Frequenting haunted houses is not your idea of fun. Yet, for reasons you cannot fathom, you find yourself creeping up the rickety stairs and slipping inside before the door creaks shut.
The darkness is pressing; almost suffocating. You shuffle forward a little, arms outstretched to prevent any potential collisions. Even once your eyes have adjusted to the gloom, it's nearly impossible to see anything further away than a few paces. Dust billows around your ankles in little puffs as you move forward. Each step is a journey into the unknown.
As you inch closer to the centre of the dilapidated lobby, you can just make out the vague shape of its furnishings. Everything is covered in ghostly drapes, but that doesn't stop your mind from filling in the blanks. Is that really furniture? What if someone's hiding under the drapes? Did that Lupe-shaped bundle just shift? You're not sure, but your heart quickens all the same. As a Chia – and a yellow one, no less – the idea of encountering a Lupe fills you with dread.
But this is just a fairground attraction, right? At least that's what you tell yourself. The place has been abandoned for years, so nothing bad could possibly happen.
The breath hitches in your throat. Everything's fine, though, remember?
Skritch! Skree! Skritch! Skree!
The eerie sound draws nearer. Like a refrain, it echoes on the outskirts of your mind.
Skritch! Skree! Skritch! Skree! Skritch! Skree!
Oh, who are you kidding? You're going to hightail it out of here because there is absolutely nothing fine about this scenario, and your heart is about to explode. You turn and sprint for the door.
But it's gone.
The whole thing, frame and all, has been replaced by a seamless wall. You pound against solid stone, desperate to make sense of what just happened. Doors don't just disappear. Maybe you ran in the wrong direction, got disoriented or something. It is dark, after all, and you were scared.
You're about to resume the frantic search when a breath of cool air tickles the back of your neck. You freeze, every instinct screaming at you to turn around. And then a sudden realisation grips you.
The noise has stopped.
Every muscle is tense as you slowly, painstakingly, turn around. All you see is a flash of emerald-and-ashen fur before you collapse like a sack of potatoes. The impact jars your spine, and you instinctively begin flailing in an attempt to defend yourself. The weight on your chest lifts and a high-pitched giggle fills the air.
"Did I scare you?"
A baby Lupe in a Zomutt costume is sitting next to you, eyes bright and intense. He might be small, but you're not going to take any chances. As soon as you peel yourself off the floor, you begin to edge away.
"Don't you love this place?" he asks in a singsong voice. "My name's Oscar, what's yours?"
You tell him, albeit grudgingly. Maybe if you can keep him talking...
But it's too late; he's noticed the sweat drops coalescing on your brow. He tilts his head to one side. Planning his attack? Suddenly, his lower lip quivers and he emits a short whimper.
"I didn't hurt you, did I?"
His remorse seems so genuine that you feel oddly compelled to comfort him.
"No, I'm fine," you lie reassuringly.
In truth, you're probably going to be sore for the next few days. It's best not to reveal weakness to a potential enemy though. And besides; the little Lupe looks so heartbroken that you're not sure you have it in you to tell him otherwise.
"Oh good," Oscar's expression brightens. "I found some really neat stuff down the hall, do you want to see?"
You really don't.
Keeping the Lupe within your field of vision, you try to find the door again.
"There's only one way out," Oscar's gaze is piercing as he follows your progress. "So you should come and see what I found."
Before you can protest, he scampers back into the shadows of the hall. You stumble to the threshold, unsure whether or not to follow. The passage is damp and slick with mildew. Definitely not a place you want to go, but what choice do you have?
The hallway floor is more slippery than expected. You reach for the wall to steady yourself, only to find your hand coated in virescent slime. The pungent smell of copper and oil hits your nostrils. It reminds you of something, but you can't remember what.
Oscar's silhouette is waiting for you at the end of the hall. The closer you get, the more uneasy you start to feel. In stark contrast from earlier, the Lupe is preternaturally still.
"Come and see!"
His voice floats towards you and reverberates in disjointed fragments. You have a bad feeling about this. For a fleeting moment, you consider the possibility that Oscar was lying about the lack of an exit in the front room. Before you can commit to turning back, however, the glint of his eyes come into view.
"What do you think?" he asks, shifting his gaze to the floor.
A chill shivers down your spine. "I... I don't know."
On the floor in front of you is a life-sized clockwork toy, shaped like a Chia clown. Of all the things you could have encountered, this is easily the worst. It reminds you of the time Dr. Sloth unleashed a horde of their robotic counterparts on the fairground. This retro version is probably just as powerful. Fortunately, it appears to be dormant.
"There's more in here," Oscar comments, throwing open the door to another room.
Unfortunately, he's right. Hundreds of clockwork Chias are lined up in military-style formations. The paint on their faces, once applied with artistic precision, is starting to drip. The result is grotesque.
Click. Click. Click.
The unexpected noise sounds a lot like a cog stuttering. Seconds later, your worst fears are confirmed. The clowns are starting to move.
"Let's go!" you urge Oscar.
His eyes grow wide and fearful, but he nods. "Follow me!"
This time, you don't think twice about trusting him. You'd rather face a Lupe than a pack of clowns any day. Besides, he hasn't done anything wrong yet.
The clockwork clowns are right on your heels as you sprint through the corridor. There is no way they should be able to move that fast, but there's no denying the evidence right behind you.
"In here!" Oscar squeals and takes a sharp left turn.
You hurtle after him and slam the door behind you. Oscar drags a chair over, and you manage to wedge it under the handle as a barricade. The door shudders as the clowns ram into it, but you're fairly confident that they won't get in.
When you turn around, your heart skips a beat. This room is filled with clockwork clowns as well.
"These ones are broken," Oscar moves in to get a closer look. "We'll be safe for now."
You hope he's right. Not that you want to be pessimistic, but there is only one way out of this room and that's the way you came in. If the clowns manage to break through... well, you'd rather not think about that.
Oscar has lost interest in the clowns and is exploring the rest of the room.
"There's a window over here!" he exclaims excitedly.
You rush to check it out and are immediately disappointed. The window is so small that even little Oscar would struggle to fit through it.
"I don't know, maybe we should just–"
You swallow reflexively. The clowns in this room might be missing a few cogs, but you have a horrible feeling that they're about to wake up all the same. In that knowledge, it's almost easy to make a decision.
You punch the window as hard as you can. For a split second, your fist is surrounded by a halo of broken glass. Then Oscar is crawling through the opening, wriggling his way to freedom. You don't want to be alone right now, but there's no sense in both of you suffering the same fate.
The clockwork clowns are closing in now, almost deafening you with all their clicking and whirring. But they're not attacking; they're circling. Faster and faster they go, working themselves into a frenzy like metallic vultures. And that's when you see it.
A single shard of glass, alongside many others strewn across the floor. In many ways, ordinary – except for the reflection staring back at you. Horror rises in your chest, but you can't bring yourself to look away because you've finally realised the terrible truth. The truth that has been hidden from you all this time by means of a mind control helmet and the power of your own imagination.
You're a clockwork clown, too.