This story is by Sharon Hetherington and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“On your knees Pledges!” Three young men wearing blindfolds jumped at the harshly barked command. They sank to their knees, ignoring the frosty air and ground dampness that immediately seeped through their pants. It was Halloween night and not only were they blind to their location, but they also had no idea what was coming next in their fraternity initiation.
Wedged between the others, was a middle-class Salem local named Walter Kaminski. Unruly, rust-colored hair and a bland, bespectacled face crowned his pudgy frame. Walter, an academic whiz, was also an awkward introvert who lived vicariously through his Dungeons and Dragons persona of Dungeon Master. Often unnoticed in social circles, he was astounded that he’d made it this far in the initiation.
To Walter’s left, was Clay Robertson, a tall, tanned Californian with beach blond hair. Clay excelled in basketball, but not ambition. Even with an athletic scholarship, Clay just barely got into Salem State.
On Walter’s right, kneeled Blaine Hunter. A Bostonian, Blaine’s handsomely chiseled face, matching build, and jet-black mop of hair added to the façade of his smooth easy manner. Blaine entered Salem State on the handshake of old money. He was accustomed to buying whatever or whomever he wanted.
Brother Adams, the ‘Active’ who had commanded the men to kneel, strode past them in his black hooded costume and matching full-face, leather mask. As he tugged off their blindfolds, he illuminated their nervous faces with a flashlight and smiled perversely at their shocked expressions. He turned away from them and called out to the darkness.
“Mr. President and esteemed Brothers of Alpha Sigma Phi, I present to you three pledges who have advanced to the final initiation test.”
The pledges peered into the darkness. Suddenly, a massive bonfire exploded in front of them, embers raining down, white flame blinding them again. They squinted and blinked away the blazing spots, only to gape at the sight before them.
Two dozen figures in black capes and face masks moved in unison to form a crescent around the fire. One stood out in a cape lined with shimmering crimson satin. A staff glowed in his outstretched hand. The kneeling pledges stared anxiously at the president of Alpha Sigma Phi.
“Eyes down!” hissed Brother Adams. The pledges dropped their heads and stared at the mud coating their knees.
The president stepped forward. “Pledges, you have surpassed all others to reach this final phase of initiation.” He paused for effect.
“However, only one of you will be granted membership into Alpha Sigma Phi.” The three men shifted uneasily.
The president continued. “You are kneeling at the entrance to a maze. Your task is to find your way to the exit where a reward awaits the first to emerge. To succeed, you must have courage, stamina, and determination.”
Clay visibly relaxed, and Blaine suppressed a smile. Walter’s shoulders sagged defeatedly.
A low chant ascended from the brotherhood.
“Pledges, you will not trek alone through this labyrinth. According to legend, this land is home to the dead, haunted by hallowed spirits, witches, and demons. If fortunate, white spirits will protect you, however, all who enter must be prepared to conquer the wrath of evil.”
Clay’s back stiffened. Blaine flinched and clenched his jaw. Walter began to tremble.
“It is time for the summoning. Pledges, stand and turn.” The men stood shakily and turned away from the fire.
The president raised his staff and opened his arms wide, exposing blood-red satin. He joined the brotherhood’s chant. The evocation rose upward, bleeding into the air around them.
“Spirits of darkness, we call upon thee. Spirits of light, command thee the night. May they who wander out of sight embrace courage on this Hallowed Eve’s night.” The fire exploded in a crescendo of baritone and brilliant color, throwing light to the giant corn maze, before dissolving into embers again.
As fast as it flared, the fire died. The brotherhood vanished with the flames, leaving the pledges to stand alone. Smoldering ash and the spit of dying embers were the only disturbance to the stillness. Foreboding and creepy, the maze awaited.
Clay was the first to speak. “Hey, you guys know this is all just smoke and mirrors, right?” he said with a shaky half-grin.
“Ha, yeah. Smoke and mirrors for sure” Blaine responded, unconvincingly.
Walter trembled in the chill air and stared anxiously into the maze.
“Well, since only one of us can win this…” Clay started.
“I’ll catch you two chumps on the other side.” Blaine finished Clay’s sentence over his shoulder as he sprinted into the maze. Clay followed fast on his heels. Both faded into blackness, leaving Walter to stand alone.
Walter tried to gather his scattered wits. What would the Dungeon Master do? He took a deep breath and slowly entered the maze, vanishing into the darkness.
Stay calm Wally; be the Dungeon Master. He walked with his arms outstretched, feet shuffling along uneven ground. A mist shrouded the moon, leaving only shreds of dim light to guide him. Walter gingerly moved forward. Turned left, then right. The mist became dense and heavy. It slid down and over him.
Deep within the labyrinth, Walter thought he heard faint moans. He opened his mouth to call out to Clay and Blaine, then stopped. What if it wasn’t them? What if it wasn’t even human? Walter’s right eye twitched. He shuffled forward.
The mist thickened and turned dark. The warm, sticky substance had a metallic odor. Walter thought he could taste…wait, was it blood? He gagged. Panic overtook him. He clawed his way through the coagulant stuff. He ran blindly until something blocking the path tripped him. Sprawled in the mud, Walter touched the object. It was a long, tapered box. It felt spongy and smelled of rot. Walter gripped its edge to push himself up. As he clambered to his knees, the wood dissolved in his hands.
A shard of moonlight sliced through the dark, gummy mist. Walter was face to face with a decomposing corpse sporting a mop of jet-black hair. Horrified, he watched as the corpse morphed. Blaine’s chiseled jaw and bright white smile grinned at him with eyes as dead as stones. Walter choked back a scream, clambered to his feet, and ran headlong into the tangle of cornstalks.
The night came alive with laments of the dead. Dark, shadowy figures shifted and wailed.
Someone moaned. He was sure it sounded like Clay, but he wasn’t sure it was Clay, and he sure as heck didn’t want to find out.
Someone or something reached out to him from a rustle of corn stalks on his left. Walter froze. The weight of something warm and wet snaked its way over his shoulder and coiled itself around his chest. Slowly, Walter turned his head. A serpent-haired witch with maggoty skin leered back at him, her eyes molten. Her glistening black tongue slithered and squeezed, crushing the air from his lungs.
Walter summoned the last ounce of strength and courage he had left. NO! I am the Dungeon Master and I. Command. Thee. Be Gone! He viciously chomped down on the tongue, ripping out a large chunk of meat. Vile black blood spurted. The witch screeched as her bloody tongue shrank. Walter ran.
He stumbled recklessly along passages, this way and that. Gasping for breath, he stopped at a cross path. The mist lightened and swathed him in an ethereal shroud. Dark shadow-shapes swirled around him, but Walter felt protected. As if invisible, he went unnoticed. He breathed his thanks to the white spirits.
Where would the Dungeon Master go now? An unseen force pulled him into the snaggle of gnarly undergrowth.
Walter chopped his arms wildly through the brittle stalks. Heaving his bulk forward, he emerged scratched and filthy into a clearing beside the exit. He was blindsided by bright lights and loud cheers. He’d made it!
The Brotherhood, now devoid of costume, converged on him shouting the Alpha Sigma Phi chant. The President stepped out from the crowd.
“Pledge Walter Kaminski,” he proclaimed. “You have completed the final phase of initiation. Congratulations, Brother!”
Walter stood there, dumbfounded. “Oh! Um, th…thank you, but I’m not sure Clay or Blaine made it out safe. I…um, we should go back and look for them.”
The President’s odious expression froze the Brotherhood into silence. He tilted his head to the side quizzically, and said innocently “Clay and Blaine? We didn’t have any pledges by those names, Walter. You were alone in that maze.”
The President’s eyes pierced into Walter, unnerving him. Then his face cracked into a grin. He said jovially “Perhaps you’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons a little too much, eh Dungeon Master?”
The Brotherhood roared and resumed their chant. Bewildered, Walter stared into the maze until someone pulled him into the boisterous crowd. Roused from his stupor, they led him away.
Inside the maze, Spirits, witches, demons…and the lost souls left behind, soon disappeared with the pre-dawn shadows.