©1999 Hawkyn -- all rights reserved
It's that little extra something that makes a good reporter, but sometimes, risks don't pay off.
"Seven people entered the woods behind me and haven't been heard from in almost two weeks. There have been rumors that strange things have been seen moving around the woods at night. Could it be aliens, Big Foot, or something else?" Kent turned and shoved the microphone into the face of one the locals that he had selected from the crowd. The old guy looked to be about 70 years old, his dingy overalls and flannel shirt made him a perfect target for that kind of question. Kent had been doing the on the spot reporter gig for almost three years now and knew what buttons to push to get a good reaction. He prided himself on his ability to find the perfect patsy in a crowd. Kent felt this guy was perfect from the moment he laid eyes on him.
"Nope," was the old codger's only answer.
Kent's blood ran cold. He knew this old fart had just put his reputation on the line. The other reporters at the station would crucify him if didn't get something out of the old man after singling him out.
"Ah, so you say it wasn't ET. What do you think could have happened to those unfortunate people?" he countered quickly, putting the mike back before his unfazed target.
"They took'em," came another short and dissatisfying reply.
"They? They who? Ghosts, Government Agents, who do you mean?" Kent questioned again. He was getting desperate for the old man to give him something to work with, some little comment that could be used to work from. Abruptly the old man's face lost all expression, then he looked straight into the camera and saved Kent's butt.
"They say that once every twenty years or so they come. They come and take people and animals down into the darkness and they are never seen again. They took my Sally in the Thirties and my son and his wife in the Seventies. They say that someday they will come out for good. They say that when they come... nothing will stop them," the old man's death like gaze was still fixed on the camera. Tears were beginning to trickle down his weathered cheeks as he quickly turned away and disappeared back into the crowd.
Kent milked the scene for a few seconds then quickly had the camera back on himself.
"Well, uh, that is one possible explanation that we will be looking into as we join the search here. We will be giving you live updates every two hours from the front lines of the search for the missing seven. This is Kent Kashki reporting from search headquarters," he waited for the indicator to go out on the camera and then let a big sigh of relief.
He walked over to the news truck with Charlie, his cameraman, and Lori, the gopher. Lori was a cute little redheaded "Comm" student working part time for the station. Charlie, on the other hand, had been a combat cameraman in three wars. Kent had worked with Charlie for almost two years now and considered him to be the best cameraman in the region. He made it a point to ask for him whenever he could.
"What do you make of the all that?" Charlie asked.
"I think the old man has plowed one too many fields with his hat off," Kent answered, chuckling.
"Actually he may be closer than you think," came the chirpy voice of Lori from the back of the van. "I patched into the network and did a search on the local news archives. It seems that there are reports of people disappearing in these woods going back into the early eighteen hundreds. There's even an Indian myth about 'They Who Come' dating back to the first settlers."
Kent's eye's lit up as he turned and smiled at her. "Great stuff Lori. I knew there was a reason I brought you along. Is there any mention of the people turning up later?"
"No, but there is a report of a man who is supposed to have found a cave filled with bones while hunting in these woods. The only problem is that when he and the local sheriff went to check it out... neither of them were never seen again," she answered never looking up from the laptop.
"The perfect angle! Charlie, get me some spooky shots of the woods around here and keep your eyes open for a cave. If we can find one we can really pump this up," Kent was buzzing now. He had a way to make the interview with the old fellow pay off after all. "Lori, get all that together and write me up some copy. I need to know how long this has been going on, how many people may have disappeared. Are there any links to government cover-ups, UFO's, Big Foot, anything that we can build on"?
"You have a particular lead-in you want to use?" She asked, finally looking up from the screen.
"Hmm, lets see... ancient terror stalks the woods. Could 'They Who Come' be responsible for disappearances going back over 200 years?" he rattled off. He thought it was brilliant.
"You mind if I edit that a little? It might get a little blown out of proportion if they find these guys within the first couple of hours," she smirked.
"Yeah, you get the idea," he replied, scowling.
Kent and Charlie walked over to the command tent where the National Guard troops had gathered for search instructions. The command tent was set on a small hill and was now surrounded by about one hundred and fifty weekend warriors and another twenty-five or thirty reporters.
"Hey Kent. I thought you threw a fit when the boss told you to take Lori with us? What's with the 'glad I brought you along' routine?" Charlie asked.
"True, but she doesn't know that, and if this works out right she never needs to find out," he replied smiling.
A rotund Colonel ambled out of the command tent and called the sea of green to attention. He began spelling out the search plan using a map that looked like it might have been borrowed from the local high school. There would be six search groups; each group would be assigned to a specific sector of the map. The groups would be dropped off then spread out at twenty-foot intervals. They would proceed in a straight line for about a mile, then swing around go back parallel to where the came up. The group leaders were issued walkie-talkies, compasses, and a map showing their designated search area. He reminded them that they were expected to report back to the command center every fifteen minutes. He then told the young lieutenant in charge of group six that Kent, Charlie and Lori were going with his group and to keep an eye on the civilians.
Kent and Charlie hurried back to the van to get their equipment and make sure Lori was ready to go. When they got back she had already packed the equipment and was strapping on her backpack.
"Here is the copy you wanted. A little rough around the edges, but you should be able to make it sound good," she said as she handed Kent several sheets of paper.
Kent shoved them into his backpack. "Good work. I'll read it on the truck to our drop off point," Charlie made one last check of the uplink and then the three of them ran over and jumped on the army surplus supply truck that was being used as transport. The brown and green splashed behemoth rattled and creaked as the huge diesel engine rumbled to life and started the troops moving down the overgrown fire road. The dry rotted canvas covering the bed of truck, flapped as they careened down the narrow green corridor.
The lowering clouds that had cast a dreary shadow over the area all morning were darkening now. The rustling limbs and swaying treetops made it clear that a late summer storm was blowing in. As the truck bounced down the road, thunder could be heard rumbling in the distance. By the time the truck stopped to let group six out; the bottom had dropped out of the storm. Sheets of rain lashed the would-be rescuers as they jumped out of the back of the ancient hauler. The Lieutenant started barking orders immediately and soon had the men spreading out along the road.
"You -- Kashki. Keep your people together and stay out of our way. I don't know who's palm you greased to get here, but if you interfere with my men your back in the truck. You get me?" The young man bellowed over the roar of the rain.
"Sure Lieutenant. We'll stay clear of your men. You just lead the way," Kent replied, making a sweeping gesture with his arm.
The Lieutenant grumbled and then moved up to join his troops. With a wave of his hand they all started into the woods. Kent and the others joined in behind at the far end... away from the Lieutenant.
The search proceeded slowly through the woods. The pouring rain continued and at times even got worse. The rain had turned the forest floor into a steaming sea of mud, rocks and leaves. The line of men slowly started to spread out; the waves of rain reducing visibility to a few feet at times made it easy to lose track of the other men. After a while Kent, Charlie and Lori had lost sight of the troops. They tried yelling for them to come back, but knew they couldn't be heard over the muting power of the rain.
"What the heck do we do now?" Charlie asked as he stopped to pour the water out of his boot for the second time in the past half hour.
"They are bound to figure out that they lost us in a few minutes and send someone back for us," Kent shrugged.
"I don't know about that," Lori added. "The Lieutenant sounded like he would be just as happy if we joined the list of missing people,"
"Hmm. Good point. Look we can wait here and hope that the Lieutenant is going to send someone for us or we can try and make it back to the truck on our own," Kent said, trying to sound confident. He knew that there was a good chance they wouldn't be able to send anyone back to find them till the storm was over. On the other hand, he didn't feel the chances of finding their way back to the truck were all that hot either.
"I vote we backtrack to the truck," Lori answered.
"I have to agree. We don't have the right equipment to be slogging though this stuff," Charlie added, dumping the contents of his other boot on the ground.
"Alright then... back to the truck. Stay within arms reach of each other and if it starts really pouring again; we all stop and wait for it to let up," Kent said. "Any questions?"
Kent waited a moment. When he saw that they were waiting for him to lead, he reluctantly started back the way they came. They slogged back through the muck for almost thirty minutes when Kent's alarm watch started beeping. It was time to do his first on the spot broadcast in fifteen minutes. He turned and looked at the others and pointed to his watch.
"You're kidding?" Charlie responded with an equally incredulous look from Lori.
"We are here to do a job people. Rain or shine, if you want to get paid, we have to do this. Lets set up on that mound over there," He said pointing to a small clearing with a hill at the far end.
The three of them walked over and started climbing up on the mound. Suddenly the ground gave way and they all disappeared into the dark damp ground.
Pain. It was pain that let Kent know he was still alive.
Kent gradually opened his eyes as he fought his way to consciousness. His left side hurt like hell and his head felt as if someone had hit him with a baseball bat. He slowly took stock of where he was realized that it wasn't a bat that had hit him, but a rock. The cave-in had dropped them on a pile of small boulders. He was lying face down at an angle with his feet up on a big rock and his head down against another more angular stone.
Kent eased himself over. When he did his feet slipped off the big rock and he nearly blacked out as a new wave of pain shot through him. He ended up lying there on his back for a few seconds waiting for the ache to subside. Finally, pushing himself up into a sitting position to survey the damage, he could see that his left leg had blood seeping through the pants leg.
A sharp pain shot down his left side as he bent over to examine his leg. Gently feeling his side Kent was certain there were some broken ribs. Painfully, he bent over and pulled his pant leg up. Blood was gushing out of a ragged tear in his shin, running down his leg and staining his sock crimson.
Kent searched his memory trying to recall the first aid course they had forced all the reporters to take. He remembered some kind of rope used to stop bleeding and realized he needed one now. Pulling one of the straps off of the bottom of his pack, Kent carefully wrapped it around the leg above the gash. He grimaced as he pulled the strap as tight as he could and watched as the flow of blood slowed to a slow oozing. Gently letting the pant leg down, Kent laid back and caught a quick breath.
Looking up at the hole they had fallen through, Kent guessed it was about thirty feet up and surrounded by grass and mud. Looking down at the dirt and grass that had fallen into the pit with them he could see that it was bound together with some kind of sticky web like substance.
Lori was lying in a heap on the rocks a few feet away. The way she was lying it appeared that she had landed on her back. He gritted his teeth and drug himself over to her. Reaching up to her neck he could feel the slow steady beating of her heart. Kent could see blood seeping from several cuts and scrapes, but she didn't appear to in danger of bleeding to death. Looking looked more closely at the way she was laying it was obvious to him that he had better not try to move her. Carefully, he pulled her poncho down over her to keep her warm, then started to look for Charlie.
The pit was dimly lit by the small amount of light coming through the hole at the top. The rest of the chamber was dark as pitch. Kent dug into his pack and pulled out his flashlight. After a couple of good shakes it finally decided to work. Panning it around he couldn't see Charlie anywhere. Then he saw a trail in the mud at the bottom of the rocks. Handprints dug deep in the mud with signs of something being dragged behind. Kent figured that Charlie must have awakened first and started off in that direction to get help.
"Hello? Hey Charlie? Can you hear me? Can anyone hear me?" He heard his voice echoing for a while. He traced the trail with his flashlight beam till it disappeared into a passage in the wall of the pit. "Charlie?
Charlie are you down that tunnel somewhere?" He called out again.
As the echoes faded Kent thought he heard something moving in the direction of the passage. He checked Lori again and then decided to try to follow Charlie. That might be a way out and he didn't plan to stay in the cave any longer than he had to. Besides, if Charlie had passed out or had gotten into more trouble he might be able to save both of them. One good hero story was worth five years of good reporting any day.
Kent pulled himself slowly off the rocks stopping at the bottom to listen again. The pain in his leg and side was still there and each bump sent searing reminders of the damage that had been done. He hooked the flashlight under the strap of his pack and freed his hands to steady himself as he started slowly across the floor. When he reached the place where Charlie's trail began, he noticed there was a lot of blood there on floor. Charlie must have been bleeding pretty badly to leave that much blood.
The trail led straight to a passage through the cave wall. There was no doubt that is where Charlie had gone. Following Charlie's trail, Kent reached the tunnel and stopped. Leaning against one side he angled the flashlight down the tunnel, but saw only more of the trail disappearing around the next corner. As he shifted the light back out of the passage Kent thought he could make out a dull glow in the distance. He thought to himself that it could be light coming in from another entrance.
With renewed purpose Kent started down the tunnel watching his friend's trail in front of him. He noticed that the ground now seemed to be covered with some kind of slime. Slipping several times, he was rewarded with fiery flashes of pain from his ribs and leg when he hurried to catch himself.
It was easy to see now that the light was brighter ahead somewhere around the next bend or two. He looked back down at the trail and could see that Charlie had been through here.
Looking closer, Kent noticed something about the trial looked different and then realized that he didn't see as much blood in the trail. He moved on toward the next bend in the tunnel as he reached the corner he found one of Charlie's boots over next to a rock. "Charlie? Hey buddy are you there?" He called out, only to be answered by a chorus of echoes. "C'mon Charlie, answer me Damn it!" He screamed at the echoes.
Kent stopped and propped himself against a large rock to catch his breath. He looked down and could see that the blood had finally stopped soaking though his pants leg. Thinking that it didn't seem to be hurting as much he reached down and carefully started to pull the pant leg up to survey the damage in the dim light of the flashlight. Several jolts of pain reminded him that his ribs were still very sensitive. When the cuff was at about mid-shin, Kent realized there was something on his leg. He then started to pull the pant leg up faster only to be slowed back down by the pain from his left side.
A slug of some sort was half way up his shin. No, he thought, not a slug... some sort of leech. He quickly lost what little lunch he had left in his stomach.
Fumbling around in one of the pockets of his backpack, the injured man found his pocketknife. Carefully easing the blade down to just under what appeared to be the rear of the leech he, slid it slowly, blade first, toward what he figured was the head. The blade was reflecting the light through the leech's body. Its faint blue and orange organs could be seen through the gelatinous body. The blade soon reached what appeared to be the mouth opening and with a quick flip the disgusting thing was flying across the cave onto one of the slime covered rocks. When it landed it curled up into a ball and started glowing brightly.
Kent checked where the creature had been and found a small red hole about an inch and half below the knee. Dark purple streaks spread out from the puncture and looked like they must run up past the knee and down to his foot. He looked at the wounds and could see that neither of them were bleeding. A few careful pokes with the tip of his finger showed Kent that the blood in and around the wounds had congealed to a jelly-like consistency. Then he carefully checked to ensure that there were not any more of the disgusting creatures on him.
Turning his attention back to the leech that he had knocked off his leg, Kent found that it had stretched out and was heading back down the tunnel toward the pit. He knew he hadn't heard anything from Lori and that it must be attracted to the smell of her fresh blood. The point of his knife made short work of the leech. He didn't remember much from his college biology courses, but he was sure there was something about these slimy buggers being able to survive getting cut in two so he made sure there were plenty of pieces.
He started down the passage again. There was something in the middle of the path around the bend. It was a lumpy pile of clothes. Moving closer he pushed the some of them aside with the toe of his boot. The light coming from around the next bend was bright enough now that he could see fairly well without the flashlight. Kent fell back as he suddenly realized that it was Charlie's other boot that he had just turned over. The inside of the boot and all the clothes were was dripping with the same kind of slime that covered the cave walls. He lifted a pant leg and something fell out.
His scream must have echoed for while; he couldn't remember. Kent scrambled away from the pile as fast as his arms and legs would carry him. The sight of what had fallen out of his friends pant leg, the shiny slime-covered bones, had wiped out any composure, any control that might have been holding Kent together up until that point. Like any animal would do when faced with death, Kent tried to get away as fast as possible. His panic had carried him about half way up the next tunnel section before the pain in his ribs forced him to stop and catch his breath again.
Charlie's clothes, Charlie's boots, his equipment was still lying there under the clothes. How could he have been stripped down to the bone so quickly?
Kent could feel his stomach churning, wanting to release its empty contents, as he tried to expel the images flashing through his mind. The leech that had been on him appeared to have been feeding on his blood. What if those bastards liked more solid food? Kent could feel his heart trying to pound it's way out of his chest, could feel the fear burning up through him like wildfire. His eyes started darting around the tunnel looking for more of the critters. One was crawling along the far wall. Lunging out with his knife and Kent tried to knock off only to land face first in the mud. He pulled himself back up against the wall and tried to calm down. If I can get out of this cave, he thought, then the Lieutenant and his men can find me and come back in to help Lori.
"Gotta get out of the cave," He repeated over and over as he started to crawl again.
As he rounded next corner, Kent's feet slipped out from under him and he started sliding down the slimy tunnel floor. His arm caught on a rock outcropping and he held on for dear life. Sweat burned his eyes and his biceps started to twitch as he pulled his body back up to the top of the incline.
Once at the top he lay sprawled against the wall of the cave. He could hear his breath starting to rasp and hiss with each lung full of damp cave air. His arms felt limp and useless.
After lying there for a few minutes Kent finally pushed himself up to where he could see down the tunnel. There was an incline just around the bend that dropped off even more steeply as it went. He tried to focus his eyes. His only light had been from the flashlight and the glow that was coming from below was extremely bright.
He leaned over a little closer to the edge. As he watched he could see that there was something moving in the light. He figured it might be the wind blowing the trees around outside the cave entrance or possibly one of the searchers coming into the cave. A shout for help died in his throat as his eyes finally came into focus. Kent sat dumbfounded for a few seconds as the shock of what he was looking at sank in.
The movement he had been trying to make out wasn't trees outside the cave entrance. It was slugs, hundreds, maybe thousands of glowing slugs. They looked similar to the one he had pulled off his leg except that many were huge, some could have been at least five or six feet long. He looked back at the pile of cloth and bones that had been his friend and realized what must have happened. They must have come up into the tunnel and gotten him.
Working his way back down the tunnel away from the glowing mass behind him, Kent knew he had to find another way out. As he searched about he saw an opening in the rocks. His ribs burned as he pulled with both arms till he was sitting in the opening with his legs hanging out. Waves of pain and darkness washed over him as he sat and tried to recover. Reclining against the damp cave wall the beam of the flashlight reflected off of something in back of the crevice. The chamber below him was filled with shiny, bare, white bones. Deer, bear, dogs, cats, and human bones were piled together filling a small chasm to the edge. Bits of old and new clothing, camping equipment, and guns were scattered amongst the debris. Kent realized that some of it might belong to the people they had been looking for.
The reporter turned back toward tunnel he had crawled up from and just sat there, unable to think of what to do next. As he sat with his feet hanging down, his left shoe fell off and slid down into the middle of the tunnel. He realized that he could no longer feel either of his legs. He looked down at his foot and saw it hanging there limp. The sock was soaked with slime.
Bracing himself against the pain his ribs were going to give him, Kent reached down the wall with his right hand and pulled the sock off to survey the damage. The sock slid off easily. Long sticky tendrils of slime dripped from the sock and his foot.
Kent almost lost his grip on the wall as he looked at the sock he held in his hand. It was full of slime, but it also had something solid lying in toe of the sock. He carefully turned it up and watched as shiny white bones fell out onto ground. The world spun as he looked down at his foot and saw a translucent blob dripping with slime.
"My God! What the hell is going on?" He screamed, only to be answered by echoes. Kent took his pocketknife and poked a hole in the pant leg, then slid the blade down to the cuff and spread it out. The entire leg had become translucent. He could see his shinbones and knee floating in the now bizarre appendage. Kent watched with growing revulsion as the mass began to undulate slowly pushing the bones down toward where his food had been and out onto the tunnel floor.
A new sensation washed through him and he screamed again. His stomach felt strange and he couldn't feel anything below the waist now. Dropping his pack, he ripped his coat and shirt open and watched as the flesh of his abdomen started to quiver and change, at first turning a dark purple then slowly becoming translucent. Within a few moments he could make out the muscles under the skin, then as they changed he could make out organs.
"That little blood sucker infected me with something. Those things must carry some kind of disease," he frantically tried to rationalize away the rude reality that lay before him.
His left shoe fell to the tunnel floor and he stared in horror as his leg bones softly clattered off a rock below him. The pant leg suddenly grew wet and collapsed as his leg retreated into his body. Checking his abdomen, Kent could almost see through himself now. Fluids shifted and pulsed under the now translucent surface of his skin. His organs were visibly rearranging themselves, changing to fit some new pattern. The flesh of his left arm started to convulse and quiver, streaks of purple shooting down toward the fingers.
Kent pushed himself back out into the hallway and began to drag himself back down toward the pit they had fallen into. Hand over hand he pulled his shifting form down the passage. He wanted to get back, try to find another way out. Flashes of heat and cold swept over him. His fevered mind, bent on trying to survive, kept him going despite the waves of sensation now sweeping over him.
As he came up on Charlie's remains, he noticed a dim red light coming from under the clothes. Crawling over he pushed the clothes and bones away. Kent found the switch and could soon hear the whirring of the motors. Another tremor washed over and through him and his left arm collapsed.
Kent pushed himself up onto the side of tunnel with his right arm and then carefully reached over and aimed the camera at his face. Fumbling around with the buttons he finally activated the light that was hooked to the side. The glaring spot light temporarily blinded him.
Pulling his arms up to block the light, Kent realized that he could now see through his left arm. He watched as the filmy skin retreated up into his shoulder leaving the now clean white bones to drop into the slime of the cave floor. Now holding up the right arm, Kent could see the flashlight glowing through it.
He tried to think. It was obvious that he wouldn't make it out of here before this thing had devoured his body. He had to let them know... if they made it this far... they needed to know.
"This is Kent Kashki, or what's left of me. If you are seeing this it may already be too late. The creatures down here, the worms are dangerous, they're deadly." He spoke as clearly as he could while reaching down with his right arm to brace himself as he felt his balance starting to shift.
"'They Who Come' is what the Indians called them... us. Don't let us get out of here. If you do..." His voice seemed to stop in his throat.
Kent's right arm went limp and he fell face first into the slimy mud. This time he could feel the arm as it merged into his body. The cool floor of the tunnel sent shivers rippling though his new body. His clothes slipped off his body, as slime seemed to ooze from all sides. His face and scalp started twitching and his vision faded to black. He tried to scream, but couldn't remember how. He began to feel the cave all around him as he slid completely free of his clothes.
There wasn't any more pain, and he couldn't remember why he had been afraid. Nothing could harm him in the caves. He felt drawn to the chamber ahead. He crawled into the pit. He knew this place. He had been here before. This is where he wanted to go, but he couldn't remember why.
A warm wonderful smell was coming from something lying on the rocks. He slid up the rocks and could feel its heat. It shifted and sent vibrations through his body. The smell was stronger as he made contact. Food was there in the warmth. Some part of his brain screamed a fading scream as he attached his mouth and started to feed.