“This is too damned ironic.” Kyle said.
Steve winced at the bitterness in his tone. He didn’t blame his fraternity brother for pointing out the obvious. While overseeing the lower division science labs, Steve rejected arguments supporting the existence of mythological beasts, refuted urban legend and apocryphal stories tendered by gullible undergrads. He leaned forward now, scanned the street, and acknowledged William of Ockham was on to something when he promulgated his nominalist theorem.
Considering recent events, Steve applied reductivist logic to the situation and was forced to accept monsters had indeed swarmed campus.
The evidence was difficult to refute
Humanoid shapes formed of darkness absorbed half the population of his Monday evening chemistry practicum. Surviving students sat horrified. The process was fast. The absorption of fleshy tissue relinquished adipose residue in a liquescent rush, the effluvia oozing thickly across the polished concrete floor. Survivors discovered the distance to the fire-proof door was akin to riding a slip-and-slide, albeit one coated with human byproduct. The oddly pleasant smell reminded Steve of sautéed pancetta and produced a hunger pang.
Steve hovered near Kyle, his expression unchanging. “It would be disingenuous of me to claim otherwise since I clearly observed mature hominids consumed in seconds.”
He’d fled the research wing and found the football team completing a defensive pattern in the practice field. The cloudbank shielding the setting sun broke apart to reveal a wide swathe of golden light. The stream of sunshine poured from the heavens, saturating the scene. The elongated shadow cast behind each player rose up and mantled every set of padded shoulders, a cloud of drifting black shrouds. The athletes collapsed in graceful arcs, a flutter echoed in the empty space, similar to the impact of falling leaves.
Vomit climbed his throat in a searing wash. Steve expelled the gush and hurried along the sheltered side of the biology building, staying beneath the covered portico until the overhang ended. Then he sped down fraternity row, focusing on the silhouette of the steep Tudor roofline, third in the queue of chapter houses. A nearby feminine cry signaled another tragedy but the keening flicked off before he identified the origin. Bile flecked Steve’s tongue, his body heaving though his stomach had nothing left to offer.
Kyle jerked open the entry and pulled him inside, his green eyes wide and staring.
Together they peered beyond the narrow front lawn, stiff fingers resting against the doorframe.
Kyle’s voice cracked. “You’re so fucking brilliant; don’t your fat brains have any ideas?”
Steve considered. His empirical mind registered several items of note during the previous hour. The gooey mess of people’s remnants in his laboratory contained indigestible material, most likely minerals, if the stains marking the concrete floor in a rust color meant anything. The shadow forms could not consume certain elements. The next realization was that individuals had been depleted, regardless of size. Elisa Hong weighed one-third of Jeremy Partridge’s massive bulk, but the couple had been devoured and neither attacker returned for a second course. The final observation indicated the creatures, once sated, appeared insensate prior to dissolving into fine inky dust. That suggested the energy transference represented a limited capacity.
Which was all very interesting but inconclusive. “Our only real hope is avoiding bright unidirectional illumination.” Steve said. He reasoned the shadows couldn’t coalesce if the conditions for creation didn’t exist.
Kyle darted down the driveway and grabbed his .22 rifle off the rack in the back of his pickup truck. He retraced his steps, the gun cradled in the crook of his right arm and his thin lips twisted, forming a smirk. “Seeing as there’s a full moon tonight, we can always put a bullet in each other.”
Weighing that information, Steve figured striking a match was probably faster and less painful.
Movement caught their attention. An anthropoid shape emerged from the darkness of the surrounding trees and sprinted over the sidewalk at the moment the streetlamps blinked on, a man desperate enough to make a run for safety. Pools of yellow light dotted the dim strip of asphalt. The figure crossed into the closer of the illuminated spots and instantly, a shade materialized and the horrible doppelganger dropped atop the fleeing man. The pair evaporated in the middle of the road.
Neither observer spoke in the silence.
Kyle turned away and reappeared a moment later, offering Steve a tumbler filled with dark fluid. “Here, drink this. It’s the end of the twenty-year scotch; we might as well finish the bourbon too.”
Steve inhaled strong fumes from the liquor and fought the initial choking cough. Except for the first swallow, the rest went down easily. Warmth blossomed in his chest and he uttered an appreciative murmur.
Kyle hummed a sound of agreement.
“I guess Eliot Stanford won’t be giving the Commencement Address in June. He never did spend enough time weighing important decisions.” Steve said. Swishing the dregs of his drink in a circular motion he concentrated, processing dozens of disparate pieces of information as he rapidly linked data. “I started to tell you, my observations today demonstrated a possible variant. The entities appear when fluoresced by a single source. Diffused sources don’t cause the same effect because the edges are blurred. The sharp refined delineations, created through singular illumination produce the phenomena.”
Kyle snorted a rude noise and drank the last slug of alcohol. “Spoken like the nerd you are.” He released the empty glass, letting it drop to the carpet with a thud. He drew a small round tin from his shirt pocket, plucked out a pinch of tobacco and tucked the plug against his gums. “Just how do we use that nugget of insight?”
Steve’s shoulders lifted and then slumped. “Avoid projecting a shadow.”
Kyle raised a hand in a stopping motion. “So, what you’re saying is –“
Steve nodded. “Don’t go into the light.”