Ten miles north of Raleigh, along a winding two-lane road, sat an old, stately manor. Few people knew of its existence, thanks largely to the thick belt of oaks which lined the perimeter of the property on which it resided. Those who could be considered neighbors—all of whom lived at least a mile away—ever saw a car enter or leave the estate. As far as any of them were concerned, there was nothing more than wilderness, so they paid no mind.
To the people that occupied the house, that was perfect.
At 10PM, long after any traffic would be expected on this lonely stretch of road, a van turned on to a dirt path at the edge of the tree line. Twenty feet down, the road hooked sharply and was bisected by iron fencing. The van’s driver rolled his window down and punched a code into a control box and waited for a heavy gate to open. Once it had, the van followed the path to the right before meandering for a half mile over rock and gravel. Deer would occasionally poke their heads out, springing away at the sight of the approaching vehicle. A small hill led down to a final turn which fed into a wide opening. Sitting dead center was the house, a Georgian mansion with a well kept lawn and an expertly manicured hedgerow.
The beauty of the architecture, striking as it was, was undermined by a lingering sense of menace. There was an air of grief, fear, and evil that seemed to permeate every brick, every shingle. It was the type of place that was whispered about on playgrounds or at sleepovers. Sure, you might be mocked for putting the idea out there but the laughing would stop once those making fun laid eyes on it. The fact that it was so isolated, so intentionally secluded, only magnified the effect. If someone were to stumble upon this house in the midst of a zombie uprising, they would likely decide to take their chances on foot through the woods.
The van eased onto a concrete slab along the southern edge of the house, its brake lights flashing before the engine was shut off. The driver exited, the vehicle almost sighing in relief that his weight was temporarily off its back. Walking with a shuffling waddle, he approached the rear doors of the van and tapped the glass before opening both. A rear dome light came to life, illuminating a wooden crate approximately five feet by three feet. Two figures, each clad in hooded robes, emerged from the rear of the house, one towing a flatbed cart. They walked towards the driver, ignoring his greeting as they loaded the crate onto the cart and returned to the structure.
Two minutes passed before they reappeared, again pulling the cart along with them. As before, they stopped at the rear of the van, this time loading two thick plastic bags—each about four feet long—into the vehicle before closing the doors. The driver, muttering about another ignored pleasantry, returned to his seat as the frame groaned in protest. He keyed the engine, executed a three-point turn, and headed back towards the main road. Instead of heading south and returning to the city, it turned north and headed towards Falls Lake.
Engrossed in the pop song playing through the van’s subpar speakers, the driver failed to notice the tail that he had picked up. The car, rolling along with its headlights off, sat just off of the van’s bumper. It would intermittently drop back and then return to to its close shadow before ultimately falling back a few car lengths. This went on for fifteen miles until the van pulled into a small gas station ten miles south of Falls Lake. The car glided to a stop alongside a pump directly across from its target, its operator remaining concealed until the van driver entered the store.
Having secured a fountain drink and a large back of snacks, the driver set about filling the tank. Unable to contain himself, he tore into a pack of snack cakes as the pumped ticked over and over; by the time fueling was done, he had laid waste to several sponge cakes as well as a candy bar. With a messy smile, he returned the handle to its resting place, lumbered into his seat, and resumed his course. The car that had followed him there was already gone. When the attendant came out to empty the trash a few minutes later, he found a pool of antifreeze where the van had been parked.
As one banal song blended into another, an alarm began buzzing, accompanied by a red light in the dash.
“Oh, now what the hell is that?”
The temperature needle had crept into the red; the engine reduced its power in an act of self-preservation. It managed another half mile before dying in a cloud of steam. The driver brought his hand down hard on the dash, wincing as his wrist bone struck the hard plastic. Clutching his arm to his chest he exited the vehicle, the sweet smell of hot antifreeze swarming his nostrils. The distant rumble of thunder sounded an early alarm; a storm was on its way. He could get the van repaired—drivable at the very least—or he could start walking, neither option instilling much hope. His mechanical know-how was nonexistent (his employers had, on more than one occasion, taken bets on how long it would take for him to inadvertently put diesel in the van) and, well, walking wasn’t a strong suit for him either.
As heat lightning burned across the sky, a thought came to mind: cell phone. Of course he wouldn’t dare call his handlers, no sir, they ragged on him enough already. It wasn’t fair, god damnit; he was a good driver, a good worker. They could call him up at midnight and tell him to be at that big house in twenty minutes. Would he be there? You bet your ass, and he’d be there early. He did everything they asked of him, no matter how strange. Did he have the occasional fuck-up? Of course, but he always managed to finish his tasks.
Now the stupid van they gave him had broken, leaving him stranded somewhere between Jack and Shit. Would they chew out the mechanic who was supposed to keep this shit heap running? Highly fucking dubious. The smell of antifreeze was everywhere. It seemed that the cooling system had spilled all of its contents onto the asphalt. He opened the door to retrieve his phone when a crinkling caused him to freeze in place. A hill rose from the shoulder, leading into a thickly wooded area which marked the sound’s point of origin.
“H…hello?” His voice was weak and unsure, like a pup finding its bark in the presence of a larger, meaner dog. “Is somebody there? Just so you know, I’ve got a gun.” That was a lie and his delivery did nothing to sell it. “I’ve got a gun and I’m not—”
“Afraid to use it? You should be. You might shoot one of us, but you won’t shoot all of us.”
A squeal slid out of the man’s throat. The words encircled him; the voices delivering them hollow and robotic. They sounded inhuman. He tried to hop into the van, his belly slamming against the side of the seat; the force was enough to knock him back on his ass. Before he could regain his feet, a figure stepped around the front of his vehicle. Tall, slender, and cloaked in black from head to toe, the shape seemed more a wraith than a person. It wore a mask which featured illuminated red eyes. At least he hoped it was a mask.
He watched as a dozen sets of red eyes emerged from the tree line, every muscle in his body clenching and cramping. They walked slowly and deliberately toward him. With each step, his heart beat harder and faster, his hearing dulled by the rush of blood.
“I don’t have any money if that’s—”
The figure closest to him pressed a finger against its lips. “We want you.”
His bladder squeezed itself empty; he scooted back, his pants catching and tearing on the rough asphalt. He pushed himself until his back struck something; as he looked up, he saw that it was another of the mysterious figures.
“Please, please don’t kill me.” Snot bubbled as he pleaded for his life.
This new apparition took over the role of speaker. Its associate yielded, creating an eerie effect, one that left the driver with the impression that they all shared some universal intelligence. “We intend for you to be a herald for our message; that requires you to be alive.”
The man sighed, struggling to catch his breath. His heart was pounding wildly, a situation which was rectified by the shape’s next comment.
“At least for the time being.”
The group closed in on him, picking him up and carrying him to the rear of the van. Despite his thrashing, their grip held firm. There was a brief sting, followed by a prolonged burning sensation. He hoped it wasn’t a bee; he was allergic.
“No, you can’t! Don’t put me back there! Don’t put me back there with them!”
Without ceremony, he was thrown into the back of the van, the doors closed before he could try to escape. There was no way to open any of the van’s doors from his position, a unique and intentional feature. A thick, steel cage separated the cabin from the rear, also by design. He thrashed around—like a wounded animal fighting to keep itself off the dinner table—bloodying himself on the exposed metal of the van’s interior. A prayer left his mouth hurriedly, a divine request for a heart attack or an aneurysm; if the cops found him with the cargo he was carrying, his life would be short an painful. His employers would see to that.
All of his energy faded and, for a moment, he believed that his appeal had been answered. The last thing he saw as he slumped to the floor was a dark outline stepping away from the rear of the van.