Black clouds swirled overhead, covering the stars and moon in currents of flowing darkness. Each nearly unseen step forward was dangerous, but had to be taken without delay. Swiveling his head left, right, forward and back, Morgan watched for movements. A single ball of light lie far in the distance, the lonely bulb left standing atop a long slender pole. It was the only scepter of luminescence that Morgan had seen in several days. One by one, the lights were dying out, never to be replaced, the Shadows hated all light and would not allow it. Morgan wished only to rest and knew that if he could make it to the light, he could finally sleep. It was far too dangerous to sleep in the darkness.
Morgan took a moment to slow his breathing, carefully kneeling next to the rotting stump of a long dead tree. He could only see a few dozen feet, but it looked as if he was alone. His senses were keen, but sight was extremely limited, so he focused more on listening, smelling and using his instinctive feelings. When danger was near, his hair would stand on end, fear creeping into his mind and instilling urgency. Instinct rarely failed him, but when it did, the Shadows had nearly claimed his flesh for their own. All was silent, not even a breeze to rustle the limbs of all the dead trees, grass and bushes. Morgan could only smell himself, for which he was thankful, despite he was as pungent as many of the Shadows could be. It had been many days since he bathed and far longer since a hot shower. That was a luxury he felt no longer existed in this doomed world.
The time of man was almost past. The Shadows were taking hold, gripping this dying planet with a form so terrible and evil that it had already killed almost every heartbeat on Earth. They craved blood and reveled in spilling it, but did not need it to survive. Their only weakness was light, but in our attempts to end the scourge, our weapons had provided them with all the darkness they would ever need to overcome our species.
It was autumn and the entire landscape was filled with long brown grass and dotted with trees that had lost their leaves. Morgan took a sip from his canteen, almost the last of his water. It tasted stale and oily, but also delicious to his parched throat. He had to find food and more of the precious liquid soon, or he would not have the strength to fight off any Shadow that came his way. He thought of their bony claws and gnashing teeth. A rush of memory blasted through his mind, his family on the run, being torn to shreds, the firing of weapons and pain of all-consuming loss. Only three bullets were left in his father’s .44 magnum, which meant two for the Shadows and the last for himself. Such a loud weapon, it could only be used in the most extreme of circumstances.
Lightning flashed in the roiling clouds above. Morgan froze in terror, huddled behind the stump, praying he had not been seen, but worried even more about what appeared in that moment. The flash was all he needed to see the numerous forms on the low hills around him. The Shadows screamed when the light hit them, whipping their hairless heads back and opening their jaws impossibly wide, with their enormous fangs pulling forward and erupting out of their wretched black gums. The light steamed off them in bursts of ash that peeled strips of skin. Their eyes were black as the night and their skin a mixture of dark shades of blue and gray, some rotting off their bones entirely, exposing sinew and flecks of white. The Shadows shuffled in circles, tripping, stumbling and dashing at anything that moved. They were intelligent, but their hosts were twitchy, confused and fought back against their parasitic infections.
Morgan had no idea what sustained the Shadows, or their purpose, only that they would kill anything they could get their bony claws into, tearing muscles and organs and pummeling them into jelly, pasting it on their own bare skin as if it were war paint. While they seemed to absorb tissues, it was not necessary to keep them alive. Once a host was destroyed, Morgan had seen the Shadows rip themselves from the corpses. They appeared as dark roots full of thorns and fangs, wrapping themselves on living things, burying deep within their tissues and controlling their movements. A strong wind could carry them like a deadly tumbleweed rolling toward their next host. For any caught in their embrace, it was an agonizing way to die.
Morgan waited impatiently for the Shadows to cease their screaming. He had seen several between himself and the light over a quarter mile away. If he was quiet enough, he could sneak past them. They seemed to be unable to see very well and likely had no sense of smell, but their hearing continued to function almost forever. The rotting parts of their hosts would cease to hold up for more than a few weeks and would eventually shut down entirely. Guts would fall from open wounds, bowels streaming behind them in long trails, even pregnant hosts would give birth to long dead babies. Still, the Shadows would move on, bursting from corpses and climbing through obstacles toward any human, animal, bird or fish that could be found.
The ground made a light swishing sound with each step. Morgan’s boots were worn and a bit oversized for his small, narrow feet. They left blisters on his toes and heels, but he had long since stopped worrying over it. He had secured some camouflage from a dead soldier and continued to bring his hunting pack wherever he roamed. His father had shown him how to hunt and survive in the wilderness, but nothing could have prepared him for the Shadows or the descent into madness that humanity had taken in the aftermath of their arrival.
A groan to Morgan’s left, then clicking and a screech. It was so shrill it raised the hair on his arms. He scanned over the tall grasses, but saw nothing. Not all of the Shadows were standing upright, some were low to the ground, so he watched the grasses for any signs of movement. The knife at his hip would only slow the Shadow unless he severed the host’s spine or stabbed into the brain, but even then, the monster within would only need moments to pull itself from the host’s nervous system and leap onto him. He had to keep moving, wanting more than ever to sprint for the light. If he made it there, he could force himself to sleep and wait for the Shadows to move on. Without sound to follow, they would disperse in search of hosts and give him the time he needed to move on to the next safe location.
Once more, Morgan heard the clicking, like the clatter of bones on rock. The grass to his left shuffled very briefly. Morgan could stand it no longer and he sprinted for the light. His feet pounded down on the grass, snapping twigs and busting through branches. The Shadow behind him screeched, signaling to the others that prey had been found. Morgan could see them turning, shuffling and running toward him. Some were on all fours, others upright like men, with limbs that twitched and shook, mouths agape and wailing like banshees in the dark night. Stumbling over his own foot, Morgan hit the ground, only to rise and find himself staring into the oozy black orbits of a Shadow. It must have used some form of deer for its host, because it had antlers wrapped in strips of cloth, moss and gore. It bleated at him, fangs baring and a writhing black tongue spewing forth, whipping toward his face. Morgan sliced at the tongue, severing it at the lip, then buried his knife into the beast’s molten black eye. It fell to the ground in a heap and Morgan did not wait to see the Shadow erupt from the dead animal’s flesh.
Dashing toward the light, Morgan was nearly there. Two large trees and a hundred feet were all that stood between him and the safety the light would provide. Morgan jumped over an old dirt road, hopping onto the opposite side while a half dozen Shadows closed in on him. He learned long ago to never look back, but he could hear them screeching, squealing and cursing at him, for some of them were once men and could form basic words. These demons of the night were relentless, but they were not very fast. With a bit of effort, he could outdistance them, but he could never endure as long as they could. There was no end to their strength, they would follow for days, weeks, endlessly until he could go no longer. His only hope was to hide in the light, be silent and wait for them to leave.
Morgan’s heart began to swell with hope and he followed the dirt road toward safety, nearing the open field next to the old streetlamp. Its amber glow was precious, a sunrise in an ever-darkened landscape. He was so close that for once, he wasn’t paying attention where he was going. He felt the bite on his leg, but only thought he’d run into a stick or a rock. It wasn’t until he was within the boundaries of the light, staring back at the screaming Shadows that fell into the burning orb’s magic and quickly rushed back out, that he noticed the two punctures on his calf. In a world full of monsters, he had run directly into one of the few remaining things that survived in the darkness. The snake that bit him could very well have been poisonous, but there was nothing he could do about it at that moment. Morgan lie down next to the pole that shined brighter than anything he’d seen in weeks. It was beautiful in its own way, an angel that would protect him from the Shadows.
Exhausted and unable to remember the last time he had a chance to rest, Morgan was asleep faster than the surrounding Shadows could stop screeching.