Des Moines, Iowa
It is a special time. The Night. A special place.
Where things are seen but not witnessed. Where promises are made and broken. Where dreams and wishes are fulfilled.
During the day, there is a rushing and frantic pace. When night falls, movement is quieter and mysterious. Breezes blow through tree branches and the soft slap of leaves are heard, but those leaves are not noticed as much as their silhouettes caused by streetlights.
The streetlight’s sodium vapor fizzes to life, palely illuminating its own small section of the world, at the same time creating shadows.
Elongated shadows such as the dog and its owner out for a walk along a quiet residential street. A familiar route for both, but a chance for the canine to track new scents and continue the age-old instinctual, if nowadays needless, practice of marking and re-marking its territory. Its owner is allowed a chance to breathe a bit of cool air after being cooped up in a stuffy cubicle by day and a stale apartment all evening.
He is cautious, however, for while he may favor the night, others less innocent also occupy the patches of darkness. So when his best friend, hardly a breed to cause hesitation to a potential attacker, stops to sniff a scraggly bush, the man swivels to look in all directions. Ears strain for the lightest footfall or rustle of clothing from someone hidden. Darting eyes pick up all movements. The back and forth flow of those tree leaves, the silent streak of a darting rabbit not noticed by the dog.
There! Did he notice a curtain edge dropping back into place in the darkened house he and his dog now face? Maybe. The house is single story, a small box really, with the requisite low pitched roof, dollhouse windows. No porch, just irregularly shaped flagstones leading to a gravel driveway. Nothing special, nothing unique. Nothing to be scared of.
Man and dog continue down the sidewalk, their shadows sometimes guiding, sometimes dissipating.
Inside the house, a figure steps back, letting the curtain fall from his hand when the dog walker turns toward the window.
Did he see me?
Eyes peek around the edge of the curtain and watch as the pair walk out of sight.
No, everything is fine. Nobody suspects.
A gasp and another step back as car headlights spear the darkness and disappear. Startled, the figure waits until his breathing is even, heartbeat normal. Well, maybe a little faster than normal considering what is about to happen.
Obsessive compulsive behavior urges another quick check outside. Nothing. Nobody. A blue flicker of a television from a house across the street, but no worries there.
They won’t know.
Without as much as the softest whisper of carpet fiber, the figure steps away from the window to a door. Beyond it lies a flight of descending stairs. Before advancing below, the wraith-like figure double locks the basement door.
Absolute darkness, but there is no concern. The number of stairs is known, as is the number of steps to reach the wall. A scratch, a brief scent of sulfur, and flame burns one end of a wooden matchstick. The fingers holding the other end are nail bitten yet clean. They spread the fire to the wicks of several candles resting on makeshift shelves around the room.
The basement is small as befits the structure above. Not many items are in evidence. The candles, of course, some new and fat, others thin with castle-like moldings of dripped wax. Others are stubby and ready for replacement.
All colored black or red.
A dais stands at the far end of the basement. Next to it is an old wooden chest with an ornate metal lock and hasp.
No windows, no vents. Only the candles, the dais, the chest…and him.
The merest glimpse of a figure behind a curtained window, now a solid man in candlelight, stands stooped. His face and body show the years of a hard life’s struggle, an ever striving to find that one elusive…something. The creases in his forehead, the scars on his limbs, the gray hairs on his chest and head, the involuntary twitches of leg, arm, and back muscles all belie the fact the man has only aged to his late fifties. The robe he wears is inlaid with intricate, complex, and alien designs on a background of rich deep purple.
He pauses after disposing of the spent match. His heart thuds in anticipation. He listens to the quiet and watches the shadows created by the candles’ flames.
The shadows, yes…
A loner by choice for many years, he sometimes wonders why he lives in the city. Rural life would suit him better, away from the people and the noise. Midnight in the metropolis is tolerable, however, and the traffic on his block is sparse, even during the day.
Unlike Mexico City with its twenty-four-hour-a-day traffic jams, thirty million plus population, and the smog turning his snot and lungs black. He barely survived the ordeal, but he obtained his prize. The old chest…and the treasure within.
Years of research and travel led him to the filthy, corrupt capital where he traced the old Guardian to a forgotten alley in the Zona Roja–the Red Zone–one of the ugliest, dirtiest, crime ridden, rat and human debris infested parts of the city. In a sub cellar of a neglected building negotiations went awry. A stubborn, worthless, withered old man lay dead, and the chest and its contents stolen away in the night.
Now, in another capital city in an American heartland state, his dreams can be fulfilled. Power will be the reward for all his tribulations. Power…
From the Book of Sarmangous.
After unlocking the chest, he withdraws the large tome, its cracked bindings, strange textured cover, and brittle pages all handled with infinite delicacy. The cover bears strange, timeworn designs, some vaguely human, others more monstrous in nature. Some of them spell out in an ancient language the book’s title.
He places the book on the wooden dais’ felt-lined holder. Inhaling one sharp breath and holding the air in his lungs so as not to so much as breathe an internal foulness upon the pages, he opens the cover. He turns to the correct page deep within the thickness of the ancient writings, selects the specific text. He squeezes his eyes shut for a moment, still holding his breath. His entire body aquiver with heightened nerves, then…then opening his eyes, the words, the phrases, the weird combination of sounds are uttered.
The candles burn a little brighter.
* * *
Another room elsewhere in the city
One second there is darkness, the next there is a flash of swirling purple.
A door has opened.
Whispers like water flowing over rocks fill the air.
In the middle of the churning purple maelstrom is a blackness, a malevolence, almost…prescient.
A shape, burnt gray, slithers from the black, into the room…into existence.
It is followed by another and another and…
Pinpricks of red pierce the darkness. The gray shapes start to expand, to grow.
As does their hunger.
* * *
The man in the purple robe stands in front of the dais, in front of the Book of Sarmangous. He smiles as he feels the energy within him. Eyes closed, he revels in the moment. He has unleashed an unstoppable power, one only he will control.
The candles flare once and settle back, their flickering erratic, and the created shadows dance.
Some of those shadows move against the dancing silhouettes…move on their own.
And it begins…
* * *
Ewing Park, four nights later
“Come on, Betty. It’ll be fun. Don’t you think this is romantic?” The youth coaxed the reluctant girl deeper into the grove of trees and large bushes, the sweet odor of lilacs heavy in the air.
“Joey, we’re gonna get caught. Somebody’s gonna see us.”
“No, they won’t. It’s the middle of the night.”
“The car, Joey.” Betty pulled back, causing her date to stumble. “A cop is going to find the car and catch us. I don’t want to go to jail.”
“We’re not going to jail,” Joey whispered, “unless you don’t lower your voice. Even if we do get caught, we’ll just be thrown out. We’re not going to get arrested.”
He sensed her hesitation wane.
“Come on, honey. You always complain about how I’m not spontaneous enough. Well, here we are.”
“Joey,” she said, hands on hips. “You’re carrying a blanket, a flashlight, and a condom. How spontaneous is that? You drove directly here after we left the club. Don’t tell me you didn’t plan this.”
“Well…” Joey shrugged. “Do I at least get points for originality? Maybe…a kiss?”
Betty pursed her lips in mock consideration. “I have to admit this is different.”
“Uh–huh. What about the kiss?”
“At least turn off the flashlight,” Betty said. “It won’t make any difference how loud our voices are if they see a light.”
“I just…well, I just wanted to see you…”
“I want to watch you…undress.” Joey leered.
“It’s sexy. The way you look at me and take off your clothes so slowly.”
He closed in and nuzzled her neck, whispering more seductive words in her ear. She giggled, then sighed as Joey’s insistent body warmed her, overwhelmed her senses, and eased her fears. He touched her skin, brushed her arms with soft fingers, and she reached for him.
“Wait.” Joey backed off.
Betty moaned at the broken moment. “Why?”
“Not here. I know a good place. Follow me.”
They ran nearly pell-mell, hand in hand, to a circular clearing within a copse of trees almost in full bloom. The heady lilac scent only served to push their pulsing hormones up another notch. He quickly spread the blanket on the grass and removed his shoes. Kneeling, he pointed the flashlight at her.
“All right. Show me,” he whispered.
“Don’t shine the light in my eyes,” she said.
“Sorry.” He aimed the light lower, but could still see her sultry expression. She licked her lips with the tip of her tongue while her hands slid across her stomach and up to her breasts. Her fingers played with the first button of her blouse.
“Oh, my!” Joey’s eyes widened, excitement building.
Betty moved her hips to some silent rhythm as she popped the first button out of the hole. Then the second button, the third.
A faint sound upon the breeze wafted through the branches.
Betty stopped moving.
“What?” Joey narrowed his eyes, upset by the interruption.
Betty cocked her head to one side. “I thought I heard something.”
“Ain’t nothing out here. Come on, keep going. I’m about to drill a hole in my pants.”
Betty giggled again and resumed her routine. Finally, she slipped off the blouse, crossed her arms in front of her breasts which all but spilled from her half bra.
“You like?” Her words were overly breathy.
Joey only nodded.
She reached for the zipper on her skirt and soon the garment joined the other.
“Black panties,” Joey said. “My favorite.”
“Yes, but it’s your turn.” Betty pointed. “Time for you to get out of those clothes.”
Joey stood, handed her the flashlight, and hastily removed his shirt.
“Not so fast, lover boy,” Betty chided. “I like it slow, too.”
He moved his hips in a poor imitation of a Chippendale dancer taking off his pants.
“Mmm, looks very interesting,” Betty said.
Joey stepped towards her, his hand reaching for her breast. He hesitated when he heard a slithering sound, like a snake on loose gravel.
“What was that?” Betty aimed the light around her.
“I don’t know. Probably a small animal.”
“Joey, m–maybe we oughta get out of here.” Betty reached for her clothes when the sound altered from a slither to a harsh shush as of two pieces of satin rubbing together. The volume increased and the noise became an incensed hiss.
“Joey!” Betty whirled around, flashing the light in every direction. “What it is? What’s happening?”
Another evolution of sound cut off his final words. The hiss became a mushy scrunch, like shuffling footsteps in sand or finely broken glass. Something shifted in the darkness. Too late, Joey realized it wasn’t something in the shadows, it was a shadow. No, a lot of shadows. Shifting, expanding, forming.
“Betty!” Joey’s scream ripped through the night air, but Betty couldn’t respond. The shadows enveloped her and her screams ripped through the night air.
Although not for long.
Joey tried to run, but other dark shapes cut off his escape…cut short his life.
The flashlight clunked to the ground, its switch still set to the ‘on’ position. The bulb shone, providing fuel for the attack.
Because with no light, there are no shadows.