Darkness, fear, and so much pain. And them. They were there in the darkness, pressing in from all sides, and yet not touching me, though I felt compressed, like the walls were closing in. I could take the rest, the utter blackness around me, and inside me, the pain that felt like red-hot needles lancing my skin. But it was the voices that tipped me over the edge. The whispering, the growling and the cruel, terrifying laughter that filled my skull until I screamed and screamed. The noises faded away, but I kept screaming. Somewhere deep inside, a small voice whispered that this is what happened when people lost their minds and went insane, that I’d be trapped forever in this darkness and pain. I wanted to tell myself that it wouldn’t last. That it would end eventually, as it always had in the past, but it was hard to believe as the agony swept through me again. Just as I began to lose the ability to form any coherent thought, the pain retracted, pulling back to linger in my head and my shoulder blades with one last blaze before fading entirely. My senses returned slowly and I could feel my blood thumping in my ears, but I couldn’t face the thought of opening my eyes just yet. I became aware of the rise and fall of my chest with each shuddered breath. My knees were curled beneath me and my fingers were dug into the gaps in the paved floor beneath me. I moved them slightly, feeling the old stone smoothed from years of footsteps. My forehead rested against the icy floor as I tried to control my breathing. The pounding in my ears subsided as my heart rate slowed.
I turned my head, pressing the side of my face against the coolness of the stone. Somewhere far below, in the depths of the earth, a deep rumble resounded, so quiet I almost missed it. Then there was another. I felt the faintest vibrations with my fingertips, my skin so sensitive I could feel everything that touched it after the torture it had just endured. Slightly louder now, and this time the building shifted with a soft rustle of dust descending as ancient stonework stubbornly resisted the slight movement of its deep foundations. Taking a deeper breath, I opened my eyes. My gaze travelled along the flagstone floor and up the massive stone column that towered above me. I rolled onto my back, cringing as I imagined the pain in my shoulder blades returning, but there was none. It had faded again. I followed the path of the carved chevrons up the great pillars to where they arched over the cavernous ceiling and back down again to old dusty pews waiting for a congregation that had never arrived.
Rolling onto my side, I pushed myself onto my hands and knees, and using the stonework to steady myself, slowly stood up. My head spun, so I leaned back against the pillar. The stone was cold against my skin. I didn’t need to look down to know I was naked. I always was after an episode. There was no one else here, and it felt as though no one had been here for a very long time. Time seemed to move differently in this place, and I relaxed slightly as I stood alone in the deserted cathedral, watching the dust fall from the vaulted ceilings, glinting in the late evening sunlight as it drifted towards the floor. Intricate stained glass windows threw coloured light across the grey floor, the most beautiful being an immense rose window at one end of the nave. Beneath it stood the altar. A polished metal cross was the only item that stood upon it, and something about the way it gleamed in the golden light fascinated me. I walked slowly towards it, my eyes never leaving its glow as I moved through the pews, my outstretched hands running over the arms of each bench as I passed. The ancient wood had been smoothed to silk by the hands of hundreds if not thousands of people through the ages. I drifted through the choir stalls. The dark polished wood was topped by the golden pipes of the massive organ, but no hymn books rested on the stalls and the pipes were silent.
I reached the steps and hesitated. Turning around, I glanced back at the cathedral. I had no sense of anyone watching me, and I hadn’t seen or heard anyone since I arrived in this place, but I was still anticipating someone to tell me I shouldn’t be here. Religious buildings were like that. There were always places you couldn’t go, things you couldn’t touch, and words you shouldn’t say. Much like religions themselves, really. Despite my given name, I’d never been a big believer in the Heaven and Hell thing, preferring history and science over a belief in the supernatural. I’d had it shoved down my throat often enough growing up to cure me of any interest in that area. Hell was here, it was real life. Something you had to survive and fight against. Heaven. Now then, Heaven was riding fast, the rumble of a powerful engine between your legs, the wind in your face, or a man in leather. Heaven was an excellent whiskey and dancing like you’d live forever or die tomorrow. I turned back and climbed the stone steps to stand in front of the altar.
The sun was setting, and the cross now reflected the rosy hue of the sky outside, shiny and perfectly smooth, except for the small engraving at its centre. Interested, I leaned closer, my green eyes reflecting back at me in the horizontal arms of the cross. The etching was a stylized depiction of a tree with a vertical trunk that branched at the top with no leaves or flowers, and roots that spread under it in a mirror image of the boughs above. As I looked at it, the branches and roots seemed to move slightly. I frowned and reached out to run my fingers over the shallow grooves, but when my skin touched the metal, the tree glowed red. I drew back, gasping as the deep crimson colour spread through the cross and spilled out of its base pouring onto the snowy white altar cloth it stood on. In disbelief, I touched the cross again, feeling only metal, and yet the ruby colour that flowed across the pedestal and streamed down the sides to pool on the dusty stone below was most definitely liquid. A sharp, metallic smell hit the back of my nose and throat, and I gagged as I realised what was happening - the cross was spilling blood. I sank to my knees, the blood covering my skin as the darkness reared back up inside me, flooding me with pain once more and as the terror overtook me, I began to scream again.