White. Joel’s room was so very white and pure it was impossible to imagine an environment freer of darkness and shadow. The soft padded floor and walls were white, as was the tiled ceiling. Even the padding on the heavy iron door was white.
Two bright one-hundred watt bulbs were set in a recess in the ceiling, covered by a sheet of clear plastic. Day in and day out, these guardians of light valiantly kept the darkness at bay. Every month or so Joel would find himself gripped with terror as one of his two paladins would succumb to the rigors of ceaseless combat with the tireless dark tide. Fearing his second protector would falter, leaving him defenseless, Joel would wail frantically until one of the orderlies would arrive to replace the martyred bulb with a fresh one.
Joel had been afraid of the dark ever since that terrible night he had followed Seth and Johnny into the dark bowels of Saint Catherine Catholic Church’s basement. When they descended the rickety wooden stairs, each of the men had been carrying a heavy duty flashlight, but these powerful beams of light weren’t enough to keep the darkness at bay. Nor was Seth’s .357 enough to stop what they had released.
Suddenly the lights in the hallway went out, causing the tiny plexiglass window set into the upper center of the cell’s door to turn black. This frightened Joel, causing him to cry out and flee to the far end of the room; he appeared as an armless specter as he darted across the room in his white leather straightjacket. Every night for over a decade Joel had witnessed the lights being turned off in the hall as the asylum shut down for the night, but it still gave him a start. Joel’s heart thundered in his chest.
“Just the ten o’clock lights out,” Joel assured himself in a whisper. “They never turn my light off. Just the lights in the hall.”
Still, the idea that darkness lurked behind the door to his cell chilled him to the bone. The black window looked like an evil black eye, staring in on him. Waiting . . .
Every night the routine was the same. Joel would become frightened by the lights being turned off in the hall, then he would reassure himself by taking a look at the lights in the ceiling to make sure they were in working order. However, when Joel crept from the back wall of his cell to the center of the room, he saw something that almost stopped his heart in mid-pump. One of the two light bulbs was flickering as if it was ready to go out at any time. The panic came in waves, pounding and eroding the shores of his mind. His breath quickened, his eyes watered, and his mouth became cottony. Whimpering like a beaten mutt, Joel retreated to a corner of the cell.
“It’s okay,” Joel rasped. “The other light will last. The other light always lasts.”
There had been maybe a dozen times that one of the lights had gone out in the middle of the night. No one had come to change out the bulb then; the night shift was on duty, and apparently there was no maintenance man on the night shift. What if both guardians should pass on to glory in the middle of the night? Would no one come and replace these vital warriors?
Joel tried not to think about it.
The lights had only gone out once in his room; that was his first day at the asylum. And then it wasn’t because the light bulbs had played out; it was simply because someone had turned out the light in his room. The doctor had apparently failed to notify the staff of their new patent’s extreme fear of the dark. That night Joel had screamed and wailed until one of the doctors realized what had happened. All in all, the whole episode lasted maybe ten minutes — to Joel, it seemed like an eternity.
Joel found he couldn’t take his eyes off the flickering bulb. He cowered in his corner, quietly pleading to his dying protector, “Please don’t leave me. The darkness will come and get me. Oh, please don’t go out.”
Seth tucked his nickel-plated .357 magnum into the front of his pants while Johnny tested out the flashlights. Standing a little over six feet tall with enormously wide shoulders, Seth reminded Joel of a hairless bear — hairless except for a stubbly crewcut, that is. Johnny, on the other hand, was as skinny as a rail; he was a tough old bird who sported a jagged scar across his left cheek from a knife fight in his younger days.
“Maybe we should all be armed,” Joel said without turning from the recently discovered trapdoor set into the floor of the church’s foyer.
“Go get something,” Seth suggested. “You still got that shotgun you bought from Sam Perkins, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Joel said, finally turning from the trapdoor. “I could run home and . . .”
“No,” Johnny interrupted, “There’s no need.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” pointing at Johnny’s Ugly Stick. The old wooden baseball bat with its name burned into the end in bold letters was Johnny’s way of maintaining order at the bar he owned and operated on the other side of town.
“I really don’t think we’re going to find anything down there,” Johnny replied, “but, if we do, the only thing that’s going to help us is our faith in the good Lord.”
“You done gone and caught religion on me, Johnny,” Seth asked with a hollow grin.
Joel ignored Seth’s attempt to lighten the tension and said, “Religion didn’t help Father Weaver, did it?”
“Father Weaver killed himself,” Johnny replied bluntly.
“Yeah, the night after he found the basement,” Joel said.
“Maybe Weaver had something to do with what happened to those girls,” Johnny suggested, “Maybe it was just his way of confessing before he took the coward’s way out and hung himself. We’ll probably find evidence that he’s known about the basement all along and been using it for some sick purpose.”
Johnny’s statement didn’t exactly set well with Seth, the only catholic of the three. “Father Weaver didn’t kill those girls. I’ve known that man for over ten years, and he didn’t have a mean bone in him. Maybe he just saw something down there that . . . you know . . . Something he couldn’t handle.”
“If that’s the case, then whoever or whatever tore those three girls apart is still on the loose,” Johnny said. “Hell, it might even be down there.”
“Guess so,” Seth agreed with a nod.
A long silence passed before Johnny built the courage to say what needed to be said. “Let’s get this over with.”
Seth reached down and grasped the iron ring set into the trapdoor and pulled the door open. Johnny was the first to descend into the darkness, followed by Seth, then Joel.
Suddenly there was a sharp pop and a flash of bright light from the fixture in the ceiling as one of the paladins of light went out in a blaze of glory.
Joel shrieked at the top of his lungs. His cry of fright was quickly taken up by dozens of patients throughout the floor — any old excuse to do some good yelling. Joel ran to his cell door and began pleading for someone to come change the bulb in his room, but, yell as he might, there was simply no way one of the men on the night shift was going to hear him over the commotion he had stirred up among his fellow patients.
Giving up on getting one of the orderlies’ attention, Joel turned about to have a good look at his remaining protector. When he did, his heart almost stopped in his chest. Even with only one bulb working, there should have been considerably more light in the room. Slowly, he stepped toward the center of the room, where he could get a better look up into the fixture.
Joel felt a damp warmth in his crotch as he released his bladder. The remaining bulb was flickering as if it would go out at any time. Apparently it was the good bulb that had burst a few seconds ago.
At the foot of the stairs, the three men found themselves in a small room the size and shape of the foyer overhead. The floor and the walls were smooth and unadorned. The only exit to the room was directly before the stairs, positioned exactly where the entrance to the chapel was located in the church overhead.
The three men stepped out of the small chamber and into a much larger room. Cutting the curtain of pitch dark, their flashlights revealed a sight so horrible that Joel couldn’t have imagined it in a thousand nightmares. The vile chamber was a twisted replica of the Catholic chapel overhead. Deep niches were carved into the stone wall where there should have been stained glass windows. The upper chapel’s bright fixtures had been replicated using black iron. The ornate statues of various Christian themes were hideously changed — wicked demons replaced Jesus, Mary, and the saints, and the miracles they depicted above were warped into terrible acts of cruelty and violence here below.
Just like in the chapel above, a small altar was positioned before the pulpit. However, instead of the brass goblet and plate for holy communion, there was evidence of a much different ritual — a ritual that was similar only in that it also involved body and blood. The surface of the altar was covered in deep crimson. Blood dripped from its front edge.
The blood was fresh.
The metallic click of Seth cocking his revolver echoed in the dark, empty chapel.
“My God,” Seth gasped.
“God ain’t got a damn thing to do with anything in this room,” Johnny replied, “Not one damn thing.”
“Listen guys, I don’t like this one bit,” Joel said, his trembling voice raised just above a choked whisper. “Let’s get out of here.”
Johnny shook his head. His scar seemed to glow in the dim light given off by his flashlight. “No, we came down here to find out what’s the hell’s been going on, and I don’t plan on leaving until I have an answer. In case you forgot, one of them girls that got ripped limb from limb was my niece.”
“I know, I know, but this is a little bit more than we expected to find,” Joel said, “We need to report this to the sheriff.”
“We’re gonna report it to the sheriff right after we have a look around.”
Without a word, Joel turned to Seth, harboring the hope that the big man would agree to the prospect of getting the hell out of this nightmare.
Seth shrugged undecidedly.
“Not you too,” Johnny said. He motioned to the pistol in Seth’s beefy right hand, “It’s not like the sheriff’s department is going to be any better armed than we are.”
Still undecided, Seth remained silent.
“Hell, am I the only one here with a set of balls? I just want to have a look around, then we can go tell the sheriff.”
“I guess it wouldn’t hurt just to have a look around,” Seth agreed finally.
Johnny turned to Joel. “Well, are you with us, or are you going to turn tail and run home to mommy?”
“I’m with you,” Joel said with a sigh. He knew he was already going to get more than his fair share of ribbing, but if he left now he would be the butt of every joke told at Johnny’s bar for the next year or so.
They started down the aisle toward the altar with Johnny and Seth leading the way and Joel reluctantly bringing up the rear.
Seth stopped at the end of the aisle and investigated the bloody altar while Johnny stepped behind the pulpit. Sitting on the podium, Johnny found a large tome bound in black leather. The massive book lay open, revealing handwritten words and symbols from some long forgotten language.
Joel saw Johnny reach for the book, screamed for him not to touch it, but it was too late.
Slowly a cloak of darkness descended on the room. The howling of his fellow patients ringing in his ears, Joel slumped to the floor and began to weep.
He hazarded another glance at his faltering protector. Having spent almost ten years in a cell believing that the only tether keeping him from the fiery pits of Hell was the twin bulbs shining from the ceiling, Joel had become quite the expert on light bulbs. He knew these bulbs weren’t supposed to fade away — they glowed just as bright as ever until they winked out all at once. Light bulbs simply didn’t fade away, but this one was doing just that.
Something was terribly wrong, and Joel knew exactly what it was — after all these years, the darkness was finally coming for him. There was no stopping the dark tide.
As soon as Johnny touched the massive book, his hand recoiled like he’d touched a live wire. But Joel could tell the reaction hadn’t been caused by a physical repulsion by the look of extreme horror on his friend’s face. When Johnny made contact with the book, this vile tome had somehow shown Johnny something — something horribly repulsive.
Seth started to ask Johnny what had happened, but all he managed to get out was, “What the hell . . .” He was suddenly interrupted by a powerful burst of wind from behind the pulpit, almost blowing all three men off their feet. The stench was almost overpowering.
With the pistol gripped tight in his right hand and the flashlight in his left, Seth shined his light behind Johnny and muttered, “Sweet mother of God.”
When Johnny turned about and saw what was behind him, the alcoholic son of a Baptist minister crossed himself.
Somehow, the three men had failed to notice this monstrosity when they approached; either that or Johnny had summoned it when he touched the book. It was a blasphemous alteration of the life-sized crucifix that hung behind the pulpit in the aboveground chapel. Instead of a depiction of Jesus in his final moments, there was black, rotten corpse nailed on the cross — a corpse that was writhing and twisting as if trying to free itself.
Seth took aim and fired twice.
Both shots appeared to have missed their mark, but Joel noticed an open wound in the corpse’s left side that was pouring forth a black oily substance. As soon as this thick liquid touched the floor, it turned to a dense, black mist.
Joel took a quick glance around and noticed that this thick blackness was also pouring forth from the niches in the walls.
“Let’s get the hell out of here!” Joel shouted.
Seth needed no more encouragement. He fired two more blind potshots in the direction of the demonic crucifix as he ran back up the aisle behind Joel.
Somewhere behind them, they heard Johnny scream; the scream was abruptly cut short.
Joel came to a sliding halt at the end of the aisle when he noticed the mist was blocking his path. He would have barreled on into the mist had he not seen something swimming in its dark vapors.
Seth slammed into Joel from behind, almost sending the two of them toppling forward into the dreadful fog.
The black mist was thick, like a soupy liquid floating in the air, unrestricted by the laws of gravity. Joel shined his flashlight into the blackness. The light was unable to penetrate the mist, but it was able to reveal the hideous abominations swimming in the murky fluid. Long thick grey masses — either worms or tentacles — were pooled together like spilled intestines; staring eyeballs and jagged-toothed mouths were distributed at random along their length. Grey mucus-like masses also floated lazily in the mist; a nightmarish bouquet of tendrils sprang forth from this mass, each arm ending in an eyeball, a mouth, or an edged claw. Smaller forms — piranha-like worms — darted among the larger masses.
“Jesus Christ!” Seth yelled.
Joel took a quick glance around and saw that the mist was closing in on all sides. Most of the pews to their left were submerged in a wall of darkness standing roughly six feet off the ground; it was a branch of this blackness that had expanded into the aisle, blocking their exit. Behind them, the writhing wall was at its highest, reaching all the way to the ceiling. The blackness to the right was the weakest point in the enclosing circle; only half of the pews were submerged here, and the mist had failed to reach across and link its left and right sides, leaving a gap of about ten feet halfway down the last row.
Seeing the opening, Joel ran between the two pews with Seth right behind him. The dark tide seemed to sense its prey was escaping. The gap began closing. Before Joel could reach the opening, the two outstretched arms of darkness met, completing the circle. However, the wall of darkness was still thin and only chest high at the new juncture.
Without breaking stride, Joel jumped up onto the pew and propelled himself over the mist. The blackness rose up, attempting block his exit. Joel splashed into the evil fluid, feeling its hot, slick dampness cling to his body. He felt two sharp bolts of pain from his left arm and his right side as one of the piranha-worms took a bite out of his forearm while another bit into his torso. His flashlight was jerked from his hand, and he felt a slick tentacle attempt to wrap itself around his ankle as he flew through the mist.
Joel crashed onto the floor behind the last pew.
Behind him, he heard Seth fire off his remaining two shots — bang, bang, click, click, click. Seth screamed, then he was silent.
With all three flashlights now on the other side of the impenetrable mist, Joel was now in total darkness. He was out of the mist, but he knew it was still reaching for him. He could feel it.
The absence of his vision certainly didn’t hide the horror. He could still smell the horrible stench of decaying flesh, he could still hear the sticky sloshing of the mist, and the pain in his arm and in his side served as a reminder of what would happen should the blackness catch him.
Joel sprang to his feet and lurched in the direction of the stairwell. Once he ran into the wall, but he redirected himself and was soon blindly clambering up the stairs.
He wasn’t sure exactly when he started screaming, but he was certain it wasn’t until he had exited Saint Catherine Church. In fact, Joel kept right on screaming and running until he passed out some fifteen miles away. When he came to three days later, he started screaming again.
Joel screamed once more, but was only answered by the screams and yells of his fellow patients. It was useless. He sat next to the door with his knees drawn to his chest.
The darkness was almost complete. He couldn’t make out the far wall, and the light in the ceiling — his last protector — was now just a bleary orb of white lost in a sea of darkness.
Something swam by Joel’s head and he knew it was over.
Copyright © 2002 by Byron Starr and Bewildering Stories.