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Running with the Devil

In the heart of old Chatham County, buried under the thick darkness of forest glade, there lies a circle of dark infamy. It's called, in hushed tones and low moans, the Devil's Tramping Ground. The few who know of it dare not speak of its secrets--except for Lead Music Writer Macy Parker's grandma, who apparently is a witch. I asked whoever was in The Chronicle lounge that day what they knew of it and was met with cold, almost angry stares.

"Boy, don't you go stirring up trouble you ain't ready to deal with," Rolly said. But he might have been talking about the office microwave I was using to make a Hot Pocket.

I was determined to discover the truth. Extensive Googling revealed some promising links, but most of them came back eerily as 404 File Not Found. I thought I heard wails and moaning coming from the computer--which was odd, because it didn't have speakers. Finally, buried deep within a site for the video game-playing occult, next to a link for Magic: The Gathering and a Blair Witch Project webring, I found a sketchy reference that explained the Devil's Tramping Ground.

It is a ring of some 40 feet in diameter; the forest creeps right up to its edge, and vegetation grows inside the circle, but the ring itself is barren. Hunters say that their dogs tuck tail and run when they come upon the site. Supposedly, any object placed in the path before sunset will be brushed aside by morning. It's like a jogging track, only satanic.

"One exciting explanation for the circle," said the website, "is that ancient Celtic Druids who had come to this land back in the 1100s had used this location as a ritual power point, to raise energy from the earth in magickal [sic] rites." An interesting theory, I thought, but flawed--I'm pretty sure that Irish people can't swim. Other explanations suggested that it is the site of a UFO landing, but that doesn't make sense because the first people to come across it were settlers back in 1800, and they didn't have UFOs back then. Somebody else has said it was a ceremony site for ancient Native American tribes. Sounds plausible to me, except I couldn't see why any Native American ghosts would want to haunt us--after all we did name a whole bunch of states after them.

Another myth states that "although no one ever saw him stalking there, it was believed to be the haunt of the Foul Fiend, who came at night to tramp around and around and around in a circle, his head lowered, his expression intense. It was during these hours that Satan planned his evil schemes to undo mankind. At the first light of morning he was gone, winging his way like a bat across the world to carry out his nefarious purposes. Yet so scorching had been his footprints on the ground of his circular pathway that the soil became infertile, and the nocturnal retreat of the hellish Prince of Darkness was shunned and avoided."

Of course, it's got to be Satan! I've met him before--once in a New Orleans burlesque house for midgets, and once in my great-aunt's closet--and I know he's just the kind of intense dude that would go tramping around in the woods. We could find out whatever plans he might be cooking up for Halloween. I hear the guy is hosting a wicked costume party at the White House, complete with a puppet government show!

I assembled a brave crew of seven for an expedition. We only found one flashlight, two small smelly tents and a penknife. But we were equipped to make several hundred s'mores. Upon departure, I surveyed the group and told them to call their loved ones: "I'm not going to lie, there's a good chance some of us won't make it back alive."

Really, I figured that almost every one of us was ghost food. But one girl always lives, and sometimes a guy gets out with her too and they totally end up making it. Looking over the four blond heads in our group, I decided those were odds I was willing to take.

We headed south with the sun already setting. As 15-501 took us deep into the godless country, the moon already hailed behind us like a pale warning. A bittersweet pink tinged the clouds as the sky cooled and signs of civilization pared away. An empty church with windows crooked off the hinges; an old beggar woman with dark pits for eyes; the hollowed burnt hull of an abandoned car; a Dairy Queen.

Directions were sketchy--"somewhere outside Siler City"--so we had to ask a local. A dark form came to the door, and when we asked about the tramping grounds it gave a deep hoarse cackle. "You done passed it already--it's back that way just off the road. But I been living here 30 years, there ain't no devil out there."

"Sure, lady," I thought as we backed slowly away from the small population of dark-furred, bright-eyed cats that had gathered on the porch. You could smell the devil all over that place. Musty, like your great-aunt's unmentionables.

We waded through a deep bog and hacked our way into the thick belly of the Carolina jungle. Finally, we found the place--but to my alarm we were not the first. A group of five kids with unidentifiable accents rushed at us before we could survey the premises. They said they were "just hanging out for the night," that they'd checked the place out and "ain't found shit," and they asked if we "got any reefer." Their car--a Honda--had mysteriously navigated the forest path and frenzied rhythmic dirges blasted from within. One of them had a lazy eye. I concluded that they were hippie Satan-worshippers.

The ring itself appeared mysteriously smaller than 40 feet, and its evil markings had been mostly obscured by glittering swaths of glass the color of dried blood. It looked like a large creature had done battle with a filled garbage bag. "The devil's got to get hisself a maid," said one of the baby-eaters, and they cackled.

"Shhhh!" I quieted them. We listened to the crickets and wind as a sound coasted near, and a strange glow came from the forest--"Woooo-HOOOO!!!" The road was close enough that we could see the pickup truck speed away, its red lights fading fast.

"Maybe the devil got lazy, and now just drives by every once in a while."

Another car slowed down in its approach. Four figures got out and walked slowly towards us carrying bags of strange shape and fabric. They set up camp without talking, a giant warehouse of a tent with an unearthly, humming glow inside. When they finally spoke, it was in a blank-eyed monotone. I knew it--they were the henchmen of an apocalyptic terror cult.

The three groups largely avoided each other for the rest of the night, in uncomfort but relative quiet. We went to bed sandwiched between drug-addled Satanists and fanatic cult zealots. I chose a spot next to the chastest girl in our group; anything to better my chances of survival.

At 3:30 a.m. she nudged me awake. I was struck by the awesome light of the moon, beaming down like a searchlight. I heard trudging footsteps and the clang of metal that was not keys. I peeped over the side and saw a huddled figure sitting inside the path, the red smoke of a cigarette hovering in the glare of an open book.

"He's reading backwards," Chaste Blond whispered hoarsely. I swallowed a "Zoinks!" and almost choked on a s'more. David Walters, lying awake next to me, suddenly sat up to get a look.

"Fool boy!" I snatched him down, just in time. "The Dark Lord can fry your soul with just one glance." I knew this moment would come--the hippies, or the cultists, were casting an ancient spell to summon forth a dormant spirit. Its arrival would release all the ghouls of Hell and they would establish dominion in Chatham County, then go on to spread a reign of evil throughout the world!

Well, that didn't end up happening. The next day, we woke up and all the others had gone without a trace. Gone, too, were my car keys. An all-too-clear warning from the Dark Lord himself: Do not meddle in the affairs of the night.


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