© G.C. Shar
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‘You DON’T still sleep with a nightlight, do you?’ teased Jacob, swinging his legs above Archie’s head on the top bunk.
“No!… Sometimes… not usually,” replied Archie, trying to sound braver than he felt. This was the first time Jacob had come for a sleepover. He was the coolest friend that Archie had and he definitely didn’t want to seem like a baby in front of him.
“Well then, you won’t mind me turning it off,” said Jacob, leaping heroically off the bunk and hitting the switch. “Night night, don’t let the bed bugs bite!”
Archie rolled over to face the wall and tried to stay calm. He squeezed his eyes shut, hard, so that they felt all wrinkly around the edges, and counted to ten. It was about time he slept without the familiar and comforting glow, he thought.
Archie woke with a jump.
The house was silent.
He listened carefully, trying to hear anything besides his pounding heartbeat and nervous breathing.
Just as he was about to drift back to sleep, a grating scraping noise came from beneath his bed. It sounded like something was trapped underneath the floorboards, cutting into the wood with a sharpened blade to escape. *What is that?* he thought, eyes wide, his throat dry as a desert. “Jacob?” he called out hopefully. A loud snore from the bunk above was Jacob’s reply. *I must have imagined it* he tried to assure himself, pulling his covers tight above his head, when… There it was again! A slow, long scrape along his floorboards. Archie gulped. How had it not woken Jacob?
He fumbled for his glasses on the bedside table to investigate the mysterious noise. There was no hope of sleeping until he knew for sure who, or what, had made it. His lamp wouldn’t turn on, no matter how much Archie hoped that his stubborn flicking of the switch would work, so the light in the room remained dim. He sat up and shuffled to the edge of his bed. *What?!* His feet were hovering mid-air… Tentatively, he looked down.
His eyes widened. Below him loomed an endless pit of darkness. There were no longer wooden floorboards beneath his holey socks. It looked as if his whole room hung suspended in space, the walls and furniture all floating unsupported. His heart skipped a beat.
Suddenly and forcefully, Archie felt himself being drawn into the pit with the same tummy-turning feeling he got when going over the edge of a death slide. He clawed desperately at his bedsheets but it was no use. An invisible force was sucking his entire body down, down, down.
With a terrible smack, he plummeted into a fast-flowing thick, black river. It reminded Archie of the scared octopus he laughed at in the aquarium and the ebony liquid that oozes from his dad’s favourite pen.
Trembling from the icy cold ink, he hurtled downstream. Dodging the sharp rocks poking menacingly above the surface. Flailing around the wild grabbing whirlpools, desperate to suck him under.
Eyes wide, Archie opened his mouth and forced his struggling lungs to scream. No sound came. It didn’t matter... There was nobody to listen to his cries.
He stared at his surroundings in despair. Everything was covered in a blanket of sinister fog. Lining the jagged edge of the river, Archie saw grotesque shadows slinking past with clawed werewolf fingers and long mutated limbs. They were like the shadows who danced around his walls at night when car lights passed by his window... His hanging dressing gown looking like the curved hunchback of a monster. His swivelling desk chair mimicking a predator ready to pounce.
Giant spiders spun majestically, creating a vast domed web of fine silver thread above his head. Knobbly trees swayed their sharp needle branches low over the river, as if trying to catch and tangle Archie into their dark, dense forest. The stormy charcoal sky hung heavy. There were no stars.
A deafening cry of anguish echoed around the cave-like space as a flash of lightning lit up the surroundings. The crash of a cymbal rang in Archie's ears. In the fleeting burst of light, he saw with horror what lay ahead… The sharp drop of a waterfall.
As the wild inky river hurled Archie over the edge, he bit his lip hard. *No, no, no, this can’t be happening…* At that moment, he thought of his warm, cuddly mum who made him his favourite green spaghetti and his dad who always had time to mess around with him and a football. His best friends from school who never failed to make him laugh. Jacob, who just moments before had been snoring peacefully on the bunk above him.
The sound of crashing water rumbled closer, closer, dangerously closer.
SPLASH!!! Archie collapsed into a pool so deep he couldn’t reach the floor. His face froze in shock as it plunged under the surface. In that second, it seemed to Archie that time ran in slow motion. The muffled sound of being submerged in water echoed through the depths. The ebony water blinded him as he sunk lower. Something slimy wrapped around his legs and brushed his fingers and toes. Archie felt as though the chill had reached inside of him, shooting through his veins. Freezing his vital organs. Wrapping its icy fingers around his skull.
Archie believed at that moment that he might drown. That he might be lost at the bottom of the pool. That nobody would even know how to find him…
It took all his strength to push upwards. Kicking his feet with fury. Trying to ignore the lightheaded feeling of his last breath leaving his lungs.
He finally broke through the surface, gasping for the stale air that he was now so grateful of. His vision blurred. He realised that his glasses must have flown off in the fall. Spluttering in the rough waves, he swam to the edge, lined with thorny spikes. He pushed himself up and collapsed, exhausted, into a ball on the side of the bank. He shook furiously, unsure if it was from cold or fear.
After what seemed like hours, Archie heard a thunderous growl and the sound of approaching feet, vibrating the ground under his head. Must get up. Not able to move. Completely deflated. "Be brave, be brave..." he whispered to nobody but himself, and just as the footsteps were nearly upon him, he mustered the strength to push himself up, ready to run.
But something stopped him. A whimper.
He glanced backwards at the threatening shape, his fuzzy vision just making out a warped and deformed shadow, so horrible that he was about to run again when the whimpering continued. Archie realised that whatever this thing was, it didn’t want to harm him. That the thing itself was seriously hurt.
Cautiously, Archie reached a trembling hand towards the shadowy shape limping towards him. His fingers met with the softest velvety fur he had ever touched. “Oh...” he whispered, surprised that the creature felt so smooth, “Maybe you’re not so scary after all…”
“Please,” wheezed the creature, “Take me to the light, or I will die.”
There was desperation in its voice.
“Where can I find the light?” Archie asked.
“…Inside your heart, Archie.” was the vague reply.
“That doesn’t make any sense! Tell me more.” Archie pleaded, but the creature had closed its eyes and showed no attempt at further explanation.
Archie looked around in panic, everything surrounding him was the blackest black and blurry, partially from the mist but mostly from his lack of glasses. He scooped the fragile and terrified creature into his arms and began to move. There was no chance of him helping when he could barely see, he decided.
Taking a huge breath, Archie dived towards the bottom of the jet-black pool, towards the unknown, feeling around for his glasses with one hand and cradling the creature in the other. As he was engulfed by the pool’s water once more, something magical and peculiar happened…
The rough waves of the pool’s surface calmed and rippled.
The thick ink transformed into pure, crystal-clear water.
The icy cold became pleasantly warm.
Archie thought he saw a sliver of a silver ribbon floating gracefully past him.
He soon found his glasses and pushed them onto his face. Apart from a small star-shaped crack in one lens they were perfectly unharmed by the sharp rocks, and Archie could see clearly once more. With the water calm, he easily made it to the other side to climb out.
Archie had a strange feeling. He felt a strong presence looming in the shadows. Was something following them? He stared at the pool, the forest of trees. No signs of movement apart from the rustling of the wind and the violent crashing of the waterfall. They were safe, for now.
He looked down at the trembling creature in his arms for the first time with cleared vision. It had skeletal bat-like wings, vacant, droopy eyes, a long sting-ray tail and a large oval body covered with mossy fur. It was like no creature Archie had seen before.
"You must be freezing," he realised; although it was summer, this strange land had frozen ground, as if someone had sealed it with glue. Here, it seemed like a dark winter's night, although without the comforting heat of a fireplace or a creamy hot chocolate to warm his insides that he was used to. Archie's soaked pyjamas weren't helping, as the warmth of the water had quickly disappeared into the empty air.
Although its frowning, wrinkled trunk face terrified him, he strode over to the nearest gnarly tree to rip off the last remaining leaves that clung on to the ends of the branches, in a hope to dry him and the creature. As his soft fingers met with the first barely alive charred leaf, the most bizarre thing happened.
The leaves began to grow. And grow... And grow...
Their grey, tired surfaces sprung to life, transformed into a wondrous emerald green, grew larger than Archie's head.
He looked in amazement as the slumping branches began to bounce happily.
He was sure he must have imagined it, but he could have sworn that the downturned face of the tree was now smiling…
Archie ripped off two of the largest leaves and wrapped the creature up in the first, “That should be warmer for you.” he smiled, before drying himself off with the second. The frail creature shuddered with gratitude at the warmth of the leaf. Its fur seemed to slightly glow. “What's your name?” he asked, curious to find out more, but he saw that the creature was still too weak to reply.
The strange feeling returned. Whipping his head around, Archie caught the edge of a shadow sprinting for cover. Someone, or something, was following. Creeping behind them. Waiting for the right moment to strike. Closing in on them.
His only choice was to battle on. The light was close, he could feel it.
Archie walked across the nightmare-land, with the soft creature cradled in his arms. A howling gust of wind nearly knocked the pair to the ground. Archie stopped to steady himself. At that moment, the floor beneath his feet gave way without warning. He jumped in alarm as he felt himself sinking. He raised his foot, with great effort, to continue to walk forwards – but this just made him sink even further. He tried to walk backwards… squelch, squelch, sink. The ground was swallowing them whole.
When the rough ground reached Archie’s chest he raised the creature high above his head. *Be brave, be brave*, he reminded himself, blinking hard for a second. He slowed his breathing and looked around him. The ground looked boggy for a few metres around them, but he spotted what looked like solid ground, not too far away. He knew he must save the wailing creature, and this was his only hope.
With as much power as he could find, Archie threw the creature towards the solid earth to safety. As he saw its graceful wings gliding forwards and its ropey legs land gently without sinking Archie couldn’t help but smile.
As if by magic, the powerful ground around his body loosened its grip. The muddy arms which were pulling him flaked away into nothing. The earth was solid once more. He was free!
*Was that a flutter of glitter passing by in the wind?...*
The creature seemed to be slowly gaining in strength as it tried to steady itself to stay upright. Archie ran over and scooped it into his arms to continue on their journey to find the light…
A loud scuttling sound, one which Archie could only compare to the magnified noise of a crab rushing away from capture along rocks, rang across the empty space. Coming closer, closer, closer. It was the follower. He scanned the surroundings. It only took a few seconds for his eyes to lock onto the source of the noise.
What he saw was hideous. It was made of rotting bones. A cloak of black smoke draped loosely over its flesh-less body. Its eyes burned yellow. Its malicious smile revealed decaying teeth, the colour of blood.
It moved towards them, its curled smile widening, its arms stretching forwards. Archie tried to run, but his legs were frozen with fear. A wave of guilt passed over him. Had he failed the creature?
“Archie,” it bellowed, Archie was frightened that it somehow knew his name, “I will spare your life, if you hand to me what is in your arms.”
“What?” Archie looked into the watery eyes of the creature, “No! He is defenceless and dying!” He brought his arms in closer to shield the creature from the lingering gaze of the bony follower. “I will not give him to you.”
Throwing its head back, the follower laughed a bellowing laugh, so loud that the ground shook.
“You would protect an insignificant life over your own.” It laughed louder. “Then you have chosen a certain death!” Its wicked laugh grew louder still, as it reached inside it’s smoky cloak and Archie saw the hint of a weapon being pulled out. The ground shook harder and harder, running away was made impossible.
As Archie sank to his knees, the skeletal hand paused in drawing the weapon. The laugh changed. Still as loud, the noise became a cough, then a choke. Archie raised his eyes and watched in disbelief as the bones began to crumble. The follower’s legs collapsed. His yellow eyes flashed like a broken lightbulb before fading into a blank nothingness. The ground became steady once more.
He ran for miles before feeling safe enough to slow to a walk.
They were alone at last to continue on their journey.
Archie looked down to his companion. He barely recognised the creature he had first seen by the pool edge. Now, the creatures fur was luscious and thick. Its eyes were bright, the colour of a lagoon. Its wings felt strong and its expression had changed from pained to peaceful.
He looked back up, only to see that they were surrounded by a huge wall of thorny tendrils, dangling from the ceiling. As they got closer, Archie realised that some of the tendrils were wriggling. They crawled and they clung. Oh no… they were filled with… Snakes! A small shiver shot down Archie’s spine. His heart pumped out of his chest. He hated snakes, but this was the only way forwards.
A small intake of breath.
A step forwards.
An outreached hand to clear their path...
As soon as his fingers touched the scaley surface of a snake’s body, the tendrils recoiled before swirling mysteriously, transforming into velvety curtains.
Wide-eyed and amazed, Archie stroked the silky curtains before pulling them gently apart…
Dazzling light shone enchantingly through the gap. “We made it!” he exclaimed to the creature, beaming. The creature smiled back, his energy had fully returned, “Thank you for being so brave, Archie.”
“I still don’t know your name?” asked Archie, delighted to see the creature’s strength overflowing.
“... My name,” it replied, eyes twinkling, “My name is Courage.”
The blinding light shone in Archie’s eyes, making him squint for just a moment. When he opened his lids, he was surprised to find that the magical curtains no longer stood before him. He no longer held the creature in his arms.
He was back in his bed and it was bright outside. Light peeked through his bedroom curtains.
“I had the most amazing dream!” he told Jacob over his breakfast of boiled egg and soldiers.
That night, his dad said goodnight and kissed him on the forehead before reaching down to switch on the nightlight. “I don’t think I will need that anymore…” Archie said, taking off his glasses, which had a small star-shaped crack in one lens.
“Are you sure, darling? I don’t want you to have any nightmares...” his dad replied, looking worried.
“I’m sure dad...” Archie said, blocking his father’s hand from the switch. “There's always light to be found,” he smiled, “even in the very darkest of places.”
- The End -