I’ve always been a night person.
Even as a small child, I can still remember my stepmother affectionately referring to me as ‘her little night owl’ when she’d wake up to use the bathroom and find light pouring out from beneath my doorframe. This natural tendency towards the nocturnal wasn’t particularly enjoyable during the school year, especially as I entered high school and was expected to reach my bus stop by 6AM sharp. For somebody who got their second wind at around 11PM, it was incredibly hard to convince my brain to wind down and go to sleep rather than stay up all night going on my favorite internet forums, working on my old-school Geocities-hosted blog, or chatting the night away with internet friends I’d made on the other side of the globe. Many nights, I’d end up netting only one or two hours of sleep – if at all. High school was little more than a blur of drowsy days and nerdy nights, yet somehow I still managed to successfully graduate on time.
After I moved on to college, my devotion to the night became easier. Online courses had just become commonplace, so I managed to take almost my entire courseload via the web. I got a job stocking a nearby grocery store overnight, and daylight became less and less of a familiar sight for me.
When you live your entire life in the dark, it ceases to frighten you. My friends would ask me how I could manage to walk my dog at 4am without any fear, or if I didn’t get a little spooked by how quiet my dorms and apartment buildings always were as I went about my daily business. For me, the answer was always the same: I wasn’t scared at all. This might sound odd, but the best allegory that I can think of is that warm, cozy, yet closed off feeling one gets during a snowstorm. You’re inside, safe and warm, though admittedly cut off from the world. Living almost entirely at night is similar; I find it so familiar and easy, but I’m still aware that my city is almost entirely asleep when I’m awake. I’m somewhat isolated, yes, but it’s a comfortable solitude, not a painful loneliness.
I’m explaining this to you so that you understand just how serious what I’m about to tell you is. I’m not the kind of person who hears bumps in the night or sees monsters in shadows. The nighttime is my natural habitat, and I have always felt secure. So when I tell you that tonight, the darkness has managed to make me experience fear like no other, you should realize how unnatural that is.
It started like any normal day – er, night – for me. I woke up around 10PM and got my coffee perking. Seemingly fitting with my preference for night over day, I also favor incredibly dark coffee. The blend I made today was called Eclipse; both appropriate for its color as well as seeming like a strange portent to what would come later.
As I was frying up some bacon and eggs to go with my coffee, a loud crash from my living room rang through my apartment. It was followed by a strange crunching sound, and then a long, drawn-out creak. I almost dropped the pepper mill that I’d been holding, before coming to my senses and peeking around the corner into the living room.
It was, of course, completely empty. I live alone (well, except for my dog, who was currently perched on his dog bed in the kitchen and cocking his head back and forth at the noise) and keep my doors and windows locked at all times, and furthermore my apartment is what is called “shotgun” style – the front door and back door directly face each other, with the kitchen as the link between them. If anyone had come inside, they would have had to march right past my breakfast preparations. I can be spacey sometimes, sure, but even I would have noticed that!
As I peered around the room, attempting to figure out what could have fallen and broken and caused the mysterious noise, I felt the strangest sensation. It was as if someone had just brushed past me. I’m sure that sounds incredibly by-rote ghost story league, but it wasn’t the cold and clammy touch that most people claim to feel. This was… pleasantly warm, and the touch felt as if someone was gently rubbing the most luxurious, plush velvet across my cheek. It was a strange conflict in emotions; the logical side of my brain was terrified by the combination of inexplicable noises and now a seemingly ghostly presence, yet something about the touch felt so wonderful and safe – it was somehow nostalgic, actually. Like all the good times I’d had staying up way too late and having fun during high school, the pleasure of a nighttime stroll with only my dog and my thoughts as company, the perversely satisfied feeling of seeing my neighbors having to scrape nighttime frost off their cars in the morning while I was winding down my day and only had to worry about which book to curl up with in bed – somehow, this one touch embodied all those emotions at once. I was struck momentarily dumb as my brain tried to work out exactly how to feel, but before I’d fully decided one way or the other, I found myself turning around.
The room behind me – where the presence had seemingly been heading – seemed empty upon first glance, but something was definitely off. It took me a moment of staring to realize it, but when I did, a sharp spike of terror pierced all my previously confused feelings.
My window was open, and the curtains were fluttering gently in the night breeze. This would be unusual in and of itself, but that wasn’t the part that had shocked me.
Not only were my normally robin’s egg blue curtains suddenly some new shade that seemed somehow darker than black, but when I looked past them out the window – the moon was gone.
The sky was a complete and impenetrable inky black. No moonlight, streetlights, or even the light from within my apartment seemed to be reaching the world outside. The hazy moon that had been present when I’d awoken had either somehow disappeared or been completely eclipsed; the security light that tends to go off if you even so much as look in the direction of the apartment building opposite mine wasn’t activating even when I rushed to the window and tried to squint through the darkness. It was so completely black that I couldn’t even make out anything beyond my window.
For the first time in my life, I experienced true terror. What was going on? How could this possibly be explained? Was the world ending? Was this some strange new war weapon, a black fog of chemicals that dulled the senses? I was coming up with mountains of strange scenarios, each just as improbable as the next, yet none managed to be stranger than what I was actually seeing.
That’s when I saw it. The slightest flutter of movement – a ripple in the obsidian blackness outside. If I could see, it would have been right next to the gardens that surround the mailboxes. Those gardens are a bit of a labor of love for the apartment complex’s groundskeeper; not a day goes by that he isn’t out there doing some mulching, pruning, or planting. When he met me and learned about my nocturnal lifestyle, he took it upon himself to add some night-blooming jasmine to the gardens so that I would have something lovely to see when checking my mail in the middle of the night. Actually, now that I was thinking about it, the shimmer of movement was right around the jasmine!
Before I could even understand why, I was out my front door and gliding down the stairs to the ground floor. I felt consumed by a desire – no, a need – to understand what was going on, and I suspected that the disturbance in the force – so to speak – was my quickest avenue to getting answers.
Just as I approached the area where the jasmine should be, I suddenly realized just how foolhardy I’d been, rushing out into the black. I considered turning back, but then decided that as the entity had been in my apartment already, I probably was just as safe out here as I was inside. I heard a faint woof, and looked back to see my dog trotting up to me, tail wagging. That was a comfort, I decided. He was usually quite vigilant; if he was acting normal and unfazed, perhaps there truly wasn’t any danger.
I crouched down, feeling around, trying to find the jasmine. I can’t explain why, but for some reason I just knew that I needed one of the blossoms. After a few failed attempts (and some thorn pricks from a nearby rose bush), my hand came upon one of the in-bloom flowers. I snapped it off its stem and held it up to my face, inhaling the scent.
That’s when it happened.
Starting from the bloom that I was holding in my hand, what I can only describe as a dark light began to glow. Imagine a paper lantern, but with all the paper completely black; or perhaps a black light in an already pitch dark room. The light – for lack of a better term, I’ll just call it a light – engulfed the area, and I could faintly see the outlines and shapes of my surroundings. Gardens, mailboxes, unlit streetlamps –
– and the form of a woman, only a few feet in front of me.
I’d love to be able to describe her in detail to you, you know, “she was incredibly beautiful and had lips like luscious fruit and eyes that glowed like precious gems” or whatever, but… I couldn’t see any features. It was more as if she was simply darkness taking the form of a woman; I could see the faint outline of an evening gown, heels, and long hair in some sort of updo, but that was was it. There seemed to be a slight, hazy, purple-black mist radiating off of her as well – leaving absolutely no question that whatever this woman was, she could not possibly be human.
I didn’t know what to do. I stood, frozen, gaping at this mysterious entity, desperately trying to think of how to react. My stupor came to a quick end as my dog decided to take action before I did – he moved in an instant and bounded over to the smokey shape before I could hold him back. All the horror movies and stories that I’d absorbed over my lifetime flashed through my mind, and I reached out to try and protect my faithful companion from the doom that he had almost certainly earned. While the woman-thing wasn’t displaying any open aggression at the moment, this couldn’t end well.
Then the unthinkable – or rather, the completely unpredictable – happened. The darkness reached out an elegant hand and simply placed it on my dog’s head, just as I would to acknowledge him when he was sitting quietly by as we watched television or something. The form and canine both stayed still for a moment, as if somehow communing, and then my dog gave a happy yip and took off into the darkness. I was stunned but relieved, and this strange event managed to break me out of my shock enough to speak – even if it was nothing more than a strangled “eh?” sound.
The shadow laughed, a deep, throaty chuckle that gave me the same odd feeling of being caressed by velvet as the presence in my apartment. It dawned on me that this woman-shade, then, must have been the one who had passed by me earlier. Was this all just a ruse to get me out here? The noises in my empty apartment, the brief touch, the sheer strangeness outside – it suddenly all seemed very calculated. Rather than being put at ease by the laugh and the seemingly friendly treatment of my dog, I felt myself become even more anxious. What was going on? What was this thing, and what did she – it? – want from me?
I gathered up all my courage and decided to ask, as I was getting the distinct impression that this entity was waiting on me for some reason. If I didn’t say something soon, my heart might give out before we stopped staring at each other. But for all my resolve, I could only manage to stutter out one single word:
The darkness moved like liquid mercury, slipping immediately to my side. Those elegant shadow-hands once again reached out, this time to gently cup my face. When the answer came, I heard it both out loud and deep within my brain, as if the shade was speaking to all of my senses at once. It was an incredibly unsettling feeling, but not more so than the answer I received.
“You don’t understand yet? Small one, we have lived as close as lovers for your entire life. Your companion knew me from the moment I arrived, and greeted me as such. Do you truly not recognize me?”
At that moment, I once again felt that rush of nighttime nostalgia – the constant awareness and acceptance of my solitude, the joy of utter freedom borne of having the night to myself, the warmth and comfort of normal nightly habits, the rush of fondness I felt as I talked to far-flung friends by the glow of a monitor, the quiet companionship as I walked under the stars with my dog… it was just like before. This time, I understood what the velvety touch was trying to convey. I looked at the mist-woman and saw the relationship that I’d been cultivating my entire life; because what did I love more than the night itself?
“Ah. You see now,” the voice echoed. “You are correct. I am night itself; I am the one who you have dedicated your entire life to serving. I have come, dear one, to collect what is mine by right.”
Wait a minute, I found myself thinking at the voice. I don’t understand what you mean by that. Collect what is yours? Serve you? You’re making it sound like I’m some sort of sacrifice in an ancient cult to Nyx or something – I cut myself off and tried to think through the increasingly foggy, sleepy feeling that was encroaching upon my brain. Whether it was from her touch or from that increasingly heavy, sweet smell in the air, I was starting to feel a bit drugged. Everything’s trying to make me feel at ease and safe, but I can’t shake this deep, cold fear at the bottom of my stomach. Something isn’t right, but all I can sense is the thick floral scent and I’m starting to feel that pleasantly drowsy sensation you get from too many antihistamines and when did I get on my bed? But I’m in my pajamas and my dog is curled up next to me and the heater is on and it’s so warm and cozy and I’m just so sleepy and maybe just a nice nap in these dark velvet blankets will help me remember… because I’m trying to remember something… and that jasmine incense sure is nice and everything is so
as I snuggled into the covers, I felt something fall from my outstretched hand.
And suddenly, here I am. I’m wide awake and aware that I’m outside, almost completely enveloped in shadow. The jasmine-lantern is on the ground at my feet, and it seems that dropping it has broken the spell. I scramble backwards, kicking pointlessly at the wisps of black smoke that are still curling around my legs.
“Tch, such a rebellious child,” I hear Nyx’s voice, but this time it’s not in my head, she’s speaking out loud. “I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting you to resist; after all, you worship me with every facet of your life. It’s only natural that you return to me. Why do you fight?”
I sense true puzzlement in her question, not malice.I shake my head.
“I… it’s true that I’ve enjoyed living with you, but that’s just it: I’ve enjoyed living. I don’t understand, why are you trying to take me? What prompted this? I… I don’t want to die!” I shout the last part, trembling as I realize just how truthful my plea just now was. Oh, God, please let me survive this.
Nyx examines my face and, somehow, I get the feeling that she is frowning at me.
“But it’s impossible, dear one. You belong to me. I’ve left too much of a mark on you; can you even remember the last time that you saw daylight?”
I shake my head. It’s true; it’s probably been years since I’ve seen the sunshine and I never found it particularly troubling. That’s what Vitamin D supplements are for, right?
“It has been precisely three years that you’ve lived in complete darkness. Three years that you’ve dedicated yourself completely to me, forsaking Hemera in every way. You’ve reveled in my presence these past three years; I have felt your adoration calling to me. You’ve even presented me with flowers from my own domain as an offering,” she stated as she paused to pluck one of the jasmine blossoms. I watched her raise the flower up to her face and smiled as she inhaled its heady, thick floral scent. After a moment, she lowered the petals and continued:
“Tonight is the night that I am allowed to officially claim you as my child and take you home. You’re saying that you did not intentionally follow this rite? I’m sorry to say, but it cannot be reversed now. As I’ve said, you are mine, and I have come to collect what belongs to me.”
I’m so focused on her words, that I don’t even realize at first that Nyx has, once again, begun to envelop me in her shadows. I let out a small gasp and turn to run, only to have my arm gripped by a wreath of black mist.
“You still do not understand, child. It’s not a matter of some malevolent desire on my part; I simply cannot allow you to remain on this plane for fear of what will become of you. You are mine, and this means that you will cease to exist if you allow Hemera’s Day to catch you. If you want to be saved, you must allow me to take you. There is no alternative.”
I am chilled to the bone by her words. If she’s saying what I think she’s saying… I am in an impossible situation. It’s either allow her to “collect” me – and seemingly let my individual consciousness slip away, if what happened before was any indication – or cease to exist entirely once dawn’s light hits.
“In my embrace, it’s true that you will cease to be an individual entity. You will become the night itself. Is this truly so bad? Is it really worse than the decay that will meet you when Hemera awakens?”
It’s hard to accept. Part of what I loved about being alone at night was the sheer freedom I often felt; total self-reliance and the lack of normal societal demands left me feeling more alive than I can properly explain. And now my choices are to either completely lose my self and become… well, part of Nyx’s shadows, I assume… or to cease existing entirely. Is there even any difference between the two? At least if I die by day, I’ll still be myself at the end… if I let Nyx take me, will I even know if I die? It’s just so unknown, and that scares me.
Nyx speaks her next words softly. “Small one, as a boon for your years of love, I will offer you the choice. Come to me of your own free will, or allow the day to be your end. This is my mercy to you. I warn you, though: Hemera approaches. You have but a few minutes to decide.”
As she says this, I see the faintest glimmer of light on the horizon. Nyx speaks the truth. Dawn is coming, and I have only a few moments left.
I feel the tears begin to fall, and a wisp of satiny smoke whisks them away, then quickly recedes, as if Nyx is a mother trying to decide between consoling her weeping child or letting them handle their sorrow as an adult.
In some form or another, I am about to die.
I raise my eyes and attempt a determined nod. I will face this with all the strength that a human can muster.
My decision has been made. I know that I don’t have to bother vocalizing it. I’m dealing with goddesses, after all. I’m sure they can sense the resolve in my heart.
Nyx smiles, and I reach my end.