[Mysteriousheartland.com] In front of the duo was an endless tunnel of darkness. Behind them, the tunnel entrance glowed almost unbearably bright, the bars that covered the opening only briefly interrupting the sunlight. Greg and Davin slowly clawed their way forward, using the slippery cement wall as a guide. Davin clutched at Greg’s shirtsleeve, but Greg, who was about a head shorter, brushed him off.
“I think we should wait for the others,” Davin said nervously. “Who knows what’s down there? Not us, I’ll tell you that.”
Greg, who wore a ragged, olive green U.S. Army shirt from the Vietnam War with the sleeves rolled up, sighed in frustration. “Where is your sense of adventure? Why don’t you get out of the basement every once and a while and live a little?”
“I am out of the basement,” Davin grumbled. He jumped as his foot hit something long and thin—a branch deposited in the tunnel during a heavy rain. “Man, there could be snakes in here and God knows what else.”
“Snakes are cold-blooded, so they need to warm their bodies by being out in the sun,” his friend replied. “I doubt we’ll run into any in here.”
“What? There are snakes that live in caves—” Several figures interrupted the light coming from the tunnel entrance.
“Good, Mike and the others finally made it,” Greg said and quickly turned to give his friends a verbal lashing for taking so long to get there. When he turned to face the tunnel entrance, however, he saw only the outlines of three figures, each about six feet tall and two feet wide. They absorbed all light, like deep black silk. An icy chill ran down his spine.
Earlier that day, the Fallen had left their car in the parking lot at the entrance to the forest preserve and walked into the woods past the sign that read “WINSTON TUNNEL.” A dirt path wound up and down the uneven, hilly terrain until it suddenly opened to a long grassy field. A creek flowed along the right side of the field, and a steep, wooded ridge jutted out of the landscape just beyond it. Mike, Greg, Aurelia, Davin and Emmet paused to take in the scenery.
“Do you see the tunnel anywhere?” Mike asked as he unfolded a map and examined it. He alternated his gaze between the map and the valley several times and ended with a puzzled look on his face.
Aurelia tore the map from his hands. “Give me that!” she shrieked.
“What is that over there?” Emmet interrupted. He pointed toward several large blocks of cement near the creek. “Maybe this is the sealed entrance?”
“No,” Mike said. “That was on the other side… I think.”
The group walked over to the creek and examined the debris on the side of the ridge just beyond it. Aside from the blocks of cement, exposed rebar supports and a generous helping of gravel decorated the ridge, but no tunnel.
“Let’s keep going,” Mike suggested. “This clearly isn’t what we’re looking for.”
Up ahead, the valley narrowed, the woods closed in, and the field turned into a path that led deeper into the forest preserve. After about ten minutes of walking, the Fallen spotted the ruins of a large house in the woods off to their right built of timber and yellowish limestone blocks. Greg rushed toward it excitedly like a kid whose babysitter had taken him to a new park.
Mocking him, Aurelia sang, “Now don’t run too far!”
“We don’t have time for this,” Mike said. “We didn’t come here to see an abandoned house.” He came along when the rest of his friends voted with their feet and joined Greg in exploring the ruins.
After they had all settled down, Mike gathered them. “We’re burning daylight,” he said. “We need to split up. Greg, go with Davin and see if we missed anything back by the creek. The rest of us will continue down this trail and see where it goes. Whoever finds the tunnel first will radio the other group.”
Everyone shook their heads in mutual understanding and set off in their respective groups. Because they did not have to go far, Greg and Davin reached their destination rather quickly. Nothing had changed—there was not a tunnel hidden along the ridge. “Why do we always get the crappy assignments?” Davin complained.
“Speak for yourself,” Greg replied, examining the ridge. “Hey, how much you want to bet I can beat you to the top?”
A glance was all it took to signal the start of the race. The two friends scrambled to climb over the pieces of cement and up the steep incline. Greg reached the top first and jumped to his feet triumphantly. He hardly noticed the long trail that led from the top of the ridge straight back through the forest.
“Hey,” Davin said when he finally reached the top. “Look behind you. Doesn’t this look like an old railroad bed? I bet the tunnel is at the end of this trail.”
Greg smiled. “Screw those other guys, let’s get there first.”
* * *
Aurelia immediately sensed the presence of the shadow creatures on approaching the tunnel. Without any hesitation, she descended the steep embankment, avoiding logs, holes, and other hazards as she went. Leaves and loose dirt gave way under the heavy weight of her boots, and Mike and Emmet followed closely (if not more carefully) behind.
It was not long before the trio felt the cold, wet sediment in front of the tunnel entrance beneath their feet. Now only yards away, they could plainly make out the quivering, Stygian shades against the bars. The shadows reacted to their presence by withdrawing further into the darkness. Greg and Davin pressed up against the opposite wall, nearly out of sight.
Mike tried to take the lead, but Aurelia shoved past him again. “Get out of my way!” she shouted. She drew a quartz crystal from her purse and tossed it at the shadow that was closest to the entrance, hitting it dead on. The crystal seemed stuck for a moment, suspended in midair while the shadow drained away. After a few seconds, it clattered to the ground. Its once translucent pink surface was now black as coal.
The other two shadows drew closer to each other until they nearly fused into one large mass. Then, without warning, Aurelia fell backwards into the muck at the bottom of the embankment, as if pushed by an unseen force.
As Aurelia crawled over the wet sand and rocks to get away from the psychic attack, Mike pulled a pouch filled with kosher salt out of his pocket. He grabbed a handful of the salt and threw it at the shadows. Like a shotgun blast, the tiny pellets tore a hundred holes in their shimmering, atramentous ectoplasm. They quickly dissolved.
Greg and Davin rushed to the hole in the iron bars that covered the tunnel entrance, desperate to escape. Mike, Aurelia, and Emmet, however, were eager to get into the tunnel. They carefully squeezed through the gap in the bars and tried to reassure their friends the threat from the mysterious interlopers was gone.
As soon as the reassuring was over, however, Aurelia decided that a thorough scolding was in order. “Why didn’t you wait for us?” she demanded. “We agreed that we would meet at the tunnel before we went in.”
Mike, also irritated by his friend’s recklessness, gave Greg and Davin the evil eye as he carefully found and then wrapped a cloth around the tarnished quartz. “Let’s take this back with us and analyze it. It might be useful again someday.”
“Does anyone want to explain to me what just happened?” Emmet said with a nervous laugh. “I couldn’t see what was going on from back there. You guys act like you saw something—was it a snake?”
“Unbelievable,” Greg said. “You were standing right there and you still missed it. Didn’t you see those shadow people that Mike and Aura just got rid of? I mean, they weren’t bothering me, but they terrified Davin.”
Emmet shook his head. “Shadow people? Give me a break. You know your eyes start to hallucinate when exposed to, oh, a pitch-black tunnel for several minutes, right?”
“We weren’t hallucinating—” Davin protested, but he knew it was hopeless.
“Come on and help,” Mike said. “Get the camera and start filming what you can. We need to get as much data as we can before someone else comes along and reports us to the park rangers.”
Shaking off their strange encounter, the Fallen set to work exploring the area around the Winston Tunnel, but none of them—even Emmet—was willing to go much farther into its cavernous and foreboding interior.
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