#6 of ten short stories from my 2015 self-published horror anthology, Random Number Hotline.
They had never seen anything like it before in their lives. The object consisted of an abnormal black stone which seemed to absorb the morning sunlight. Even while illuminated, the strange stone monolith appeared to be in permanent darkness. It appeared out of nowhere overnight right in the middle of the narrow street, flanked by the apartment blocks of the sleepy little town of Sareen. When morning came, everyone woke to find the anomalous structure just there, sticking out of the road like a spear. Calls were made to friends, relatives and law enforcement personnel for hours after the bizarre discovery. Among the hundreds of calls was one made by Terry Ronan.
Those who knew Ronan were well aware of his hobbies. Rock climbing. Hiking. Urban exploration. He had taken many friends and family members with him on many adventures over the years. He and all his associates enjoyed every second. Nobody ever refused a call from Terry Ronan. He had seen it all, abandoned train stations, derelict factories, unexplored forests.
So when he woke to find an immense black stone tower looming in the middle of town, he snatched up his phone, called up the usual people and asked them somewhat cryptically if they wanted to climb the anomaly of Sareen with him. It got their attention easy enough, just as Ronan hoped. So there they stood, Ronan and three of his closest friends, the sun barely halfway over the horizon yet. Ronan quivered with excitement as he stared at the anomaly, and after fifteen minutes, he couldn’t wait another second.
“Come on, we better get up there before the cops cordon the thing off,” he said. Ronan and his group broke off from the crowd and entered the adjacent apartment building, the closest structure to the black stone tower. With early attempts to scale the anomaly all failing, their climbing pitons unable to make a dent in the strange black stone, jumping onto the tower from the nearby apartments was the only other option.
“Slow down, this thing isn’t going anywhere…I think,” Karen Lartey said as they scaled the stairs in the apartment block two at a time. “You know how slow the police are to respond to calls out here, we have plenty of time.” She smiled knowingly at Ronan.
Slender and fit, Karen had accompanied Ronan on almost every one of his expeditions since they had met in high school. The two had become fast friends, and had been close for almost ten years now. Those who knew her and Ronan often joked the two were made for each other, both sharing identical traits, such as their commitment to the task at hand and the dogged determination to finish what they started. She had never turned down one of Ronan’s invitations, and wasn’t about to start now, especially with the unusual way he had pitched this one. It wasn’t every day you got to climb an anomaly.
Bringing up the rear were the other two members of their group: Harrison Drenter and Timothy James. While Ronan was short and surprisingly tough for his size, Harrison and Timothy were powerhouses by comparison. Both stood a full head taller than Ronan. They also carried bulging backpacks over their shoulders with ease, holding all the gear and supplies they would need for their climb. Ronan referred to the two as the pack mules, a nickname they accepted with open arms. No matter how much they had to carry, they would carry it all, and then some, with ease. For today their packs held cameras, batteries, medical supplies, food and water. The usual gear for these kinds of outings.
The group reached the top of the stairs soon enough. Ronan opened the door out onto the rooftop, where they would make the jump over to the anomaly. Not an easy jump by any means, especially for Harrison and Timothy with their heavy packs, but doable. Harrison pulled a camera out of his backpack and started to film. Being the budding film maker of their group, he was always looking for content to edit together at home later into a video. This trip would surely provide him with a bounty of intriguing footage.
“So here we are, about to make the jump down onto the anomaly of Sareen,” he said to the camera lens. “Since we can’t climb it from street level, we’ve had to improvise. I don’t know whether we’re gonna all jump down at once or one at a time, but either way it’s gonna be a hell of a show!”
Timothy stuck his face between Harrison and the camera. “I swear if that camera is still rolling when we jump I’m gonna throw the damn thing off the edge myself.”
Harrison turned the camera around in his hands and stared into the lens, deadpan. “If I don’t make the jump, I want it on record that Timothy is a hard-ass.” He paused the recording and stuffed the camera back into his bag. Karen giggled at their exchange.
“Okay, you all know the drill,” Ronan said as he stretched his legs, limbering up for the difficult jump. “Get a good run up, I don’t think anyone wants a repeat of Preaere Forest.” Timothy’s eyes narrowed. He still had a bit of a limp from when he fell down a narrow crevasse and had to be carried back to camp by Karen and Ronan. They’d never let him live that one down.
Below them on the street, a lot fewer townspeople remained gathered around the anomaly. Ronan wasn’t surprised. Nobody knew what the hell this thing was, for all they knew it could have been radioactive, so they understandably kept their distance. But this was the kind of thing Ronan and his friends lived for. One by one, with Karen first, they braced themselves and sprinted hard towards the edge of the rooftop. Karen flew through the air, almost appearing to hover in the air for a few moments before she dropped and landed on the top of the anomaly. She stuck her landing and rolled to a complete stop, uninjured.
Timothy and Harrison jumped next. The two managed the jump easily enough, considering the extra weight they both carried with them. Ronan jumped last, landing hard on the black stone next to Karen. He rose and brushed himself off. “Nice! See? Wasn’t too bad of a jump now was it?” Ronan said. He looked to Karen for a response, but she ignored him, her attention focused on something else. Timothy and Harrison stared ahead too, not listening to him. Ronan looked up and saw an impossible sight.
In front of them lay a veritable field of stone. It was as if they weren’t even in Sareen anymore. They had not landed on the same thing they had jumped onto, that was for sure. The top of the stone tower hadn’t been any larger than a car, but now the area they stood on appeared to be the size of an airfield.
Harrison pulled out his camera again and switched it on. “You guys are not gonna believe this shit, for real,” he told the lens. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.”
Karen broke her long silence. “This is impossible…what is this thing?” Ronan and Timothy just stared in awe at the black plains. Ronan’s mind boggled with the possibilities. Another planet? Another dimension? It has to be. He turned around to look back at the apartment building behind them. But somehow, the building had disappeared, vanished into a dark mist.
“Where the hell did it go? Where’s the building?” Ronan said. He ran to the edge of the stone field and peered down below. Sareen was gone. No streets, no people, only an unnatural black mist shrouding the endless black abyss. Timothy took one look over the edge and reeled away in a panic.
“What the hell man, buildings don’t just disappear like that! Where are we?” He crossed his arms and stepped back, glancing around with fearful eyes. The field felt as if it grew larger by the second. Had to be a trick of the light. Other tiny movements flickered around in the corners of his eyes, only making him freak out even more.
In stark contrast to Timothy, Harrison documented everything his camera could, narrating over it all in a giddy, excited tone. He walked towards the middle of the field, pointing the camera all over the place, until he came to a stop.
“Woah! Hey you guys! There’s a cave over here! This shit is awesome!” he chuckled. Ronan jogged over to him, while Karen put a hand behind Timothy’s back and escorted him over.
“It’s okay buddy, we’ll leave soon, don’t worry,” she told him. Even with her velvety, soothing voice, it didn’t help Timothy’s nerves. If anything, it only made him feel worse. This trip had already gone on long enough.
“Terry!” she called over to Ronan, who stared down into the cave with a hungry look in his eyes. “We shouldn’t stay here! Tim is pretty freaked out, can we find a way off of this thing? Soon?”
“But…just look at this place! Look at this cave!” Ronan gestured towards the chasm before him. “You can’t say you don’t wanna have a look down there! In and out, Tim can wait outside, just until Harry gets some decent footage…whaddya say?”
Karen clearly wasn’t comfortable staying here any longer than they had to, but she still had the glint of adventure still in her eyes. She sighed.
“Okay. A few minutes. But that’s it. We try to find a way back after. Got it?”
Ronan knew not to push his luck with Karen. He nodded. “Okay. Harry, turn that off for a second, I need a hand with the gear.”
“Dude…there’s something glowing down there.” Harrison aimed his camera down into the chasm. Ronan looked down and saw he was right. A faint yellow glow, obscured by stone platforms lay far inside. To get a better look though, they would have to head inside.
“What is it?” Karen said as she and Timothy joined the other two at the entrance. She sniffed the air above the chasm. “Weird. It smells like honey down there.” Timothy avoided looking down into the mouth-like crevasse, but Harrison remained entranced by it all, staring deep into the twisted dreamscape beneath them through his camera.
“This has to be some sort of, I dunno, like another dimension or something. What do you think—?”
The rock beneath their feet crumbled away into dust, without warning. No cracks or shifting of stone underneath them, no sound at all to warn them of the imminent disaster. The solid rock under all four of them just evaporated, throwing the entire party into the depths of the cave.
Timothy screamed all the way down. He hit several of the stone plateaus with horrific muffled thumps. The hapless guy landed into a massive yellow pool at the bottom of the cave and disappeared under the surface, silencing his screams in seconds. He surfaced moments later, his body rigid with complete and total paralysis. Timothy vanished again when the current washed him away into an unseen part of the cave. The whole ordeal was over in seconds.
Harrison landed hard on one of the platforms near the bottom, close to the steaming yellow river. He toppled over and screamed, both his legs broken from the fall, injured, but alive.
Ronan and Karen reacted the moment they felt the ground disappear. Years of climbing compelled them to lunge out for something, anything to arrest their fall. They both caught a ledge not too far from the top of the cave, almost yanking their arms from their sockets, but a move which saved their lives. Rocky debris rained down into the cavern into the paralyzing river below.
Karen and Ronan hoisted themselves up onto their narrow plateau, both shaking from their near death experiences. Ronan looked down at the river and cursed. “Oh shit, Tim! No no no no!” He slumped onto his back and looked up where they had fallen in. His terror only escalated as a result. “Where’s the hole? The fucking hole is gone! Fuck!” Above him, it was as if the rock hadn’t even collapsed. Their only way in had disappeared. They were trapped down here.
Harrison rolled around in agony down on his ledge, clutching his broken legs. “Oh God, Terry! Karen! Help!” Karen shuffled to the edge of her and Ronan’s platform and peeked down at their injured friend.
“Harry! Jesus, are you alright?” she called.
“No, I’m not alright. My legs are fucked!” Harrison glanced next to him and saw the camera on the stone, intact and undamaged. “How the hell did the camera get less fucked up than I did?” He forced a painful laugh, which degenerated into a coughing fit. “Man, I can hardly breathe down here. Air’s so sweet.”
“We’re gonna try to climb down to you, okay?” Karen said. She inspected the walls of the cavern, searching for a safe way down to Harrison. The walls were sheer stone, the same stuff the exterior of the anomaly consisted of. Climbing to him wasn’t an option. Karen considered jumping down to Harrison’s platform, but decided against it. It was possible, but dangerous. She would just end up lying next to Harrison if she didn’t stick the landing, or like Timothy if she missed the narrow platform.
Ronan snapped out of his panic, a thought coming to him. “You still have rope in your pack?” he called, eyeing the backpack Harrison still carried with him. He could almost see the glint in the guy’s eyes as he realized he had a chance. Harrison lifted the bag off and pawed through it. He pulled out a long spool of rope and grinned. “Yeah, it’s still here!”
“Throw it up to me!”
As Karen watched the exchange between the two, she heard a strange sound from somewhere underneath them. It sounded almost like a swarm of bees. It was barely a whisper at the moment but it escalated and grew louder and louder with each passing second.
Harrison heard it as well. He stepped up his efforts with the rope, unrolling it before he did his best to throw it up to Ronan. Throwing rope had never been a huge challenge for him. But with two broken legs and in unbearable pain, the stress was starting to get to him. The rope hovered in space about five feet out of Ronan’s grasp before it sailed back down to him.
“It’s too fucking short!” he cried. The relentless droning only continued to escalate, drowning out his calls. He glanced around, looking for any other way he could get up to Ronan. A closer platform, a connecting bridge, anything. But as the buzzing became a horrific, deafening roar, he realized it was too late.
“My God…” Ronan breathed as he watched, helpless from his vantage point. Karen covered her mouth and looked away. She tried not to vomit as the most horrific thing she had ever seen in her life unfolded before her.
What could only be described as a wall of insects swept across the width of the cavern where Harrison lay. They were grotesque, fist-sized chitin plated monsters. Ronan and Karen couldn’t see them well from where they knelt, but Harrison had a front seat view of the approaching wall of insects.
Every one flew with their fangs bared, dripping with the same yellow fluid they had seen underneath their feet. Harrison screamed as the cloud engulfed him. For a full ten seconds he was invisible underneath the bugs. Ronan heard the screams stop after three.
The swarm continued on and disappeared somewhere on the opposite side of the cavern, leaving Harrison in their wake. Karen choked back a cry when she saw what remained.
He was unrecognizable. His face, arms and every other area of exposed flesh had been shredded. Flaps of skin hung off him like tattered paper. Splashes of the horrific yellow substance lay everywhere. His clothes were all but torn apart. It had all happened so fast.
Ronan and Karen stared at each other in stunned silence. The buzz of the swarm had faded to a whisper once again. Now Ronan knew what they shared this place with, he wasn’t eager to stay here for another second.
Was this some kind of nest, or a hive? It had to be, Ronan thought. Those creatures were not normal; he hadn’t seen anything like them in his life. He slumped down next to Karen, the silence unnatural.
Karen started to cry deep, muffled sobs into her open palms. Ronan almost felt like doing the same. The way they had fallen in was still nowhere to be seen. How do we get out of here?
“We’re trapped!” Karen wailed. “Harry and Tim had all our gear, and look what happened to them! Oh God, what are we going to do?” She broke down into tears again.
“Hey, just…take a breath. Calm down.” Ronan grabbed her shoulders and looked her straight in the eyes, their noses an inch from one another. “We are getting out of here, you understand me? We’re gonna find a way out of this place, I promise you.”
Karen sniffed and didn’t reply for a moment, but soon nodded and wiped the tears from her eyes. It hurt to see her like this; Karen had never broken down like this before. Even in the most stressful and life-threatening situations, she remained composed and calm. But not today.
Ronan stood, giving Karen a helping hand on his way up. “Okay, I’m thinking we should—”
He choked mid-sentence when he heard the familiar buzz once again, now louder than ever, and only getting louder. He looked over the edge of the platform and immediately regret it. The entire lower half of the cavern was invisible underneath the river of insects flowing through the place. The swarm looked even thicker than before, perhaps only leaving earlier to collect the rest of the colony. Karen went to look over the edge with fearful eyes, but Ronan pulled her back.
“No. You don’t want to see that.”
The two embraced, Karen burrowing her face into Ronan’s shoulder as the swarm swept up over the platform, the drone of their wings deafening. “It’ll be over soon,” Ronan whispered before the wall engulfed the two of them.
When the bugs moved on almost a full minute later, nothing remained apart from puddles and splashes of yellow goo. It was as if Ronan and Karen had never been there.