Updated: Oct 30, 2019
The climbers reached the summit as the full moon was cresting, turning the whole of the visible world a milky shade of blue. From somewhere behind and below, a cacophony of voices drifted up, uncomfortably near. The Darklings were gaining on them. Clambering up the sheer rock face using nothing but their claws.
Tripp removed her pack and looked down over the precipice, feet from the rushing fall that spilled from the rock’s edge into infinity. Moonlight bathed the valley and set the mountainside alight, revealing what she had been terrified to see.
“They’re catching up.”
Midge was lying on his back, trying to slow his breathing. “Impossible,” he gasped, knowing all too well it was not.
Over the past six months, the Darklings had shown themselves capable of much more than anyone dared think. Simple mischief grew to sinister pranks; random acts of violence to coordinated attacks. Now, in a single night, they had added freehand climbing to their devilish repertoire. Where would it end?
“I thought you said they were afraid of heights,” Tripp said.
“I guess I was wrong.” Midge sat upright, but not without great effort. The climb had wrung every last bit of strength from his body, but they couldn’t stop to rest. The communications tower was close. At its foot was a cement-reinforced base station. Inside that, a landline phone to reach the outside world.
Tripp reached into her pack and pulled out a cellphone. The screen was shattered and the case cracked, but it was still semi-functional. She held it up, searching for a signal, finding none. Tossing it aside, she pulled out another. Still nothing.
“The little bastards really knew what they were doing,” she growled.
In their efforts to keep the townspeople captive, the creatures had done a remarkably effective job of destroying every electronic device and piece of machinery standing in the way of their plans. Guns and weaponry went first. Phones and computers were next. Then cars -- tires slashed, hoods torn open, engine compartments gutted. Eventually, even the electricity was cut. People cowered in their homes, terrified to leave.
Some were not so easily deterred, but it was soon discovered they were up against a league of crafty monsters. When people tried to leave by foot, the Darklings set up ambushes at the outskirts of town. Those who attempted to take alternate routes were hunted down and killed, or beaten and dragged to the town square, where makeshift corrals had been built from uprooted posts and repurposed chain link.
In all cases, everyone who tried to leave was stopped. Tripp and Midge were the first to make it this far. They could not fail. Too many people were counting on them.
Midge pulled himself to his feet, expelling a groan that might have been funny under different circumstances. “We have to move,” he said. “How much farther?”
Tripp checked the map and pointed upriver. “Close. That way.” She threw a nervous look over her shoulder as a chorus of inhuman voices swelled over the sound of rushing water. Far too close. In moments, they would be overrun. “Let’s go!”
They moved quickly, following the river, springing over rocky clusters and negotiating the rugged ground like contestants in an obstacle course race. Just ahead, less than a quarter mile away, the communications tower shot up from the earth like the world’s largest impaling stake. In the moonlight, Midge could make out the squat, rectangular building.
Not for the first time, he envisioned unlocking the door with the key they’d taken from the municipal building. Picking up the phone. Dialing for help. He wondered what he’d say. Would anyone believe? He and Tripp hadn’t come all this way to be dismissed as pranksters, but that was always a possibility.
“Our town has been overrun by creatures of possible supernatural origin. Please send help!”
These were words he’d half-jokingly suggested at the outset when all of this was just a crazy idea. Beyond that, they had not discussed it. Whether they believed their ends would come by accidental fall or Darkling horde, neither thought they would make it all the way. They trusted that if they did, the right words would come.
Now the end was in sight. The earth thrummed beneath them, vibrating in unison with the pounding of a thousand savage feet. The cries of their pursuers were no longer approaching but already here, drawing closer with every moment.
They’re too close, Midge thought. We’re not going to make it.
One of the Darklings broke away from the pack and was almost at Tripp’s heels. It lashed out but aimed too low and somersaulted to a crashing halt with an enraged howl, taking down a handful of others in the process. They came to rest in a tangle but scrambled quickly to their feet again.
Tripp bit back the urge to scream and instead let out a throaty singsong command: “Get the key ready!”
Midge grunted a reply, too occupied sucking air through his open mouth to speak.
The door to the base station grew larger.
The key was attached to a lanyard around his neck. As he ran, Midge shoved a hand under his shirt collar and pulled it out.
One key, one lock. No windows. Once inside, they’d be safe.
Something was happening behind him. Tripp was screaming. Trying to form words. Midge couldn’t quite make out what she was saying, but when he snapped his head sideways to check on her, she was gone.
Still running, he craned his neck and watched as Tripp went down, legs still pumping. There were at least a dozen of them on her. Sinking teeth into her flesh. Slicing at her midsection with razorlike claws.
If he had turned back an instant later, Midge would have crashed into the door face-first and likely awakened under a dogpile of Darklings with his intestines missing. As it happened, he struck the door with his shoulder and bounced off.
The key was in his fist. He slipped it into the lock. The door swung open. He lunged inside. Slammed it closed. The vanguard of the pursuing pack smashed against the other side. Bones clattering, voices pitched high in outraged cries. The door held.
In the darkness, Midge fumbled for his flashlight and turned it on. When he saw what was awaiting him, he screamed. The inside of the base station was filled with Darklings. Some dead. Some alive. Others in an in-between stage that looked curiously pupal -- cocooned in a sticky, web-like substance that covered everything.
Understanding flooded over him. How many times had he and the others attempted to find their lair? Always looking in the wrong places. Searching basements and attics, even backwater bogs for a nest they knew had to exist.
How smart these creatures are, he thought. How very, very smart.
And then he thought no more. The Darklings pounced. Those waiting to be born stirred briefly, then fell still again. Their time would come.