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A Nightmare in Elm Tree

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“Hey, Luna, no, come on...” Sunny Milk grabbed her fellow fairy by the shoulders and shook her roughly. Luna Child jerked awake and looked around the inside of their home-tree through half-opened eyes, clearly confused. Her breathing was cumbersome, her chest heaving in a not-quite-regular pattern. Sunny could make a good guess at what she was feeling like. Her own breathing was laborious - she kept on getting scared she’d suffocate. And her heart was fluttering weakly in her chest. “Luna, you can’t sleep. You absolutely can’t.” Sunny was still shaking her and staring right into Luna’s eyes. Luna however seemed to be looking right through her. For just a moment Sunny was scared she had fallen asleep with open eyes.

“I know...” Luna finally answered, absently and quietly, her voice barely distinguishable from a mumble.

“It’s no use.” Sunny let go of Luna and turned to Star Sapphire, who was hunched over their table, and was surrounded by empty, toppled over coffee cans they had stolen from the Scarlet Devil Mansion. She had been lying there for a while now, unmoving. And she had been going quiet for long periods of time quite frequently over the course of the last twenty-four hours or so. Sunny had always been making sure she stayed awake when she did. Under Star’s eyes were dark bags, and her eyes themselves were vacant and dull, like those of a dead fish. Her mouth was slightly agape and there was dried drool smeared around the corners of her mouth. She continued flatly, “It’s no use. We’ve been awake for...” she paused, apparently struggling to count the blurry, sleepless hours, “... more than a week now... maybe two. We’ve tried everything. Went everywhere. Barely anyone even wanted to talk to us. There’s no coming back from this one. All we can do now is give up and sleep.”

“But if we sleep, then-,” Sunny’s mind went fuzzy at the thought. She had fallen asleep... yesterday? She was supposed to be on the lookout while Luna and Star were grabbing books on somnology from the Scarlet Devil Mansion’s library. She had passed out, just for a few minutes. Or so the others had said. It felt longer. Much much longer. And she never wanted to go back. She never wanted to sleep again. No matter what Star said.

And what did she know anyways? Her plan was what brought them into this situation in the first place, wasn’t it? Tears welled up in Sunny’s eyes. “This is your fault.” She stood up and shakily shambled over towards Star, who in turn did not move at all, not even when Sunny grabbed her by the shoulders and started shaking her, as she had done so many times in the last few days to wake her up. “This is your fault,” Sunny whimpered, ”It was your idea. Your stupid plan.” The angrier she got, the more roughly Sunny shook Star, whose body flailed around like a rag doll, not resisting in the least. “You got us into this. You can’t be the first to give up. You should be getting us out of this.” Star’s lack of reaction only made Sunny angrier. She shook her and shook her, harder and harder, and next thing she knew she was sitting on top of her and had already slammed Star’s shoulders against the wooden floor, the chair she had been sitting on toppled over next to them.

Sunny sat like this for a moment, gasping for air, before it finally hit here, what she just had done. She quickly jumped off Star and fell onto her back. “I’m sorry,” she sobbed, “I’m sorry. Star. I’m s-”

Sunny suddenly froze up. She only just realized. Star wasn’t moving. Her eyes were wide open. She was staring at the ceiling with dead, fish-like eyes. “Star?” Sunny crawled up to the immobile Star Sapphire. Was she... dead? Did she kill one of the last two friends she had left in her life? “Star, please...” Sunny collapsed forwards and started crying into her dear friend’s chest.

And she heard a small, fluttering heartbeat. Thank god. And she felt Star Sapphire’s chest slowly move, up and down, weakly. She was alive.

But... she wasn’t responsive either. She was just staring through the ceiling, with lifeless eyes. Was she asleep? Sunny slapped her friend’s face in an attempt to wake her up, but her head just jerked to the side, her dead stare now aiming through the wall. What the hell was happening? Sunny let out a noisy sob and buried her face in her hands, trying to protect herself from the view of the seemingly comatose Star.

She jumped up and jerked around. “Luna? Star is- Star is-” Sunny rushed towards Luna Child. Her movements were wavering and uneven, and she was still shielding her face with her hands. And suddenly, she was falling. Something caught her leg - probably the chair Star had been sitting on only a few minutes ago. Sunny tried to catch her fall somehow, but her muscles were sluggish and her body did not obey her anymore. She collided with the ground, her elbows painfully pushing up into her stomach and her hands crashing into her face.

Sunny didn’t have the power to get up. Every bone in her body hurt now. She hadn’t slept in almost two weeks and now Star was in a coma? And she was right. They did try everything. They asked the Eientei doctor, they asked the Scarlet Devil Mansion witch. ‘You can’t live without sleep,’ and ‘There’s nothing I can do.’ They even tried dying. But as fairies, all that did was robbing them of even more of their much needed time and energy, and they recovered the next day, more tired than ever. They had been promised punishment. What was the point of delaying the inevitable? Why shouldn’t she just keep lying here and wait for sleep to overtake her?

And yet- the things Sunny went through during her time asleep had been... indescribably scary. Sunny’s mind blurred into static at the thought. All she clearly remembered was a falling sensation. Falling, falling into an abyss that she could never escape from. Falling for... days, weeks. Months? Drowning in a darkness deeper than anything she could comprehend. And yet she knew that she got lucky. She only scratched the surface. Those had only been a few minutes of sleep. And Star? Was she going through the same thing right now? Sunny couldn’t help her. What about Luna? She would have to live through that same hell.

No, she couldn’t leave Luna to go through that. She had to keep her from falling asleep, at all costs. Sunny lifted herself up and achingly stumbled over to help the only friend she had left. “Luna... Luna!” Sunny grabbed and shook her. Why wasn’t she responding? “Please Luna... don’t sleep. Please wake up…” Sunny felt tears run down her cheeks. “Don’t leave me alone...”

But Luna did not react, her body was flailing about in Sunny’s grasp just as Star’s had done just moments ago. “No... please.” Sunny shook her even harder. “Please, please wake up,” she cried as her shaking grew more and more violent and desperate. “Luna… Luna...” Sunny Milk heard something crack.

And then, Luna’s head snapped clean off and hit the ground with a thunking noise. Sunny shrieked and jumped backwards, and then stared in horror as she watched black centipedes, some as large as her forearm, spill out of Luna’s open neck and crawl down her body. Sunny jolted around, ready to run, but from Star’s lifeless body too large insects were emerging, crawling out of a large, dark hole in her stomach. Hundreds of chittering, clicking centipedes were slowly creeping towards Sunny, from two sides, seemingly devouring everything in their path. Both Luna and Star were already half-digested, and the floor too seemed to lose substance, almost as if it itself was transforming into more and more of the writhing insects.

Sunny made for the door - stepping on several large, squirming worms on the way, their tiny legs brushing against her bare feet - and tried to push it open, but to no avail. It did not budge. Sunny desperately tried to turn the knob, her hands trembling with fear. But instead of hearing the satisfying click of the door unlocking, she suddenly felt a sharp pain.

The doorknob was no longer a doorknob, but another centipede, grasping Sunny’s hand in its countless claws, its forcipules dug deeply into her arm, injecting a painful venom right into her radial vein. Then she felt another sting, this time in her heel. And another, and another. She felt sting after sting of burning poison as a writhing masses of insects slithered up her legs.

Soon, she felt herself sink into the floor, slowly. The centipedes had already made it up to her chest. There must have been ounces of hot venom inside her, painfully burning her up. She did not feel her legs anymore - maybe they had already been eaten off - and she was sinking and sinking, now up to the neck in centipedes, some of them clambering over her face. Then, one pair of pincers in her right eye. Another pair pushing into her left eye. Sunny screamed out in pain. Another centipede took the opportunity to crawl into her open mouth, forcing itself down her throat. Now blinded, Sunny’s other senses seemed to be ever so vivid. She could feel the insects’ every individual claw brush against her esophagus on its way down. She felt another sharp pain, this time from inside of her. The centipede she had involuntarily swallowed had made its way into her stomach. But there was no venom in this bite, and it was not satisfied with just one. No, this centipede was eating through her flesh, slowly tunneling towards her other organs.

On the outside, the other arthropods were boring their ways into her eye sockets, aiming for her brain. Sunny Milk’s senses soon went numb, as hundreds of teeth were gnawing on her cerebrum. And finally, finally all the pain she had been feeling faded away, and she did not hear any more clicking or chittering, and she did not feel any more bugs writhing and squirming on her skin. Sunny’s consciousness slowly faded into nothingness, her last rational thoughts dedicated to her two friends which... she would never see again. But that was fine. Finally she wouldn’t need to suffer any more. No more pain. No more exhaustion. She was just seconds away from finally dying, drifting into her long anticipated eternal sleep.

***

“You didn’t think that was all, did you?”

Sunny opened her eyes. She was falling. Darkness and nothing but darkness surrounded her, the only reference point she had a small light above her, seemingly getting smaller and smaller. The accompanying falling sensation she was experiencing told her that she was plunging into the abyss below her, at an alarming speed. Besides, she knew what was happening. She had been here before. She was in the one place she never wanted to return to, the one place that filled her heart with so much terror that her mind went blurry to protect her of the thought.

The last thing she remembered was the relief she felt when she thought that this nightmare would finally be over, that she finally could die and be at peace. But now that she was here, rapidly descending into these gloomy depths, she knew that any such hope of escaping this horror show was dead.

“Ah, you’re awake.”

An impish voice cut through the silence of the abyss. Sunny knew who this voice belonged to. The nightmare that had been hunting… no, waiting for her, for the last two weeks. Sunny’s eyes widened in panic, frantically jerking around in their sockets in search of an escape route. But she knew that there was no way she could flee this hell. Not only was she helplessly falling in an endless, featureless void, no. She knew that just by being here, her whole life had already fallen into the hands of somebody else. Someone... something terrifyingly powerful. Something that had every reason to hate and abhor her.

“That’s right, you’re mine now.”

The darkness around Sunny started shifting and warping, finally assuming the form of a girl clad in a black and white dress, and donning a red nightcap covering part of her dark, indigo hair that seemed to be blurring into the surrounding abyss. Doremy. Sunny’s brain exploded in terror. This was her pursuer. The nightmare youkai she had been running from for two weeks of insomnia was here, standing right next to her as if on solid ground, giving her a big, toothy smile.

“You finally made it! Congratulations,” Doremy announced in a whimsical tone, “Took you long enough. I’ve been waiting for aaageees!” The baku stretched out her arms as if to demonstrate just how long. “Time passes differently in the World of Dreams, you know.” Then, she strode up to Sunny, until her face was just inches away from hers. Doremy’s deep, dark eyes seemed to pull her in, and although Sunny tried to look away, it was as if the dream youkai now made up the entirety of her world. No matter where she would look, Doremy’s glare was right there to meet hers.

Sunny hid her face in her hands in a final attempt to avoid her gaze. But soon enough she felt her arms being gently but firmly forced off of her face and behind her back, exposing Sunny once again to the baku’s nauseating eyes.

“Don’t be shy. I think it’s better if we get to know each other as quickly as possible. After all you’ll be here for a while.” Doremy giggled. “I think with the amount of time you stayed awake you’ll be sleeping at least fourteen hours. Did you know that in just twenty minutes of unconsciousness in the real world you can live an entire human life in your dreams? That’s eighty years! Eighty years times three in just one hour! That’s two-hundred-and-forty years! And that times fourteen makes...” Doremy was pretending to count using her fingers. “... Oh my. Three-thousand-three-hundred-and-sixty years! Three-thousand-three-hundred-and-sixty years of unbridled, uninterrupted fun together!”

Sunny’s mind went blank and bile welled up in the back of her throat. Three-thousand-three-hundred-and-sixty years years? She would be here for three-thousand-three-hundred-and-sixty years years? “No... please,” Her own voice felt alien to her. It was a dreary monotone, free of the energy she was used to putting into it, “Please let me go.”

“You think you can just fuck with people’s dreams and get away with it without punishment? Haha.” Doremy’s melodious tone of voice was gone, as was the grin she had been wearing before. Her glare had gone hostile and seemed to bore itself into Sunny’s eyes. “You know, my superiors are usually big softies. Leave humans alone this, don’t send people recurring nightmares for three months straight that. But after the stunt you three pulled they made it very very clear that they wanted me to teach you a lesson. Besides...” Doremy’s expression now warped into a sadistic grin, baring her sharp teeth and her eyes widening with glee. “... It’s not every day that I get the opportunity to find a playmate for three-thousand-three-hundred-and-sixty years.” She put the back of her hand on Sunny’s face and began stroking her cheek with cruel gentleness, the touch - the first tactile sensation Sunny had experienced in this void - recalling memories of centipede legs brushing against her skin. Sunny instinctively recoiled. Doremy just giggled.

“You don’t really like me, huh? But I see. Maybe you do need some more time to get used to this. Say...” Doremy pulled away from Sunny, crossed her arms and mockingly tilted her head. “Why don’t you apologize once for every second you’ll be spending in here? Three-thousand-three-hundred-and-sixty years are one-hundred-and-five-billion-nine-hundred-and-sixty-million-nine-hundred-and-sixty-thousand seconds, for the record, and just as many apologies. How does that sound?” Sunny felt numb. It was like every emotion had been sucked out of her, violently, leaving a big, black hole. What else could she do but comply with her captor? If she managed to apologize twice per second, she could possibly cut the time she would have to spend in this abyss in half.

“I’m sorry.” One-hundred-and-five-billion-nine-hundred-and-sixty-million-nine-hundred-and-sixty-thousand. “I’m sorry.” One-hundred-and-five-billion-nine-hundred-and-sixty-million-nine-hundred-and-fifty-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine. “I’m sorry.” One-hundred-and-five-billion-nine-hundred-and-sixty-million-nine-hundred-and-fifty-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-eight. “I’m sorry.” One-hundred-and-five-billion-nine-hundred-and-sixty-million-nine-hundred-and-fifty-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-seven.

“Eager, aren’t we?” Doremy let out a loud, ugly cackle. “I’ll leave you to it then. I’ll be back after the first one-million apologies. At the rate you’re going that should be about... twelve days? You’ll be sure to be missing me by then. And then we can grow real close!” And with that, the dream youkai vanished into the darkness around her, leaving Sunny alone with her desolate task.

“I’m sorry.” One-hundred-and-five-billion-nine-hundred-and-sixty-million-nine-hundred-and-fifty-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-six apologies left until she would be free. “I’m sorry.” One-hundred-and-five-billion-nine-hundred-and-sixty-million-nine-hundred-and-fifty-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-five left in this nightmare where every second seemed to stretch itself over centuries..

“I’m sorry.” Centipedes spilled out of Sunny’s mouth as she opened it. One-hundred-and-five-billion-nine-hundred-and-sixty-million-nine-hundred-and-fifty-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-four centipedes, writhing and crawling, like one solid, living mass. “I’m sorry.” Their legs tickling over her face, her feet, her arms, her legs. One-hundred-and-five-billion-nine-hundred-and-sixty-million-nine-hundred-and-fifty-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-three legs.

“I’m sorry.” One-hundred-and-five-billion-nine-hundred-and-sixty-million-nine-hundred-and-fifty-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-two pincers piercing her flesh until they hit bone. “I’m sorry.” Injecting one-hundred-and-five-billion-nine-hundred-and-sixty-million-nine-hundred-and-fifty-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-one liters of poison into her bloodstream.

“I’m sorry.” Making her ordeal about one-hundred-and-five-billion-nine-hundred-and-sixty-million-nine-hundred-and-fifty-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety times more painful. “I’m sorry.” But it did not give her release until one-hundred-and-five-billion-nine-hundred-and-sixty-million-nine-hundred-and-fifty-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-and-eighty-nine more apologies would be uttered.

“I’m sorry.”