly. They nodded their agreement, and trailed after DW's tall, imposing figure into the dark, earthen corridor.
It likely wasn't more than ten or twenty yards through the maze when the wind began to pick up, and a sudden chill took the air. They'd already taken several turns by now, and in the dark were further disoriented. Everyone, even DW, seemed to shiver.
"Hey guys?" Buddy asked as he rubbed his arms. "Is it just me, or is it getting really cold?"
"Yeah," Jonathan agreed with s nod. "It's freezing out here, and it feels like rain. Maybe we should head back."
They were all in agreement, and had turned to go the way they'd came, when a figure unless into their path. It looked to be one of the haunters -their face was the grim burlap smile of a scarecrow, and they held a severed head under one arm. The person, whoever they were, held out the other hand -the one not currently holding a head-as though in warning. In it, they clutched a scythe.
"You must complete the maze," his disembodied head and sack-face said together. "You must complete the maze," he intoned again.
"Woah there," Ami protested, trying to step past him. "We just want to go home."
"You must complete the maze," repeated the figure, now more sternly. "You must complete the maze."
"Hey!" Jonathan frowned. "No need to be so stubborn. Just let us go." Now he too tried to push past the scarecrow, but was shouldered roughly back by the merciless haunter. In the corn, a growing rustle could be heard, and voices within it.
"You must complete the maze." It sounded as though there somehow were hundreds of them, tucked in along the cornstalks. "You must complete the maze." Now, they were growing closer, and closer yet. "You must complete the maze." Closer still. "You must complete the maze." Jonathan could see the shifting of the corn. "You must complete the maze -or join us - forever."
"Johnny?" Ami's voice pitched up. "We should run."
The words were just from her mouth when something burst from the corn. They turned and fled, their shoes slipping over the muddy path. Behind them, the footsteps of the creeping monsters seemed ever more imminent. It was far too clear that these things were not the haunters that they'd anticipated - but something else entirely. Honestly, Jonathan thought, he should have known. Nothing in Melancholy Falls ever was what it should have been.
They came to a fork in the field, a point where their one path diverged into two. Ami grabbed Jonathan's wrist and tugged him to the left. At their side, Buddy and DW went right. Jonathan had s sudden recollection of the summers of their youth, until a hand clutched for his ankle. He kicked it forcefully away, this time being the one to tug Ami to the side.
There was no way of knowing just how many turns they had taken before the left hand one which brought them slamming into Buddy and DW. The Devil looked displeased with this turn of events.
"I trust this is not how these establishments are typically ran?" he inquired, almost sounding breathless.
"Definitely not," Buddy agreed.
"Yeah, I have no clue what's going on here." Jonathan frowned.
"Well on this hand, I may be of some assistance. Now, I do believe that what we have here is a manifest infestation of sorts."
DW smiled. "Nasty little devils, if you will pardon the pun. They take their forms according to the wishes of their demon who summoned them."
"Sorry." Ami's eyebrows furrowed deeply. "Did you say demons?"
Here, DW turned Ami's way, his grim expression faltering, a grin held at the twisting upturn of his lips. It was enough for Ami, who gave a low grown.
"I shouldn't have asked.
"What can we do about it?"
"Well, that's simple, really. All you have to do is find the source."
But the sound of rustling interrupted their conversation, and they were soon running again. Through the maze and endless, unaccountable turns they traveled. Then, Jonathan's heart lifted. In the distance he could see the opening of the maze. The corn thinned, the world parted. They were almost there, almost out. Just a little more, Jonathan thought to himself. Just a little longer and they'd be out if this hell.
A scream emulated from behind, one loud and familiar enough to cause Jonatan to still. Behind him, Ami's for was caught in the grasp of a menacing scarecrow.
"Johnny!" she cried out. "Run!"
Instinct told him to save her, to run back towards her and fight those bastards off. But the tone in Ami's voice was enough to drive Jonathan away from this particular course of action. As Ami kicked in fought, Jonathan ran deep through the fields, pushing past cornstalks like mere nuisances, all that they could be in so dire a moment.
He arrived back to the parking lot to see that the skies were a shade so dazzling it would make the Emerald City envious. Storm clouds brewed as though they say in the bottom of a witch's cauldron, and a growl of thunder seemed to shake the ground on which he stood. Armed with a pitchfork he'd found in the field, Jonathan Barker marched toward the ticket stand. When she saw him, the woman inside's smile grew... Then faltered.
"Where did the butler go?" Jonathan asked, trying and failing to conceal the edge of impatience in his tone.
"What?" The young woman cocked her head.
"The butler. Where is he?" Jonathan questioned again. Behind him, Buddy's voice rang out with a great dash of concern.
"No. That thing has Ami." His attention focused back to the young woman again. "Where's the butler?"
"Why, I'm right here Mr. Barker."
The voice came from everywhere and from nowhere. Jonathan spun around, brandishing the pitchfork like some comically poor sword. There, standing at the steps, the butler waved, before darting into the house. As Jonathan turned to run after, DW caught his arm.
"Demons of his kind have one fatal flaw, Jonathan, a hamartia, if you will: their vanity. Wound their vanity and you'll have them by the thread."
Jonathan nodded, pushed the pitchfork into DW's hands. "Go get Ami," he commanded, before running off into the house after the demon.
The inside of the house had changed considerably since what seemed like hours before, when they first had entered into it. Instead of a grand, though ghastly estate, it now wore the interior of a fun house, like something of the circus. Jonathan felt his stomach twist - he'd always been fairly brave as a child, and had delighted particularly in the spirits of Halloween and in horror, but circuses and carnivals had always terrified him. Now, he seemed to have no choice but to face that fear head-on.
This if for Ami, Jonathan reminded himself. This is for Ami. He shut his eyes tight, and then, as he began to open them again, steeled himself.
"I know you're in here," he called out, to the darkness which had swallowed the estate.
"Ohh, very astute, Mr. Barker," a voice cackled in reply. "Care to play a game?"
"No, thanks, I think I'll just take Ami and you can go," he called back sharply. The laughter grew, shaking the now canvas walls.
"Oh, Mr. Barker, but that isn't how this game is played." The sound of carnival music began to emulate from somewhere within the walks, haunting as it seemed to reach out, stretching for him.
Despite himself, his fears, and his better judgement, Jonathan found his feet traveling over the red flooring, into the center of a great ring.
"I've faced tentacle monsters and were-bunnies, and have almost been food for the Jersey Devil." He barked out a cold laugh, though in part he was trying to build bravado within himself. "Why should I be afraid of you?"
Suddenly, a figure swept down. It had the haunting, horrifying face of a clown, with menacing black eyes and a gory red smile. "Trick or treat!" The figure cackled, still suspended upside down in mid air. Jonathan hated clowns. He tried to remember what DW had said, but instead was having far too visceral flashbacks of his fifth birthday.
"Ohh, he doesn't like that," the clown said, almost to itself as it righted its body. "Did ickle Johnny have a nightmare?"
"I think he did!" a second clown gleefully answered, head popping out of the other's body. Jonathan looked up. They looked exactly like the clowns at the circus he'd been to, from faces to foot. Suddenly, an idea popped to mind. Jonathan looked at the clowns, squeezing his eyes tight for just a moment more, despite the danger. When they opened, something large and red fell into his hands. The two clown heads looked between one another, their concern growing obvious. Triumphant, however, Jonathan grinned. He adjusted the nozzle and SPLOOSH! A jet of seltzer water came squirting out, splashing all across the clowns. It melted their makeup first, leaving an awful array streaming across their faces.
"I think he's figured it out, One," said the second clown to the first.
"I think you're right too, Two," answered the first. Jonathan raised the nozzle again, spraying the clowns down. He sprayed them again and again, watching in amazement and then in disgust as the remainder of their makeup washed away - and then their faces, and then their clothes and their bodies all at once. Then, even the room began to melt, and the world began to spin violently, a Kansas and Toto style tornado seeming to whip through him. When finally the world seemed back on its feet, Jonathan realized that he was no longer in the haunted house, nor the carnival, but that he was standing in the crumbling husk of a burnt-down old manor. From the fields there came a noise, and a moment later Buddy and DW burst out, half-carrying a limping Ami who clung to their shoulders.
"Johnny, you did it!" she cheered brightly. He shrugged.
"Yeah, I did."
But Buddy placed a hand thoughtfully on his hip. "Dude," he began with a grin. "Why are you all wet?"