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I woke up later than anybody else, though the morning was still young. The tent was hot—unusually so; it felt like August, or early September, though it was even cloudier than it had been the day before.

“Hey,” Clay greeted as I flung open the tent flap, grappling for my shoes.

“What’s up,” I greeted back. Things were strangely quiet. “Where is everyone?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Dunno. Woke up a few minutes ago and everyone was gone.”

“Huh.”

“Yeah. I’ve just been hangin’ out here for a bit. Want a Pop-Tart?”

“Sure,” I replied, wondering what exactly was going on.

“Something doesn’t seem right,” I stated as I opened up a can of Sprite.

Clay looked at me in subtle confusion. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” I began, taking a swig, “why would they all go off and leave us here? I mean just yesterday my uncle lost his mind when I was by myself. And my grandad and James are both shitting themselves at the thought of ghosts haunting us. I dunno, they’ll probably be back soon, whatever it is that they’re doing.”

Clay looked at his watch. “I mean, it’s only six-forty-five, so it’s probably nothing. I don’t know, but I doubt it’s anything to be worried about. I mean, damn, it’s not like we have lions or some shit after us. Everything’s gonna be fine. Let’s just hang out and have a good time.”

We did. For probably an hour, we goofed around, having the kind of time that I’d wished to have for my birthday, rather than sitting around reading in the forest by myself and getting spooked by weird noises and unsettling dreams.

Then, out of nowhere, James came charging back out from a thicket of bushes.

“Damn, dude, what’s the hurry?”

“No time, Clay. I’ve gotta shit!”

Clay raised his eyebrows at me.

Where’s the fucking toilet paper?” James screeched frantically.

Clay marched over to the tent, reaching in and snagging a roll.

“Right here, man.”

“Thanks. Don’t come over here for a while.”

“Will do,” I called, munching on my chocolate chip Pop-Tart.

“What the hell did he do, drink creek water?” Clay asked, plopping down in the chair beside me.

“I don’t know. Maybe he heard a squirrel and thought it was the Bell Witch.”

“I can hear you, assholes!”

I snickered. “I think you should be focused on your own asshole!”

“Piss off!”

Clay and I both chuckled between ourselves until James finally came stomping out of the bushes, reaching for a Dr. Pepper.

“Hey!” Clay cried. “Germ-X, dude!”

“Whoops. Sorry.”

“You better be, you nasty-ass motherfucker. So, what the hell were you up to?”

“Hold on,” he said, looking around nervously. “Alright. You guys aren’t gonna believe this, but—”

Before he began, James took a deep breath, and I could see the fear mounting behind his eyes and goosebumps rising on his arms.

“So… this morning I woke up to what sounded like people whispering outside our tent, just like you said yesterday, Mike. Like, no doubt about. And before you fucking say anything, Clay, no, it wasn’t the wind. It was fucking people. All around us. I could hear their footsteps, too. And then a weird rustling in the tree above us. I think that’s what woke Max up, because he went outside, shined the flashlight on the tree, and grabbed your grandad. I heard him say something about a noose being up in the tree.”

The air was oddly heavy now, the rustling trees somehow louder than usual. I swallowed.

“They didn’t know I was awake yet,” he continued after staring at me for a few seconds, “so I pretended to be asleep, hoping that maybe I’d hear more of what they saw. I don’t know how you guys didn’t wake up, but while Max was crawling back into the tent, Uriah told him to grab the gun, because he could see someone in the woods. So then they ran off. And then I put on my clothes and followed them.”

“What happened then?”

“Uh, well at first they kept following something, Uriah said he saw a person. Max was skeptical, but he was worried it might be coyotes or something. They ended up going into the pond, but I just stayed behind. They came back maybe five minutes later. Uriah was talking about leaving immediately, but Max insisted that he was getting worked up over nothing. They argued for probably an hour. Eventually, Uriah agreed to stay just one more night like planned. Then I had to take a really bad dump.”

“So, are they coming back, now?” I asked.

“Yeah, I think so.”

I rushed into the tent, scouring through our backpacks frantically.

“What are you doing?” I heard Clay ask in confusion behind me.

“I’m getting the shit! We won’t have another chance like this after they get back. Here, take your fucking weed. And your pipe—holy shit, this thing is filthy.”

“Well, what do you expect? All my brother does is smoke weed, play video games, watch cartoons, and eat week-old pizza.”

“Good point. Okay, here’s the Jack. Alright, let’s go.”

“I really don’t think this is a good idea,” James murmured, cradling the dirty pipe in his hand.

“Don’t be a buzzkill, man.”

“Yeah, dude, this is our only chance.”

James sighed, and we tucked our contraband under our jackets to the best of our ability and booked it through the starting rain. Eventually, we made it about a mile away unimpeded before we rested. After much discussion and reluctance, we decided that we should probably wait before doing anything, just to be safe. Then we spent a good hour or two wandering aimlessly around the forest, having no idea where we were, which gladdened Clay and I, but worried James a bit. Eventually, we found ourselves in an out-of-place cluster of Dogwoods, their autumn leaves blazing red, with a clearing in the middle with a fell tree covered in dead moss.

“This seems like a decent spot,” I suggested, sweat pouring down my face from the heat and humidity.

Clay shrugged. “I’m down.”

“James?”

He looked a little uneasy but nodded in agreement nonetheless.

“Sweet. Whip that shit out!”

“Yeah, hold on…. Fuck, I forgot a lighter.”

“Here, use mine,” I said, handing him my own.

“Thanks. Alright, hold tight while I prep it. Gonna try to remember how my brother does it. Fuckin’ rain isn’t gonna help, though.”

“Eh, it’s just drizzling. You want some Jack, Clay?”

“Fuck yeah, man. Wait, I thought it was unopened?”

“Uh, I had a couple of sips while you guys were out hunting yesterday.

“Huntin’ wabbits,” James joked dryly, his nose practically touching the pot that he was messily trying to grind.

A few minutes later, while Clay and I were taking turns with the whiskey, I heard a hissing noise from James’s direction.

“D’you get it going?” I asked.

He held up a finger, brows furrowed in concentration.

“Hold on, I’m trying to get the cherry going.”

He bent his head back down and took another hit. After several moments, he finally took his mouth off and started coughing profusely.

“Holy fuck, that shit’s dry as hell.”

“Here, gimme dat shit,” I slurred, standing up and stumbling over to him, pretending to be drunker than I actually was.

“You remember how to do it, right?” James asked, still coughing.

“Yeah, I think so.”

I put my lighter up to it, but James hollered, “Nah, just take the last of that smoke, and then light it. No, dumbass, you’re supposed to put your finger over the hole. There ya go.”

I pulled the pipe away, coughing like I’d just crawled out of a fire.

“You feel it?” Clay asked as I handed passed it off to him, doubled over from the smoke.

“Just in my fucking lungs. Jesus, it feels like they’re on fire. Fuck!

“Ha-ha, just give it a few minutes. We probably should’ve brought some water.”

“Fuck off,” I hacked, giving Clay as angry of a middle finger as I could muster.

“What? I’m being serious. We’re gonna be out here for a while.”

“Just open your mouth and point your head at the sky. Rain’s picking up hard enough. Here, want another hit?” James asked a moment later. “Think there’s still some in there.”

“Yeah,” I mumbled, trying to give the impression that I was already high, even though I was still just buzzed from the Jack.

“You high already?” he asked. “Damn, Mike.”

I snatched the pipe away from him. “Suck a dick.”

It was after about my fourth hit that I finally did start to feel it. Standing up to try to catch my breath, my blood rushed to my head, and I suddenly had no idea where I was, and I had the impression that I was falling down a long wet tunnel.

“Heh-heh-heh. Up chunk hunky butt,” I chortled, smiling goofily.

“Ha-ha, what?” Clay asked as I fell flat on my ass.

“Holy fuck, Mike’s high,” James noticed, putting the pipe back up to his lips.

“Chunky hunk is the best butt.”

“Damn straight it is,” James remarked, handing me the pipe again while Clay was silently dying of laughter.

We spent a long time doing this—passing around the weed and Jack, Clay and I competing to be the goofiest of the group while James enjoyed watching us make fools of ourselves. Before we knew it, dusk had come upon us.

“Uh, hey, guys?” Clay said with worried confusion in his voice, laying on the fallen tree.

“What?” I asked.

“What do your watches say the time is?”

“I don’t have one because I’m a dumbass!” James hollered.

“Hold on,” I said, squinting my eyes in an effort to focus them. “Wait, what the shit. What does yours say?”

“Mine says it’s ten-thirty.”

My heart jumped.

“Mine too.”

We looked at each other in disbelief, and James bolted upright.

“Wait, it’s ten-thirty?”

“Yeah,” we said.

“But the sun’s going down. How can it be ten-thirty?”

“I don’t fucking know. But the sun’s almost down, and both of our watches say it’s two o’clock.”

We stared at each other in silence, not saying a word. The world seemed to be pulsing in and out of existence. Thunder sounded in the distance as the rain started to fall even heavier.

From above us, an owl hooted, making us jump. I looked up to see the same owl from the day before take off, seeming to leave behind it a trail of mist.

“I really don’t want that owl to leave,” I mumbled, terrified of what might happen if the owl left.

Almost as if in answer, a vulture took its place in the same spot, its great wings clapping like thunder in the sky. I looked up to see the full moon hanging ominously overhead, swollen and bleeding, with a distorted version of the vulture’s face etched across it.

“Get the fuck out of here!” Clay shrieked, breaking a slimy branch off of the fallen tree and hurling it at the vulture. The leaves of the Dogwoods began to tremble and ooze black liquid that smelled of rot. As I watched, grotesque black slugs with strange hairs emerged from the trunks and began to devour the leaves.

“Are you guys seeing this shit?” I whispered.

James whipped his head around to face me, the blur from the motion momentarily distorting his face to resemble a skull.

“The fucking slugs? The fucking moon? Yeah, I see this shit. We need to leave. We need to leave right fucking now.

Lightning flashed overhead, and the thunder shook the ground. We ran—ran back the way we came. The Earth seemed to be shifting out from under my feet, the trees whipping by and seeming to reach out for me, trying to strangle me. I have no idea how long we ran, time seemed to blend and distort within myself, at once seeming to crawl along at a snail’s pace, but also seeming to roar past like a river. The moon, which was now red, hovered over us and cast the land with a bloody hue, making the trees turn into bloodthirsty phantasmagoric monsters trying to rip and tear us apart.

Wham!

Out of nowhere, I found myself slipping and slamming face-first into the ground, having tripped over something that came up to my knee. I quickly felt the hands of Clay and James picking me back up, and when I looked to see what it had been that I’d tripped over, I saw that it appeared to be the crumbled remains of the foundation to a house.

“House,” I mumbled.

“What?”

“House in the forest.” I looked around. “Lots of houses.”

“Oh, shit,” James whispered, his voice shrill, “we’re in the pond.”

“Where’s the water?” I asked. “Where’s the lotuses?”

“Remember?” Clay prodded gently. “The pond dried up.”

“Oh, yeah…. What’s so bad about the pond?”

Before he had a chance to answer, we heard a hollering from the woods.

“What the fuck is that?” Clay whimpered.

Shh!

We all paused to listen.

Clay…! James…! Mike…! MIKE!

It was Max and my grandad.

“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit….”

“Mike, shut the fuck up! They’ll hear us!”

“Mike!”

“Shit, they’re getting closer.”

“We need to hide!”

I whipped around and bolted further into the dry pond, scouring to the best of my ability for a place to find cover, eventually finding crawling under a rotten old plow.

“Mike, where’d you go?” I heard somebody hiss from my left.

I stuck my head out from the plow and whispered back, “Under here! Quick!”

The two of them hastily scrambled underneath it with me, and together we all remained silent, barely breathing, listening for my relatives’ calls, my head seeming to grow and shrink, and my vision blurred by grey static as I scanned the red landscape.

“I think they’re gone,” James said after what seemed to be several excruciating minutes.

“Yeah, I think – I think so, too,” Clay responded.

“S-so what’s so bad about the pond again?” I asked after a moment. I noticed that the earth was dry, despite the rain. The water seemed to be disappearing the moment it hit the soil.

“Remember? This is where I saw her.”

“Who?”

“The… the….”

“The what?”

The Bell Witch,” he hissed.

A shiver ran down my spine as he told me this. I nervously scanned the forest around us.

Clay huffed in annoyance. “James, I don’t think—”

“Clay, we all saw that shit back there, do you really think that this is the time to be….”

I tuned the two out as I saw a figure creep out of the shadows.

“Guys….”

“Yeah, but that’s not just ghost tales and shit. This was….”

The figure slowly glided forward into the light, and I could feel my blood turn to ice. The figure seemed to be wearing a long black dress and a black bonnet that seemed to be made of the night itself.

“Guys….”

“…you always so skeptical about everything? What….”

It glided forward, creeping slowly towards us, a ghostly white face with two black hollows where the eyes should be and a narrow slit for a mouth. The smell of mold began to creep into my nose.

Guys!”

“What?”

“Shut the fuck up, she’s right there – she’s right fucking there!

They both looked, and I could hear Clay let out an involuntary whimper. James seemed to be frozen like a corpse.

The figure kept gliding slowly towards us, seeming to blend into the shadows and then remerge. She kept coming, not making a single sound, her bone white face a grotesque relief in the reddish-black dark. Closer… closer… until she was maybe about twenty feet away. I could feel my body trying to hyperventilate, but I somehow managed to stay silent, each empty heave of my lungs feeling as though they might rupture.

She crept ever closer, and I could feel the air begin to turn to ice around me, my hairs standing on end. When she was about ten feet away, from the distance came an ungodly cry, and with a blink, the woman was gone.

None of us said a word. None of us dared to move a muscle. The air was still frozen, threatening to chip off our skin with the biting cold.

Another cry, closer this time. It sounded like a man’s.

“Max?” I mouthed, blazing hot tears crawling down my face and into my mouth.

Then, the plow was flipped violently over, and I instinctively flipped over to see the woman hovering over us, her hateful, blank eyes boring into my own. She leaned down, and I reached out to feel for something – anything – to use to defend myself, and my fingers found themselves clamped around the broken handle of something.

Without thinking, I thrust the object towards the woman’s face, the blade of a small scythe reaching out from my hand. My arm seemed to be moving through sludge, the scythe only becoming heavier and heavier. Her arm reached out towards my face, pale rotting fingers stretching out to wrap themselves around my skull. The scythe finally appeared to be hitting her arm, yet there didn’t seem to be any physical material there. And despite this, the scythe became stuck in the air, an intense cold pain traveling down my arm. Her fingers locked around my face, which erupted into a blinding flash of burning cold pain. I could hear the screams of my two friends and then realized that I myself was screaming. I was lifted up into the air and slammed into the ground, where other icy hands grabbed me by my feet and began to drag me further into the labyrinth of ruined houses, my body raking against every sharp object that the cold earth had to offer. I could hear Clay and James being dragged along behind me, screams muffled by some unknown means. I think I was too terrified to make any noise.

As I was dragged away by the black figures, I could make out an increasing density of the crumbled old ruins of what appeared to have once been an entire town. At one point I think I passed a cemetery, the graves all seeming to have the crude faces of children on them. And as we went, I could see more and more shadowy figures emerge from the dark, their otherworldly whispers scratching against my ears. Eventually, we made it to what I can only presume was at one point a town square of sorts. This was where the most figures seemed to be grouped, and an ambient grey glow from nowhere filled the area. Looking beyond my captor’s legs, I could see a familiar sight.

It was the well from my dreams.

“Mike!” I heard my uncle shriek.

I opened my mouth to speak, but I was kicked in the jaw, cold pain shooting up my face.

“Clay! James!” he continued. Looking in the direction of his voice, I could see him and my grandad—who was babbling about devil worshippers—tied up to stakes, both of their faces bruised almost beyond recognition. Behind me I could hear my friends being dragged towards me, as well.

“Quiet that tongue!” the white-faced woman screeched from ahead, now standing by the well.

My grandad clamped his mouth shut, eyes red and wide like the moon. All of the figures were silent, and not a sound was to be heard save a flock of vultures that circled overhead. The woman crept over to the well, peering down into its depths. Lightning illuminated the scene momentarily, and I saw that we were completely surrounded by black ghosts.

“Bring over the men,” she whispered.

“What do you want with us?” my grandad wailed, flailing against the rotten black ropes as the black shadows moved towards them, leaving behind trails of smoke.

“Shut… the fuck… up,” Max grunted through clenched teeth, sweat beading on his forehead and glinting blood-red under the moon.

The figures grabbed them, causing both of them to wince from their frosty grips. I could feel their grips on my own body, though none of the figures touched me. My grandfather looked towards the well and seemed to be overtaken with an absolute terror of what may become of him.

“No! No!” he screamed, his voice cracking like a child, “Don’t take me! Please, don’t take me! Take anyone else! Take Mike! Take the ginger! No, take the nigger! Take the nigger!

I locked eyes with him, every conceived notion I had of him finally crumbling around me. I felt the ground fall away from my body, and I was left floating in a sea of emptiness, with only the eyes of what once was my hero—my idol—left, staring unapologetically into my own, almost commanding me to at last take him off of the golden platform that I had set him upon, the only real role model that I’d had in my life. I had feared that he may not have been the man I thought he was, but for him to set in stone his true face…. It was more than I could handle.

The white-faced woman lurched over to him and, with the sickle, sawed out his tongue, my grandfather’s shrieks ripping apart the air around me, making my legs tremble and my hands clamp. She then hastily undid his binds and dragged him over to the well, allowing the blood to cascade out of his mouth as he sputtered, trying to form words. Max was also taken down from his stake and brought over to the well, tears now streaming down his pale face. I noticed that my grandfather’s cheeks had been hacked open in the process.

The white-faced woman stood between them, seeming to lengthen grotesquely in height like a towering beacon of terror as she held aloft the tongue and the still-dripping sickle, and cried out in her piercing tone, “I, the Maggot, give to you – Unholy Disease, Bringer of Darkness and Despair, Vehement Lord – the blood of the family of the larvae! I give it to you, the Wyrm!

She then wrenched Max’s arm into the air and sliced open his forearm with the sickle, allowing the blood to flow down his arm, down his fingers, and down into the depths below. Max’s struggles seemed to have no effect upon her grip.

“Let the smell of the life-force awaken you from your slumber, let it entice you into this realm so that you may feast upon the world!”

From deep below the earth, I perceived a low rumbling… a rumbling that echoed in my skull and made my bones vibrate against my flesh. I couldn’t imagine what terrible monstrosity stirred below us; every form that my mind procured seemed to pale in comparison to the terror I felt, to the power that seeped through the dry dirt below.

“And now,” she screeched, her voice echoing mechanically in my ears, “I give to you the flesh of the forefather of the larvae and cast it into your path so that your appetite may be stirred!”

Reality seemed to be phasing in and out of existence, a grey haze blocking my perception and discernment of time. I would go into a state of unknowing, and then find myself watching the woman sawing off his face and gouging out his eyes and casting them into the pit below, with no recollection of the time between. I tried to look behind me towards James and Clay, but I couldn’t seem to bring myself to do it. Something in my mind would only let me stare unwillingly at the grotesque scene before me. I had thought that it was my grandfather who was screaming, but I suddenly realized that for the past few minutes, it had been myself screaming, and suddenly my whole being became immersed into my own voice, and I was nothing but my voice.

No!” I heard Max cry, snapping me out of my trance.

I looked over, my vision pulsing, to see that the woman was ripping out the tendons from my grandfather’s corpse. She set them aside and dumped his body over as well, saying something about the Wyrm using his dead flesh to gain strength. I didn’t hear his body hit the bottom.

She then hissed something undecipherable, after which Max was tied back up to the stake and set up so that he was directly facing the well. Turning towards me, she slowly glided over, my body cringing inwards upon itself instinctually, whiskey-tainted acid rising in my throat. She leaned over me, her hollowed out eyes boring into my own, commanding the kind of attention that I would never desire, yet at the same time desire seemed to fill me, the kind of desire that filled me with shame, calling me towards this grotesque phantom of a woman, calling me to obey her every command. But I knew that she was a monster. That every willing fiber in my being wanted to escape her presence with all my might.

But I couldn’t. I could only stare, hypnotized into lust and terror, as she picked my limp body up with her cold clutches as the rain poured down on me, sending shivers down my spine. She gently grabbed my hands, with her frozen fingers burning my skin though at the same time sending a hypnotic euphoria across my mind as I felt a hot sweaty hand touch my own, and out of my peripheral vision I could see Clay’s body to my right. My fingers were made to interlock with his, and with a fluidity of motion that was at once both haunting and beautiful, the woman—the Maggot—held up my grandfather’s bloody tendons to my face, waving them under my nose and against my mouth, his metallic blood entering into my mouth, staining my teeth and tainting my tongue… sliding down my burning throat.

Her bone-white face edged closer, her blurred features fuzzing even more, her black slit of a mouth creasing into a smile. She began to open her mouth, and the smell of fetid rot sliced into my nostrils, the fear of death becoming overwhelmingly more prominent. I could feel my heart exploding against my chest and my head felt as though it were splitting open like chopped wood, yet as her black sockets crept closer and closer, my adoration for this creature seemed to grow exponentially, and I forgot the blood of my grandfather sizzling in my stomach. I forgot that I was being held hostage by phantoms of the blackest night with my friends and family, that just next to me was Clay Shingle and that somewhere was James Green. I forgot that I had just witnessed my grandfather’s gruesome demise and that my alcoholic uncle watched from afar. I forgot momentarily that my mother had abandoned me just that summer and that my father had done the same before I was even born. I forgot that I was bullied for being smart, that Clay was tormented for being one of the only black kids in school, and that James was harassed for simply existing.

All I knew was the Maggot, and that my devotion belonged to the Wyrm, and that in order to appease the Wyrm, I must obey the Maggot’s every command, that I must adore and lust after her, be her thrall for all eternity, death not doing us part.

Her smile widened, and within it, I could see only black-red blood and small, sharp teeth that seemed to stand out like crags in a gory ocean. The smile widened, and my vision tunneled into that black abyss, welcoming me yet screaming at me to get away, that whatever horrors lied ahead dared not be imagined. I felt yet another sweaty hand, cold this time, be forcibly interlocked with my left, and suddenly the Maggot closed her mouth, which had been large enough to fit half my body into, and the Maggot smiled the most gorgeous smile that my eyes could ever behold. And she leaned down and grabbed my hand with the delicacy of a swan and tied my hand to James’s with the rope of my grandfather’s flesh and did so again on my right, binding me to Clay’s side. She leaned back up and whispered something in my ear, something breathtaking and exciting, embracing me in her cold, warm shadow, and my mind was coaxed into a state of aroused euphoria, and I felt as though I had become one with the Maggot, one with the Wyrm. My life would have been complete to only be in that embrace for eternity, never to leave this state. I tried to call out to her, to express my devotion, but found my throat to be clamped shut and my lips to never part.

And then she pulled away, the object of my adoration sliding away behind me. My mind began to feel the pain of the separation, and all my old feelings of abandonment came roaring back, though I remembered nothing but the Maggot, and that hypnotically majestic gaze that needed no flesh to have beauty. The only truth I knew was that I needed to be devoted to her and, more importantly, the Wyrm. Hot fresh tears began to roll down my cheeks. I dipped my head and cried out in lament, a sharp ringing in my ears obliterating any other noise except my own fresh abandonment.

An eternity seemed to last before I saw the Maggot emerge once again, and I felt the eager pull of a strange tension on my hands towards her, a tension that also seemed to be attached to my hands. I knew not what pulled me, but I soon became jealous of it, and began to lash blindly towards my left and my right, gnashing my teeth and foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog. And though my eyes were open, they saw only blackness everywhere but the graceful Maggot. I reached down with my head towards my right and sank my fangs into something soft and warm. Hot, delicious liquid seemed to come from the strange object, and I hungered for more. I tore away a chunk and ravenously swallowed it, and the taste I had never before beheld.

I needed more.

My stomach seemed to suddenly become empty, and the only thing that could satisfy that hunger was to devour more of the strange new sustenance, and so I did, thrashing against some unknown restraint and ripping away piece after piece, on both my left and right side, the hot metallic liquid wetting my parched mouth.

A hot blinding pain exploded in my arms, and though I could not see them, I knew that my devotion to the Maggot and the Wyrm was not unchallenged. I smashed my skull into whatever was ripping apart my flesh, which hurt, but only worked to fuel my fire. I fell onto the ground in a great thrashing heap of rabid anger and lust, ripping and chewing and clashing with whatever I was bound to. A soft red light eased into my vision, and from that red light I saw the Maggot beaming down at me, her smile holding the beauty of a thousand moons. My fervor eased, and I sat up, wishing to get closer to her. She leaned forward and licked the blood away from the holes in my flesh, her tongue long and pointed. I could feel her love wash over me, and the pain from my wounds began to numb. I cried out to her, and she eased me up, followed by the other two entities I was bound to. I became jealous at this, and lowered my head, snarling at them, though I could still only see the Maggot and nothing more. I had become a mindless beast, competing for the love of my master. I had no thoughts, only instinct and emotion. My master was all, and I existed simply to be her servant, her companion, her plaything. Whatever she wanted of me, I would execute.

And what she wanted was me.

I lurched forward, keeping in pace with the other two, wanting only to feel her warm embrace, to feel her love. I did not like having competition, but I suffered through it, as that was her desire. And to my immense pleasure, my master did not back away; she simply smiled at me with her perfect smile, her red aura emanating from her being. As I neared, her arms reached out to me and pulled me forward. I could feel her hot breath on my face, and my only emotion was that of pure love. She lowered her head, curling her lips back in a smile of great anticipation, her jagged black teeth elongating and stretching out towards me. She rested the top of her head upon my shoulder as the side of my head rested upon her bosom. She lifted her head once, staring me in the eyes with that even more perfect smile, her mouth a black cavern of gnarled teeth, and thrust them into my shoulder, ripping out shreds of my flesh where the meat of my right shoulder had been, and she delicately lifted a hand to her mouth and pulled it from her teeth, the bloody meat catching on the rough edges and held it before her eyes, taking in the succulent nature of the flesh, and put part of it into my hungry mouth. Without thinking, simply knowing, I ripped the piece in half and ate it, a fog creeping over my mind as my master ate the other half. As she swallowed it, I became one with the Wyrm and one with my master. I was no longer an entity, I was simply an observer. No more had I any concept of self. No more did I lust after that which I feared was unattainable, and no more had I any fear of being beaten by the competition. I was pure love. I existed in a realm where my master and I could finally be together at last, for all eternity, with the all-powerful Wyrm watching over us, blessing our every move, always wrapped in her tight embrace.

I vaguely in the back of my mind, if I had one, had the notion of moving forward, though I had no active contemplation about this notion. For how long this notion was present, I have no idea, as I had no active concept of time. But eventually, I found my masters face coming into view, hands stroking what must have been my face, tenderly telling me that I must climb atop the well with my back to the center, allowing for myself and the other larvae to form a circle atop the wall. I had no idea what this meant, but at the same time, I had no idea what it didn’t mean. Her voice solely existed to soothe my being. She then told me that I was being a good larva and that my reward would be beyond my imagination. I again had no knowledge of her meaning or any idea what words were, but her voice brought an excitement to me, an anticipation. My master then hugged me tighter, the fog having unnoticeably been thinned for a moment now thickening to a blinding density, where I once again returned to a state of being pure adoration, existing in a state of the most numbing bliss.

I felt her warmth become greater, greater than before, and I felt my master grow with excitement, which transformed my being into one of love and excitement, twice the being I was. My master grew even greater.

“Hold still,” she said, her words meaning nothing to me.

I felt a slicing motion across my arm, and I came careening down out from the heavens, down into my own flesh and blood, down into the intoxicated nightmare that was around me. Numb from the shock of this, I took in my surroundings, and found myself atop the wall of the well facing outwards, my hands bound to that of Clay’s on my right and James’s on my left, bound by the tendons of my grandfather. All around me were the shadowy figures of phantoms that had surely come from the realm of Hell. Leaning down to my right was the white-faced woman, slicing open my wrist with the sickle and letting the blood cascade down into the depths that fell less than an inch behind my foot.

Her arms were wrapped around me, and Clay and James, who I noticed turning my head were also tied together, making the three of us form a circle along the wall of the well. I looked down at their arms and saw great holes in their flesh, and I saw those same holes within my own. Yet… it was difficult to turn my head, and I was aware of a numb sensation on my right shoulder. I looked and saw where the white-faced woman had bitten the meat of it off. My mouth opened in horror at the realization that my mind had been ensnared by this monster. And right at that moment, she turned her great ugly head towards me, her face both angry and frightened…. Frightened that I had somehow broken free from her trance.

She backed away, her grip never loosening, only her arms growing longer, and flashed those horrible teeth at me, which seemed to be elongating and becoming entangled between themselves. She smiled a grotesque smile, her teeth pointing at my face. But… was it simply to deflect her own fear? She hesitated and closed her mouth, her face returning to its former self, one of carved-out eyes, no nose, and a black feminine slit for a mouth, with blood trailing down from it.

And then the Maggot became beautiful once more, and my anxiety seemed to ease.

No, no this was a trick, a trick to help her in summoning this even greater monstrosity, the Wyrm, whatever it was. The mere thought of seeing this creature in person filled me with a terror to be unmatched, and I somehow snapped myself back into reality, all symptoms of intoxication from the alcohol and marijuana speeding away. She lowered her head in anger and lashed out at me, her fangs sinking into the meat of my leg and tore away a fresh hole. I cried out in pain, and in the distance, just out of view, I could hear Max screaming as well. Trying my best to blink the tears out of my eyes, I turned my head towards him and saw that his eyes were puffy and red, tears streaming down his pale face as he strained against the ropes with all his might, screaming himself hoarse.

“I’m sorry,” I mouthed, not able to use to my voice.

The woman lashed her teeth against my leg again, and I cried out again. She raised her face to me, holding the flesh of my leg in my face, sending those black hypnotic tendrils into my mind once more, but I somehow resisted it. While still trying to enthrall me, she put the meat into my mouth and commanded me to swallow it, her voice like a tireless car screeching against a sidewalk. My throat worked against me, and I swallowed it nonetheless.

Max! Help me, please!” I cried in childish terror as I felt the black fog threaten to swallow my mind once more. I looked towards the moon, red and bleeding, to only see a distortion of her face look down upon me through the dense monsoon.

“She’s in my head, Max. Please!

I looked back towards him, my vision clouded, but I could only see a look of pain upon his face as tears streamed silently down. His body became limp and I could hear his sorrow.

The woman then grabbed my face and pointed it to her own, the frost of her fingers burning the skin they touched. She opened her mouth to speak, but then a great rumble emerged from the ground, and a ghastly shriek in a tongue I did not know rattled within the Earth and my bones, sending a fear so intense to my head that my body immediately screamed to run away, to get away from the voice, but at the same time, my legs were set in stone.

The voice stopped, and she lowered her fingers, disappointment etched across her face, though fear was even greater. She crept over to Clay, keeping a wary eye upon me, and grabbed his wrist and slit it with the sickle, the blood following the path that my own had taken. She did the same with James, but I was disheartened to see that their faces were still in a state of blissful adoration, still under the trance of the Maggot. The blood flowed freely, sending red showers down to the beast below.

I was suddenly aware of a ringing in my ears, building gradually. Pain began to emerge in my eardrums, gaining in intensity. I could feel it ringing in my skull, I could feel the blood trickling down the side of my head, hot and sticky. I instinctively tried to double over, to clasp my hands to my ears, but the tendons kept my hands in place, and the Maggot’s arms held me upright, facing outward. The ringing kept growing in intensity, and just when I thought it couldn’t possibly become more unbearable, a great explosion of sound erupted from the depths of the well, the pain causing me to scream. I clamped my eyelids shut, sure that I was deaf, and I was, but all the air that seemed to have been ejected from the well came violently rushing back in, somehow causing yet more pain as my body was being pulled into the depths, though the Maggot held me tight. I opened my eyes momentarily, turning my head to the side, only to see that both Clay and James seemed to be in as much pain as myself and that they also seemed to have been suddenly snatched out of the Maggot’s trance, terrified of what they were realizing had happened.

The air kept sucking inward, pulling us at greater and greater strengths. Trying to keep an eye on the white-faced woman while also being increasingly agonized by the vacuum the well behind me had become, I saw her pull out the sickle once more, strutting over to James in determination. I tried to cry out to him, but the noise of the wind completely drowned it out, and I watched in horror as she grabbed James by the face and, like she had done to my grandfather, sawed open his mouth and cut out his tongue with the sickle, James writhing and squirming like a tortured animal. But nothing could be done in face of the Maggot. Looking to my right, I could see that Clay, too, was watching… sobbing and screaming inaudibly.

She pulled out his tongue, blood spewing everywhere, and held it aloft, waggling my friend’s disembodied tongue, almost as if taunting the thing below, enticing its hunger. The rushing of air seemed to be easing, though it was being equally replaced by what I can best describe as the noise a train makes when going off the rails and crashing into another train, the metal grinding together.

I OFFER THE FLESH OF THE LARVAE, TO YOU, THE UNHOLY DISEASE, THE VILE OF THE WORLD, THE WYRM! COME, NOW, GRACE US IN YOUR MOST DETESTABLE PRESENCE! COME, AND BRING TO THIS WORLD THE END THAT IT TRULY NEEDS! PLANT YOUR SEEDS AND BRING UPON A NEW ERA, ONE IN WHICH THE PEOPLE OF THIS PLANE ALL BOW TO YOUR PRESENCE!

I could feel the stones of the well begin to crumble as the Earth shook, the Maggot holding us tight in order to keep us from plummeting to our premature demises. The stones kept crumbling, cracking and disintegrating, falling into the black below. When the stones fell away, the dirt around us began to crumble away as well, leaving the three of us trying to desperately keep our balance, helpless, all of us bleeding profusely, all of us unimaginably terrified of what may come, what unspeakable horror was emerging from the abyss that threatened to ravenously swallow us all like mere insects.

I felt something bite my ankle, and I looked down to see that out from the well were spewing thousands—no, millions of yellowish maggots with red teeth, rushing forth like a tsunami of rabid hunger, all eager to devour sweet, tasty flesh. They began to chew at my leg, gnashing their unnatural teeth through skin and muscle. The white-faced woman must have noticed this, because she yanked us outward, further from the depths of the well, wrists screaming against the tight tendons that held us all together, bound by the flesh and blood of my grandfather.

The maggots kept coming, hissing and squealing like tiny pigs, their teeth clashing violently as they blindly sought to fill their endless hunger, writhing and squirming and oozing, endlessly exploding forth from the depths of the well. They kept coming, wave after wave of them, never seeming to end in quantity.

YES! YES! YES!” the Maggot shrieked ecstatically. “I CAN FEEL YOUR PRESENCE GROWING CLOSER, FATHER! I CAN FEEL YOU! COME, COME!”

I suddenly felt a presence below me, and looking directly below, could see a mound in the spewing maggots, a massive one, as if something was slowly working its way up. The Maggot grew even more excited, chanting something, screeching indiscernibly in that horrid tongue. A great stench grew into the air, one so putrid, one so vile, so nauseating that it escapes words. One could stick their face into a liquifying corpse, take a deep breath, and I’m certain that the smell from it would wither and pale in comparison to the stench that this abomination emanated. I began to cough, bloody, stale alcoholic vomit bursting out of my stomach. I vomited again and again, eyes watering and insides burning. I couldn’t seem to stop, the smell that this thing emitted revolting my stomach, seeming to turn it inside out. My vomiting paused just long enough to blink the tears out of my eyes, and looking down, I saw a monstrous ring of gnashing and pulsating yellow teeth rising out of the mound of maggots, reaching towards my feet, growing closer and closer, and then—

Nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

I was in a void, floating in a black vastness so overwhelming that I screamed and curled into a fetal position, yet no sound escaped my lips. I held my hand in front of my face, still heaving, but no shape presented itself before my eyes. I curled inwards even tighter, to the point of almost being painful, trying to childishly shy away from the oppressive void. There was no sound. There was no scent. There was no sight, and there was no escape. Had I died? Had that beast brought me to an end? Where was Clay? Max? James? Oh, god, James…. What had become of him? One of my only two friends, mutilated beyond recognition…. Would he suffer the same fate as my grandfather? Would he simply be food for that… that thing? Would all of us simply be its repast?

I twitched involuntarily, cold snot sliding down my lip and into my mouth. I wiped it off with my hand, and I twitched again… and again… tears now flowing down my face as my stomach still tried to empty contents that were no longer there. Time had no place here.

A word sprung itself into my mind, seemingly not entirely of its own, a word that ran a cold, skeletal finger down my vulnerable spine, digging into my flesh. A word that made my breath stop short and my heart jump. A word that no living creature should know the meaning of. A word to drive terror into the heart of the most valiant warrior. And that word was—


Wyrm.


I screamed in mental agony as this word permeated my mind, digging into the flesh of my brain and sinking its teeth into the fiber of my being, tearing apart my skin and replacing it with its own rotten essence.


Wyrm.


I writhed in pain, the vileness of this word driving me into madness.


Wyrm.


I was foaming at the mouth, my measly sense of self festering away before it.


Wyrm.


Please… just make it stop.


Wyrm.


The void itself seemed to be crumbling away into even greater nothingness.


WYRM.


The word itself seemed to flow out from my body and into the nothingness around me, trying to manifest itself as more than an idea… more than an idea and into a reality.


WYRM.


As this final repetition of the word crashed into my skull, my nose detected a faint trace of the smell from before… before this…. It grew and grew, tainting my skin, making it become soft and decayed, infiltrating my flesh and turning it into that of a corpse…. Rotting alive….


Michael.


I opened my eyes, not sure if the soft voice had spoken from within my own head or not.


Michael, do you know who I am?


How could I not? Its name had been strangling me, forcing me to know the terror that it withheld.


Oh, but of course you do, Michael. That is your name, right? Michael Uriah Erikson?


I nervously nodded my head, wiping salty sweat out of my eyes with a trembling, clammy hand.


I know, Michael. I know everything there is to know about you. Like how your father ran off with a prostitute the second your mother found out she was carrying you. Or how she herself just recently eloped with a man of wealth, leaving you behind as they went back to his home in Vancouver. And about how your mother’s brother, the one you now live with, is an alcoholic and how you’ve taken after him as you attempt to drown out your sorrows every night, only to end up swimming in your own self-misery. I know about how at school the children torment you because you have potential, how they bully you and the only two friends you have in this life. Clay Shingle, the subject of racist bigotry, and James Greene, a victim for no reason. I also know about your grandfather, Uriah Jewell. The man with whom you share a name, built up as a false idol, only to come crashing down before your eyes, destroying what little you were still sure of in this world.

Yet, I know your future, too, Michael. Every single possible road you could take. And though there are infinite possibilities, I know the ones which are most likely to happen. About two of them, both of which involve you doing great things, Michael. Great and terrible things, the vastness of which you have no conceivable possibility of knowing.


Was that—no. Wait, was it? A hint of fear? Of desperation?


Do you know where you are, Michael?


Slowly, I nodded my head, though the word “death” crossed my mind. I wondered why it couldn’t hear me notice the tone in its voice, though I tried to shield this thought from it.


No, not dead. You are within your own head, Michael. I have taken hold of it. As long as I choose to hold you here, there is no escape.


Why did it need to tell me that? Was the desperation getting louder? Did it need to tell me that to frighten me into compliance? Again, I tried to hold these thoughts within myself, though how I was doing it, I did not know. All I let this thing have was my very real fear—it didn’t need to tell me why I needed to be afraid. It was then that I noticed that the stench had gone away—was it also trying to entice me forward? What did it want?


I want you, Michael. You have an energy, a potential, that is unmatched. Do you really believe that you are here by coincidence, Michael? By some unfortunate circumstance? I’ve waited a long time for somebody like you to come into this world. I’ve been waiting… bidding my time. I have plans, Michael. Plans that you cannot possibly begin to understand. A world where everybody bows down before me, a world where everybody will do my bidding. Think about it, Michael. It would be the end of human conflict… they would all be united under a single purpose: to serve me. And do you know who the face of the world’s admiration would belong to?


I could feel it trying to probe its tendrils deeper into my mind, to mold it into compliance, to see the way of the Wyrm. I tried to fight it off, to push them back.


Do not resist, Michael. You know that what I speak is the truth.


The tendrils pushed harder, obscuring my mind. There was no fighting. There was only defeat.


Good. That is good. Do you understand?


Yes.


Tell me, where are you?


Within you.


And who am I?


The Wyrm, the Defiler, the Disease…. Death.


And who are you?


The Vessel… the Body of the Wyrm.


What is your purpose?


To carry the will of the Wyrm, to make the world embrace the vileness within.


I can see you, Michael.


This voice was new, one that seemed to bring a comfort to my petrified mind.


Do not worry. You are safe with me. It cannot hear us here.


What do you mean? Who are you?


I’ve placed a shield around you, a shield that not even the Wyrm can penetrate.


But won’t it notice that I’m no longer responding?


I have it taken care of. I can sense your fear, your terror in the face of this abomination against myself. And though the Wyrm is much greater than you, greater than most other beings in this realm, even it is no threat to you as long as I am here. It will not notice your absence, I’ll make sure of it. Don’t try to pretend to that it has you.


But who are you?


Like the Wyrm, I too have many names, all of which given by the whims of my children. But you could know me as the Mother, the Guardian.


But why have you waited until now? Why couldn’t you have come sooner? Why are you helping in the first place?


Not everything may be told, but I cannot allow this monstrosity to use you as a host for its plague. Now, Mike, I need you to listen very carefully. Are you listening?


Yes.


Do not move. But barely—just barely—open your eyes. What do you see?


I did as the Mother said, and without using any other muscles besides those in my eyelids, I opened my eyes just enough to be able to see that I was lying on my back, staring up at the black-red sky, silver clouds passing over the bloodied moon as my face was covered in the sky’s tears.


What do you see, my child?


I see the sky and the moon, though somehow the clouds are silver, even though the moon is red. I see the rain. I see the lightning. I also still possess no physical sensation other than in my eyes.


Close your eyes again. In just a moment, I will need you to follow some very important instructions. But despite what you see or what happens, if you want to escape with your mind, or even your life, you must continue onwards without any delay. Do you understand, Michael?


Yes.


Good. Now when I tell you to, I need you to slowly stand up as quietly as you can, and you must say not a single word. Do you understand?


Yes.


Now be still, my child.


I did as she told, obediently staying completely still, which proved to be extremely difficult, as my physical sensations were slowly creeping back, similar to how it feels when your leg falls asleep for an extended amount of time and slowly begins to regain feeling. It felt like every muscle in my body was being stabbed with hot pins and filled with acid, screaming to be flexed and stretched in order to properly acclimate. Just when I thought I could no longer willingly resist the urge to move, I felt the warm presence of the Mother in my mind once more.


Now slowly, Michael, slowly open your eyes and stand up. And remember, you must make as little noise as you possibly can.


I almost sighed with relief as I gently flexed my muscles and prepared to follow the Mother’s instructions. However, this relief was quickly replaced by horror when I sat up and gazed out at the scene before my very eyes.

Just a couple of yards away from me was perhaps the vilest creature that my eyes have ever beheld, one so disgusting and putrid that I had to use all of my effort not to scream and faint simultaneously. It was what appeared to be a colossal, corpulent, oozing black slug that was at least the size of a train car, if not larger. It pulsed and heaved, viscous pus seeping out of every fold of fat and out of every pore in its twitching, slimy skin. It didn’t appear to have any eyes, either, but its mouth was more than made up for, with a terrifying ring of thick, rotten teeth that curved inwards into a putrescent yawning mouth that was easily big enough to fit the entirety of a horse into, with blood, pus, and mucus-filled saliva dripping out and pooling onto the ground in a puddle of sickly sludge, filling the area with the same hot, moist stench that only worked to further nauseate my stomach. I don’t know how long I would have stood there, entrapped by its sheer size and repugnancy, had it not been for the Mother’s kind but stern voice jolting me back into action.


Now you must go, Michael, to where your uncle is held captive and free him. And do not heed the apparitions you see, for those are the very distractions that will save you.


I hadn’t even noticed the silver phantom that stood with its back to me, easing towards the Wyrm. It emanated some kind of warmth that in the face of my surroundings was strangely pleasant. I noticed that the silvery phantoms, which seemed to be made of some kind of ethereal mist, bore the same image as myself. Making sure to ease my way silently towards the stake in which Max had been tied to, I asked her what exactly the phantom was for.


While you see only a ghostly specter of yourselves, these creatures see them as you, and as long as you are quiet and do not alert them, you will remain hidden. Now quickly, Michael, there isn’t much time.


But why was mine approaching the Wyrm? What exactly did the Wyrm think it was doing to me? I couldn’t help but take another look as my phantom scooped up a long tube of raw pink flesh that was protruding from the Wyrm’s maw, twitching like a dead animal.


The Wyrm believes itself to have full control over your body and mind, and is completing the ritual, using you to make sure that you are truly no more alive than the corpses that lay at the bottom of that abysmal well. But make haste. Time is of the absolute essence.


I shook my head and stealthily continued onwards, easing around the frigid shadowy mobs that filled those ruins of a village, being wary of every stone or pebble that might have caused even the slightest disruption. Eventually, I made myself over to Max, where luckily the figures were all turned away from him, facing the Wyrm. As I approached, I noticed that a silvery shadow appeared in the same space that Max occupied. Putting my finger to my lips and locking eyes with my uncle, whose face was swollen and glistening from sweat and tears, I slowly and silently began to untie the binds that held him in place. I didn’t make any time to acknowledge the look of confusion in his eyes, but he seemed to understand well enough not to make any noise. I noticed that our wounds were oddly bloodless, and that I couldn’t feel the tears in my flesh.

Finally, having untied the rope and eased him down (the noise his back made against the stake was heart-stopping in its quiet severity), took his hand, which felt raw and hot to the touch, and turned around. To my horror, I saw that my apparition was holding the tube of flesh down James’s throat. The Wyrm’s appendage seemed to be slowly and rhythmically pumping something into his stomach, which was grotesquely distended beyond any normal measures.


I know what you’re thinking, Michael. But you can only save two, tonight. You were too late. Now quickly, while the Wyrm is distracted, grab Clayton. As you approach, I will wake him and create for him a phantom like I have for you and your uncle.


I was confused for a moment. What did she mean that I could only save two tonight? There were four of us that were still alive, so shouldn’t I be saving three?

I froze.

I froze in place, as if the ice of the shadows had pierced through the cracks of the dirt below me, locking my muscles into place, my own body becoming a rusty iron cage, clattering in my head and freezing my thoughts. I could feel the frostbite of realization bite the tips of my tortured and beaten body. My mouth opened, and cotton grew from the pores, spreading like a bacteria-ridden disease, growing sharp fuzzy ice crystals that spread to my eyes and made them burn. Burn with the memories of James, my friend, my best friend.

I thought of how we had met. How much we had been through together. How he had been there for me, and how over the previous couple of days had done nothing but try to bring me up, even though in the process I was sure he had dug up emotions from when his own mother had died.

I also had other memories of him, too… seemingly everything we had experienced together flashed in my mind. Him crying on my shoulder, him being beaten, us watching TV, bored out of our minds.

And then my mind, in a seemingly unrelated course of thought went to my mother, and how she used to hold me when I was younger and sing “No Woman No Cry” to me before bed. I thought of how over the years she slowly started to retract from me, as though I were nothing more than some broken lamp in the attic, wishing she could buy a new one even though I could easily be fixed, until eventually, I would simply come home to find her gone, not deserving any more than a note on the table left in an cold unlit room.

No, I couldn’t do it. I could either leave with everybody, or I could die for all I cared. Blocking these thoughts from the Mother—though how, I do not know, even to this day—I motioned for my uncle to leave. He shook his head adamantly, but I gave him a stern look, and—perhaps he saw the stone-set look of pure terror and determination on my face—he begrudgingly crept away, silent as the night that should have been.

I turned back and began to ease my way over, each step bringing me closer and closer to my death. My foot grew heavier and heavier, and my stomach felt as though it had shriveled up like a snail sprinkled with salt. I stopped and turned my head back to where my uncle had been previously tied up and saw that there still was a silvery shadow tied to it, parodying his image. I sighed and turned back towards the well, easing my way forward, the ghostly chills from the shadows around me causing my skin to tremble as the mob thickened, though fortunately the raging storm helped to quiet my steps.

As I finally approached Clay, I felt a tugging in the back of my mind, and Clay’s expression, which had previously been blank and unliving, suddenly changed to one of confusion and shock as he in an instant witnessed the Wyrm, as well as James having only God knew what pumped into his stomach, and he gasped. I hurled myself onto him, clasping my hand tightly around his mouth and with the other holding a finger over my lips. Our feet must have scraped against the dirt, as I saw the head of a nearby figure turn towards us, immediately following which a silver shroud in Clay’s image manifested, taking his spot and wearing the same lifeless expression that Clay had been wearing just moments before.

We stood there in silence for a moment, looking towards the black figure as it looked intently at Clay’s ethereal counterpart. It started to ease forward a moment, and I glanced back towards Clay. He apparently had not noticed the figure near us, as his gaze was fixed upon James, whose stomach appeared fit to burst at any moment.

Clay shook his head, tears rolling down his cheeks. I looked down and saw that his feet were pointed away, in the direction we had come from. He shook his head again, more vigorously this time, squinting his eyes shut, as if against some truth that he didn’t dare face, something other than what he saw with his eyes. He nodded. In the distance, I could hear an owl cry.


Now, take your hand from him, Michael. He knows what to do. Go, silently, and leave with your uncle. He is waiting at the edge of the pond.


Obediently, I slowly took my hand away from him, looked him in the eyes, which shone red like a burning desert sun, and nodded. I turned away towards James, and Clay grasped my arm. I looked towards him, and he shook his head. The look in his eyes somehow made me realize that there was no other way. And together, Clay and I snuck our way around the grim ghosts, my body wrecked and weary. It seemed to be miles until we reached the edge of the pond.

“Where’s Max?” Clay whimpered.

I numbly shrugged, too shaken to say anything. We circled around, back to the side our campsite was on. That’s when I saw the hunting rifle on the ground. The air here was still cold, and the gory moon still laughed at us from above as the storm tried to drown out our life, though the barren dirt was still dry. I picked the rifle up.

Clay nodded at me and motioned for me to keep moving forward. I shook my head and turned around back to the pond. The Mother was wrong. I wouldn’t leave James to be fed to the Wyrm.


Michael, keep the gun. But do not go back. Listen to me.


I ignored her heed and tried to block her against my thoughts. And I stepped forward, facing Hell.

“Mike, man… come on. I know you don’t want to leave him, but there’s no other way. You heard her.”

Once again, I shook my head and said nothing. James had always been there for me, and I couldn’t let him down. I couldn’t abandon him like my parents had abandoned me. I took another step forward, and another… forcing my legs to go against every vibrating instinct in my body. I don’t remember the trek back to the well, but at the time, it seemed like I hadn’t traveled as much as I should have.

James was still there.

And around me once again were those phantoms, with the Wyrm oozing and pulsating amongst a pile of squirming maggots.


Michael, you need to leave.


I paused for a second and considered following her advice. I considered leaving my friend to die. But I remembered my mother, and I took a step forward, a quiet cry of terror escaping my lips, audible enough to fuel my fright even more.


You can’t save him, Michael.


I clamped my eyes shut, trying to keep the tears at bay. My body screamed at me to follow her command, to not take one step closer towards the horror before me.

I took another step. And another. And yet another, my body swaying and shaking like a ship tossing in a tempest, threatening to crash into the sea, my eyes still closed from the nightmare around me.


Michael, you need to leave NOW.


I cracked my left eyelid open and froze, as I was standing a mere twenty feet away from the Wyrm. I tensed my abdomen, trying to quell the queasiness, and took a deep breath, one of hot rancid stench. And then I raised the gun.


MICHAEL.


I put my finger on the trigger, and right as I pulled it, the gun was yanked by some invisible force, and the bullet went straight through James’ head. He dropped to the ground, lifeless. Dead.

I saw for a moment a silvery shroud appear in James’s place as the rain stopped, though the phantom soon dissipated. The roar of the Wyrm rattled in my head and the ground trembled beneath me. I heard a faint popping sound and looked down at James’s stomach and saw that it had burst, and underneath the purple, blood-soaked skin I could see thousands of maggots squirming and chewing… chewing through his abdomen and plopping onto the ground, with intestines and chunks of meat soon following suit. Somewhere behind me, I could hear the outcry of the Maggot and the shuffling of the phantom mob, but all I could focus on was saving my friend, even though I already knew it was too late. I had seen everything, but somehow, in my mind, I felt that he was still alive.

I ran to him and grabbed his still-warm shoulder but was knocked back by a branching mass of tentacles that had sprouted from the Wyrm’s back that resembled veins and arteries. I heard the cry of the owl as cold dead hands grabbed me and dragged me away. I looked up and saw the face of the Maggot, a face more distorted and terrifying in its wrath than ever before. I cried out, I tugged and thrashed, but I could not shake the grip of death.

The Wyrm had taken hold of James’s body once more, though this time through physical means rather than mental. Its tentacles, thousands of tentacles intertwining in a mass of veins and capillaries that I now know to resemble that of the tamer basket star, and was pulling James’s corpse into its great, gaping maw, the teeth now extended outwards towards James, greedily anticipating the fresh hot meal, the resounding noise still rattling the earth.

The tendrils pulled him closer and closer to the nightmare colossus, eventually pulling my friend into the ring of grinding fangs, and I watched in agony as they ground into his flesh and slowly ripped his young body apart, seeming to savor every last moment of it.

“I love you, James,” I murmured under my breath. It was the only thing I could think of to say as I watched with my glass eyes.

The owl screeched again, loud this time, and angry. I looked up and glowing in a silver shroud like a great lighthouse of hope was the great horned owl that I had seen before, but even more enormous now, and beaming in a silver shroud of mist, descending from the dark bloody heavens above.

It was the Mother.

She swept towards me, hurtling along like an arrow of silver light, and struck the Maggot. I fell free from her clutches and scrambled to regain my footing as the storm resumed. It was then that I noticed the shadows rushing in to grab me. I leaped backwards and fell on my back, in frozen silence as their chilly claws reached for me. The Mother flew through them, thrashing them with her talons, and screeching, screeching louder than the Wyrm. I got back to my feet again as I saw her ambush the Wyrm, flaying its hide and cutting the tendrils as they tried to grab her. Knowing better than to waste a minute more, I ran. I ran faster than I knew was humanly possible, my body numb from the abuse it had suffered. I didn’t even bother trying to go around the shadows, I simply barreled through them with all of my instinctual might, screaming as I felt the frozen air bite at my flesh, threatening to snap it right off the bone.

But I ran. I kept running. I had become, once again, pure animal, with no thought or logical constraint. Fear had taken over everything, it had devoured my mind. I vaguely remember seeing Clay and Max by the pond’s edge, but I whirled past, giving them no second thought, or even any first thoughts for that matter. Even when I slammed face first into the creek by the campsite and gashed my face open on the rocks, I kept going, ignoring the blood pouring into my eyes, nose, and mouth.

I only stopped when I saw the back of my grandfather’s house beyond the trees, miles away from the pond, from the well, from the Maggot, and from the Wyrm. I didn’t even recognize the place at first. It seemed… different somehow. Less like a home and more like a grave. I stared at it for a few minutes, my mind refusing to go beyond its appearance. I couldn’t think about what had happened, or what would potentially come in the future. I didn’t even notice at first that it was no longer night and that the sun was still hanging in the afternoon sky.

I wept.

I wept for the grandfather I had lost, the one I had lost before he had even died. I wept for James. I wept for my mother. I wept for my father. And I wept for my uncle. I wept for myself. I wept until it had no meaning. And I wept when Jumbo’s white shape came bouncing towards me and tried to comfort me.

It wasn’t for a couple of more hours until Max and Clay came back, bloodied and silent. Even when they did come, we all sat in silence. What we were all thinking, I do not know. But eventually, when the sun began to set, Max went inside, and a little while later, from behind the house where Clay and I mutely mourned, three police cars arrived, followed by an ambulance and fire truck.

I wept.

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