Emma awoke to darkness.
Waking up in the dark was so different from waking to daylight. Had she woken up suddenly, or had she been lying half awake in the dark and only now become aware of it? It was impossible to tell. Sleep was funny that way. It was often hard to tell where she was when she was in between the waking world and her dreams.
For some reason, the pitch blackness unnerved her. She couldn’t recall her room ever being quite so dark before. She couldn’t see anything. There was nothingness. Wasn’t it odd that someone could be conscious of nothingness, that the mind was still aware when there was nothing to be aware of? It was less like darkness and more like blindness. In a minor panic, she sat up in bed, looking for her clock.
She sighed with relief at the sight of the LED display across the room. She could see fine.
There was simply no light to see by.
She conjectured that perhaps the streetlamp outside had gone out, and that was why it was so unusually dark. Just as she was beginning to calm down, she noticed an odd silhouette standing near her bed. It looked almost like a skinny little person. Household objects often transformed into menacing figures in the deep night gloom, but Emma couldn’t think of what the imaginary creature might actually be. She chastised herself for even considering the irrational notion that it was really a monster. Shapes and shadows were always forming monsters in the darkness. Emma would turn on the light, and the monster would disappear and be replaced by something mundane and familiar, and she would feel silly for having feared it.
She turned on her bedside light. The monster did not go away.
Standing only a few steps from her was some sort of emaciated, humanoid… thing. It was about three feet tall, like a child’s skeleton covered in mottled white skin. Its wide, lipless mouth was lined with stitches, as if it only had a mouth due to some crude surgery. And it had no eyes; only a pair of large, gaping sockets that seemed to stare right at her.
It didn’t seem to be aware of the light.
Emma sat frozen, staring in silent horror at the creature she knew couldn’t be real.
“This is a nightmare,” she whispered to herself. The creature did jerk back at the sound of her voice. It stood on guard, as if it feared she might attack.
“Wake up. Wake up,” Emma commanded herself, not daring to take her eyes off the creature. The creature relaxed its pose, and its stitch work mouth seemed to smile at her. It slowly raised its right hand and waggled a finger at her.
“You’ll do,” it croaked. Without warning the light bulb blew out.
Emma screamed as she never had before in all her life.
She leaped out of bed and grabbed the dead lamp, swinging wildly in the dark, hoping to hit the creature.
When the ceiling light came on, Emma spun around to face the doorway.
“Emma what the hell are you doing!” her mother demanded. Emma surveyed her bedroom, which she had trashed in her blind fury. There was no sign of the creature.
“I thought, I thought,” she stammered, breathing heavily and sweat rolling down her face. “I … I had a bad dream,” was all she could say.
The next morning at school, Emma found Hunter waiting for her by her locker.
“Hey gorgeous; you look awful,” Hunter greeted. Emma smiled at the oxymoron.
The two girls had been best friends since kindergarten. Emma was Asian with long black hair, and Hunter was tanned with dirty blonde hair.
“Yeah, I didn’t sleep much last night,” Emma told her. “I was woken up at like a quarter to four by some sort of… night terror.”
“What do you mean?” Hunter asked concerned.
“Well, I woke up and I saw this kind of thing by my bed,” Emma told her. “It was like a little imp, or something. I really don’t know what the hell it was but… it seemed completely real. That’s what was so horrifying about it. It was like this little monster was really in my bedroom.”
“Did it hurt you?” Hunter asked. Emma shook her head.
“No. It just stood there staring at me, even though it didn’t have any eyes,” she explained. “Then, it pointed at me and said ‘you’ll do’, like it wanted me for something. Then the lights went out and I completely freaked out. I was so terrified, I just grabbed my lamp and started swinging like crazy. I was sure that little thing was going to try to kill me.
“Then my Mom came in. She turned on the lights, and the little monster was gone.” She sighed. “My room’s completely trashed. I even smashed my computer.”
“Really?” Hunter asked dismayed. Emma nodded.
“My Mom says she’s not even going to buy me a new one, but she was pretty pissed off this morning,” she said.
“Has this kind of thing ever happened to you before?” Hunter asked.
“No! That’s what’s really freaking me out about the whole thing,” Emma replied. “I don’t think I’ve even had a nightmare since I was little. I mean this was really weird. The thing was right in front of me! It wasn’t like a dream at all. What does that mean? How can something like this just come out of nowhere? I couldn’t tell it wasn’t real! What if I’m developing schizophrenia or something?”
“Emma, don’t talk like that. You had a bad dream; everyone has bad dreams sometimes,” Hunter assured her. “If it happens again you should probably see a doctor about it, but right now it’s just an isolated incident. Don’t make anything more out of it.” Emma nodded solemnly.
“You’re right. I just had a bad dream, that’s it,” she sighed sadly. “My parents are mad at me. I didn’t tell them what happened. I just said I had a bad dream. You’re the only one I’ve told so far. Promise me you won’t tell anyone else.”
“I promise,” Hunter swore.
“Thank-you,” Emma smiled at her friend. “I can’t be around my parents right now, and I’m too scared to sleep alone. Can I sleep over at your place tonight?”
“Of course,” Hunter replied. The bell for first period rang. “Come on, we gotta get to class.” Emma nodded, and followed Hunter to their first class.
Emma had been tired all day, but not once had she drifted off to sleep. Every time she passed by some dark corner, she thought she saw that creature lurking in her peripheral vision, but when she swung her head around there was nothing there. She feared that imaginary monster from her bedroom, which made her fear she was going crazy.
She had gone to Hunter’s house straight after school, not wanting to risk being delayed at home and having to make the trip in the dark. It was so ridiculous, being afraid of the dark. Fortunately, she slept over at Hunter’s most weekends, so everything she really needed was already there.
Lately, she had felt like she loved Hunter more than her own parents. She guessed that was pretty normal for her age; feeling like her parents didn’t understand her, and relating more to her BFF. Why couldn’t they have just been a little more sympathetic, like Hunter? Of course, she hadn’t really told them what happened. She was afraid they’d think she was crazy. Hunter was the only one she trusted.
She smiled warmly at Hunter as she walked into her bedroom, carrying snacks for them.
“Are you hungry?” She asked. Emma nodded, even though her fear and weariness had taken away most of her appetite. She thought that maybe some chocolate might make her feel better. As she nibbled on the candy bar, her gaze drifted to the darkness outside the window, and she realized that night had fallen. For some reason, the night filled her with a sense of dread.
“Hunter could you, could you close the blinds, please?” she asked timidly.
“Of course,” she said. She got up and pulled the blinds down, shutting out the night. Emma felt a little better.
Normally their sleepovers were filled with more banal chatter, but Emma simply wasn’t feeling very talkative this evening.
“Do you wanna just go to bed now?” Hunter asked after they had watched a movie. Emma nodded. “I borrowed one of those glade nightlight plug in things from downstairs,” Hunter told her, holding up the little device. “Would you like me to plug it in?” Emma smirked at herself in embarrassment.
“Yes, I would actually. Thank-you,” she admitted.
“No problem,” Hunter smiled. She plugged the nightlight in, then turned off the lights. “How’s that?” she asked.
“It should be okay,” Emma told her. She also had a flashlight that she was going to sleep with; just in case. Hunter crawled into bed beside Emma, and Emma snuggled up beside her like a small child next to her parent for safety. Hunter snickered.
“You’re such a baby,” she taunted gently. She soothingly stroked Emma’s hair and gently kissed her forehead. “Go to sleep, sweetie.” Emma was so very tired, and here beside Hunter, she felt safe. She closed her eyes.
“Go to sleep.”
Emma awoke to darkness.
The nightlight had gone out. Everything was black. All she could see were the shadows standing around the bed.
“Hunter! Hunter!” she cried as she fumbled for the flashlight. Hunter groaned as she was roused from a restful sleep.
“Uhhh…what? What is it?” she asked while still half asleep.
“It’s back! That thing is back!” she screamed.
“No. Emma, you’re dreaming,” Hunter claimed.
“No! Look! Look!”
Emma turned on the flashlight.
All around the bed stood roughly a dozen of the creatures Emma had seen the previous night. They were all looking down on them, smiling a smile of a sociopath. Hunter screamed in terror, and the things broke out in a fit of cackling laughter.
“Twofer!” they cheered in unison. “Twofer twofer twofer!” The girls didn’t know what to do.
“This isn’t real!” Emma told herself. “It can’t be real. Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!”
The creatures only cackled at her. Suddenly the girls felt themselves falling, as if the bed beneath them had just disappeared. Screaming, they fell like Alice down the rabbit hole, except that there wasn’t the slightest glimmer of light from anywhere.
When Emma landed on the ground, it felt cold and stony, and the air was cold as well. Though she could see nothing, she felt like she was outside. How was that possible?
“Hunter? Hunter!” she shouted. Her voice echoed, confirming that she was now in a wide open space. This couldn’t be real.
“Emma!” Hunter’s distant voice shouted back. “Emma help me!” Emma realized that she was still holding the flashlight. She turned it back on. The meek beam of light didn’t let her see very far, but it was something. The ground looked like it was gravel, with absolutely no sign of any plants, or life.
Emma ran towards Hunter’s screams.
“Wake up. Wake up wake up wake up,” she ordered herself again.
“Emma!” Hunter was close now. Emma pressed on towards her desperate voice. When at last the flashlight shone upon something other than barren ground, she screamed.
There was a great tall tree ahead, but its branches were bare and skeletal. All around its trunk lay the bones from hundreds, maybe thousands of Human skeletons, with a few fresher corpses laying on top.
Hunter was hanging upside down from the top of the tree, held up by a bizarre tendril wrapped tightly around her legs. She had been stripped of her bedclothes, and her bare skin was now covered with numerous, fist sized ticks. Blood leaked out and down her body from every puncture wound.
She was weeping hysterically.
All around the pile of skeletons were the nightmare creatures. Dozens of them. They danced around in a circle, waving their hands over their heads, and chanting in a bizarre language.
As Emma tried desperately to think of a way to rescue her friend, or how any of this could possibly be real, she heard a great beast roar in agony behind her. She spun around, but before she could see anything she was slapped by a tentacle. The flashlight was knocked to the ground and destroyed.
Absolute Darkness, now.
“Did you see me!” An inhuman and anguished voice demanded. “Did you see me!” Emma was now being lifted up by the giant beast’s tentacles. She screamed as the thing dangled her by her ankle.
“No! No, I didn’t see you!” Emma insisted. The beast wailed again.
“This is a Sanctum of Darkness! Always the Light, the Light it shines and it shows me for what I am, and then they hiss at me and call me monster, call me Evil when they see what I have done. The Light condemns me. I cannot bear it, but it will not relent. Even in death, when there should have been nothing, only darkness, the Light was still there. The Light was brighter then ever, and even I could see what a wretched soul I was. I could not bear it! The Light showed me that horror that was me! I could not bear it!
“I fled that cursed Light, to find the oblivion I was promised, the darkness. This is a Sanctum of Darkness. There is no Light here to expose me for what I am, no Light by which to judge my sins. No one can see me here. Not even God can see me here. If no one can see me, then no one can judge. No one can say that what I do is wrong, not in the Sanctum of Darkness. No one can call me Evil.”
Another tentacle stripped Emma of her clothes, then passed her over to the tree. Emma could feel a tendril wrapping round and round her legs, tighter and tighter. She begged for mercy in the darkness that was indistinguishable from blindness. She heard clicking sounds, then screamed at the feeling of enormous insects crawling up her skin. She swatted then off frantically in the darkness, but some still managed to lodge themselves into her skin, releasing hot blood that dripped down to her face. No matter how hard she pulled she could not remove them.
Suddenly she was thrown into a spasm as her entire body was flooded was the most horrific agony she had ever known. Just as she felt she could take no more and would lose consciousness, the pain stopped. She stopped screaming as well. She hadn’t realized she had been screaming, but her throat was actually soar from it. Hunter had been screaming too.
Down below they could hear the creatures cackling at them.
“My Children rejoice at your cacophony,” the tentacled thing said. “I made them from my own flesh, so they are like me. They do not begrudge me my yearnings. They are like me.”
“Please, please you have to let us go!” Hunter pleaded. There was only laughter.
“All say that, yet I let no one leave!”
“Why? Why!” Hunter demanded.
“Because we are miserable! We are wretched and horrid and abandoned and shunned! We cannot abide in the Light, for in it we see that we are Abomination! So we must wallow in the Sanctum, hidden from all eyes. It is not right that we alone should suffer so. Why should the innocent be allowed respite from horror when we are not! I must make my own justice. I must make all that I can suffer equally, as I do, for it is not fair that I should suffer alone.
“Sing for my Children!” Another wave of agony cascaded through the girls’ bodies, and they screamed and flailed and wept.
They must have been hanging there for hours, but it was impossible to tell time. They had lost count of how many times the Tree had tormented them. At first Emma had been grateful that at least the pain was not constant, but she no longer was. If the pain was constant, she would eventually acclimatize to it, become numb to it. In time it would be nothing but white noise.
But the Weeping Tree, as she had named it, was not so merciful. The agony was so consuming, she could think of nothing except for how desperately she wanted it to end. She thought it was pathetic, that the only thing she had to look forward too was simply not being tortured. But each respite from the pain was worst then the last. Her dread of the agony was now as strong as the torture itself, so even when the Weeping Tree let her be, her own emotions tortured her from within.
The worst thing about it all was the helplessness. She remembered reading somewhere about an experiment with two rats, each in a separate cage. Both cages would be electrified together at random intervals, but one rat had the ability to shut the electricity off to both cages by pulling a switch. Even though they were exposed to the same amount of physical pain, the rat who could shut the electricity off was completely healthy, while the other had developed a stomach ulcer. The sense of helplessness, of powerlessness, was far more devastating to that rat than any physical pain.
That was what was happening to her. There was nothing, nothing she could do to ease her torments, or Hunter’s. She was so weak she could barely move. Her voice was so soar from screaming and weeping she couldn’t even speak to Hunter. She was so tired, but the Weeping Tree wouldn’t let her sleep. She couldn’t even see. She was completely at the mercy of her captors, and they had none. So desperate was she for relief, she would have welcomed death.
At first she had thought the ‘bedbugs’, as she had later named them, would quickly bleed her to death. But after sometime she felt them crawling back up her skin, only to be replaced by fresh ones. She also realized that despite how much she had wept, she was not thirsty. She urinated twice, each time the warm urine dripping down to her face, and defecated once, but that was a while ago. She came to the horrifying revelation that the bedbugs were not sucking her blood at all, but nourishing her. They were giving her sustenance, keeping her alive, providing some kind of dialysis. They presumably left to replenish their reserve from some hidden source in the darkness. What if she had to live for years, even decades like this? She had a panic attack then.
When she had calmed down a little, she tried to be rational. She remembered the rat with the stomach ulcer. She was not only being tortured but deprived of sleep. The Human body could only take so much. She didn’t think a person could even survive being hung upside down for a prolonged period of time. Then again, she had no idea what the bedbugs were injecting her with. For all she new, they might be able to keep her alive indefinitely, even in this condition.
But even if her body survived for years, surely her mind wouldn’t. Not without hope, and certainly not without sleep. If she went long enough without sleep, she would start hallucinating, she knew that. Then at least, she would be able to see something again. She could only hope that her delusions would be less horrifying then the nightmare that had taken her prisoner. Fear, agony and exhaustion would drive her mad eventually. If death would not provide relief, then surely madness would.
Days. Had she been there for days?
She was utterly exhausted, but the Weeping Tree would not let her sleep. She knew that she wasn’t sleeping, because she couldn’t remember any dreams at all. As tired as she was, she was in a strange way grateful for her weariness, because it was the only thing that gave her any sense of time in the Blind Darkness.
She wondered about her parents back home, if they were looking for her. What if they had thought she ran away? She and Hunter had vanished mysteriously from their bedroom. There would be no signs of forced entry, no ransom demands, no reason to think they had been kidnapped. But she had been angry with her parents. It would make more sense to think that she and Hunter had run away together in the middle of the night. That made her sad. She wished that they could have parted on better terms. She wished that she could see them again.
They would never even find her body. Earlier, Emma had held out hope that someone might come to rescue them, that somehow, someone would find them. But she could smell the corpses rotting beneath her, and the last thing she would ever see were the thousands of skeletons around the Weeping Tree. She had no idea how they had been taken to this place, or how this place or these monsters could even exist. No one would ever find them here.
Emma thought as hard as she could, but could not recall a single reference to anything like the Sanctum of Darkness or the Weeping Tree. Surely, if anyone had ever escaped to tell others of this place, their story would be known.
No one had ever escaped to speak of this place.
She couldn’t see anything, but she could hear Hunter sobbing softly beside her. She could hear the Children cackling and scurrying around beneath her, whispering. Sometimes the Tree would dangle them lower, and she could feel their blind hands groping her. She was too weak to offer any resistance. She could also hear that thing, forever rambling in a seemingly schizophrenic matter about the Light.
The Light was always plotting to burn it and its Children, to show them that they were evil monsters. The Light was always trying to get in, and not even the Sanctum of Darkness was truly safe.
Emma decided that she needed to give this creature a name. Above all else, it feared the light. At first she thought of calling it the photophobe, but she thought that sounded more like someone who was afraid of having their picture taken. Instead she decided to call it the Illumiphobe, for it feared illumination, both literal and moral. She didn’t know if that was grammatically correct, but it didn’t matter.
After days of such unimaginable torment, Emma could endure no longer. She was desperate for relief, either from death or madness, and both were too slow in coming. She knew the Illumiphobe wanted to keep them suffering for as long as possible, but from its inane ramblings in the darkness she had learned its weakness, its fear. After days of helplessness and powerlessness, she began to believe that she might have some power over the creature. As much as it pained her, she could still speak. Maybe, just maybe, she could taunt the thing into killing her.
“Hey!” She shouted hoarsely into the darkness. “Hey, you monster!”
“You can’t call me a monster!” It bellowed at her. “You can’t see me, you don’t know what I am!”
“I don’t have to see you,” Emma hissed at it. “I saw the horrid abominations you called your Children. I know this Weeping Tree and the agony it inflicts upon the innocent. I saw the countless skeletons below.” She was forced to pause as the Weeping Tree began to torture them again.
“Ahhh! You snatch little girls from their bed, bring them into your Darkness and cause them to suffer as much as you can, only because you cannot bear to suffer alone in the Darkness, nor can you bear the Light. It doesn’t matter that I can’t see you, I still know what you are and what you’ve done, and I say that you are a Monster! That you are Evil! You are Evil!”
The Illumiphobe wailed in fury.
“You cannot say that!” it shouted. “There is no Light here! No Light to see! There can be no Light in Death. Only Darkness and Oblivion. There can be nothing in Death! No Judgement! How can there be Judgement! You cannot judge me, you cannot see me! There is no Judgement, no Light, only Death and Darkness!”
“Even here there is Light enough to judge you and your sins, and I judge you Evil!” Emma cried at it. “ Evil! Evil! Evil!”
She was hoping the Illumiphobe would kill her then, but instead it just started weeping and rambling about the cursed Light, how it had found it, how it needed to hide forever, and so fourth. Emma felt a sudden pang of hopelessness when she realized it wasn’t going to kill her. She was still powerless to free herself.
“Shut up Emma!” Hunter shouted. “This is your fault! You did this to me! These things, they only wanted you! You led them to me! I would be free right now if it wasn’t for you! I’m going to die here because of you! If you ever really loved me you would have tried to protect me! You would never have slept over with these things after you! You’re a horrible, selfish EVIL person and I hate you! I hate you Emma! I hate you!”
Emma was appalled. Hunter hated her. That, more than anything else she had suffered through, was unbearable. And the more she thought about it, the more she realized that she was right. Hunter had every reason to hate her. This was her fault. She had betrayed her. Emma said nothing, for she had nothing to say. She simply wept.
The Illumiphobe snickered.
“At least I am not the only one burnt by the Light,” it mused.
No. This couldn’t be real. Hunter couldn’t hate her. More than the monsters, more than anything else, that was simply too unbelievable. Hunter couldn’t hate her. This couldn’t be real. This was all too horrible to be real.
“Wake up,” Emma muttered, in spite of how immensely exhausted she was. “Wake up.”
The Illumiphobe snickered again, and began stroking her with its tentacle.
“Go to sleep,” it said, almost gently.
Go to sleep.