This thrilling creative writing piece by Patrik Tripes is filled with nail-biting action and the ambition to save a boy kidnapped by ghouls.
I stared at the warehouse through binoculars and wondered if I could do it.
The warehouse in question was a tall, abandoned-looking place just off the I-93 in St. John’s, Austin. The houses in the neighborhood were dilapidated and the roads were more pothole than concrete.
Two figures were standing in front of the warehouse, illuminated by one of the few functioning streetlights in the parking lot.
I twiddled with the zoom wheel, bringing the figures into focus. Immediately, I could see their proportions were wrong; they were much too heavy around the torso and shoulders and their arms were proportionally too long, coming down to their knees. Their fingers were tipped with claws.
They were wearing baggy clothes – hoodies, sweatpants, and cargo pants – so I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I knew what they were. The one on the left wore a red hoodie, one on the right was fiddling with a lighter. The flame flickered on; he threw back his hood, lit a cigarette, and took a long drag. His face looked normal, mostly, though his teeth were too sharp and numerous.
“Ghouls,” I muttered, remembering the lessons. The voice in my head that recited them was much like the Father Superior’s. Carnivorous, with a preference for human flesh. Supernatural toughness, strength.
Do not engage alone. Wait for reinforcements.
My stomach twisted, anger and shame rising in my chest. If there were any reinforcements coming, they were just as likely to kill me as the ghouls.
They were the ones who betrayed me, I told myself. It didn’t feel true. A part of me still wanted to go back, to straighten it all out. Logically, I knew all that would get me was a swift execution, but that didn’t change how I felt.
I shook my head; had to focus on the problem at hand.
I’d recognized the signs the day I got into town – the disappearances, kidnappings, the chewed-up bodies found in the river. Local papers were full of it. I had originally planned on passing through, but all those facts led to one conclusion.
A clan of ghouls had set up shop.
They were new in town; the newspapers only reported four murders so far. The ghouls would take more, though. Usual ghoul MO was to come into town, grab thirty or forty victims over a couple of months, then move on.
And I was the only one who knew.
Fear sat in my stomach like a ball of lead, turning my guts to water. The binoculars shook a little in my grip.
Could I do this?
My gaze shifted to the gym bag in the back seat.
I sighed and closed my eyes.
There was no one else.
I reached for the gym bag and opened it; armor gleamed inside. It was almost a full set: chainmail, breastplate, bracers, gauntlets, greaves.
I suited up, my hands moving automatically. I used the routine to drown out the little jolts of fear going up and down my spine, the almost overwhelming desire to just start the engine and keep driving.
I clasped the greaves on over my jeans, tightened the straps, then shrugged into the chainmail. The bracers went around my forearms and biceps. Finally, I got the breastplate on over my head. It was awkward maneuvering in the tight space of the car, but I managed it, then took a moment to look at myself in the rear-view mirror.
A knight in shining armor I was not. The armor was old and scarred, with imperfections on practically every piece; the breastplate was dented, the right elbow hinge ground and squealed, and the left gauntlet was missing a bunch of knuckle-guards. The whole set was covered in a crisscrossing patina of white scratches and gouges. I hadn’t had the time to be picky.
Finally, I brought the Sword out. Excalibur, Durendal; the Blade of Hope. It was what you think of when you think sword – cruciform with a three-foot blade, sheathed in a brown scabbard. The hilt was leather, smooth and bright from wear. There was no ornamentation.
The smooth texture of the hilt in my fingers forced the fear back some. My breathing calmed.
I got out of the car, belting the scabbard around my waist. Suddenly, a gray van pulled into the parking lot; I crouched behind a bush and pulled out the binoculars again, peering into them.
Upon seeing the van, the ghouls’ body language changed; Cigarette ghoul dropped his smoke and crushed it under his boot, while Red straightened his back, trying to look alert.
The van stopped in front of the warehouse and the biggest ghoul I had ever seen got out.
She was seven feet tall and built with heavy, slab-like muscle. Males didn’t get that big; must’ve been the matriarch. I couldn’t get a good look at her face, but I caught a flash of long, jagged teeth. She opened the side door of the van, reached inside with one ham-hock hand and dragged out a small figure.
The boy couldn’t have been more than six or seven. He was dressed in a baseball jersey and shorts. The matriarch got him out of the van and started dragging him towards the warehouse.
I watched as she crossed the parking lot, kid in tow. Dread trickled down my spine. Do not engage alone, the Father Superior whispered in my mind.
The boy screamed – a high, hopeless sound – and anger rose in my chest. The leather hilt creaked in my grip. I can do this, I thought.
Somehow, the simple weight of the Sword made me almost believe it.
I waited ‘til the matriarch was inside, then got up and walked into the parking lot.
Cig ghoul noticed me first. He tapped his buddy on the shoulder and they stood up as one, heading straight for me.
I unsheathed the Sword.
Their walk turned into a sprint and they fanned out – Cig taking my left flank, Red the right. A thrill of terror ran through me as I saw their plan. I could only counter one of them; if they hit me at the same time, I was done.
I couldn’t let them set the rules.
I let out a shout and charged; Red faltered and fell behind, giving me a few seconds alone-time with Cig.
The moment I reached him, his claws lashed out at my abdomen. My armor did its job, though the strike, meant to disembowel, still staggered me. I retaliated with a thrust that caught him under the ribs; a lethal blow. He screamed and pawed at the blade, the sound of his cry vibrating up the sword.
I knew Red was about to hit me, so I pulled the blade free – or I tried to.
It’s stuck- was all I could think before Red bowled into me, tearing the sword from my grasp and driving me to the ground.
Straddling me, he tore off my left bracer and sank his teeth into my bicep. My arm exploded in fire and I screamed, headbutting him. The impact made the inside of my skull flash white, but the ghoul groaned and let go, holding his head.
In that second, I reached out, grabbed the sword sticking out of Cig’s corpse and tore it free, then turned around swinging. Red tried to dodge, but he was too slow – the blade bit deep into his neck. He cried out and collapsed off me, blood pouring from his throat.
I staggered to my feet, backing off in case he had any more fight in him, but I shouldn’t have bothered. Lying in a rapidly expanding pool of red, he shuddered once and died.
Letting out a breath, I took stock of myself, feeling tenderly at my arm; the bite on my bicep burned like hell, already starting to swell. I carefully flexed my arm, then hissed in pain. But I could handle it.
I huffed out a breath. Well, I thought. Two down, one to go. One really, really big one, granted…
I tightened my grip on the hilt and entered the warehouse.
The hallway was dark, and the air smelled coppery and rotten. I heard the boy scream again and sped up, passing through a doorway at the end of the hall, and emerged into what looked like the main part of the warehouse.
The ghouls’ nest.
Piles of bones lay on blood-stained concrete in one corner and the smell of death made me gag. A few old mattresses lay on the ground in the opposite corner. The boy was curled up there, sniffling, terrified, but unharmed. A huge weight fell off my shoulders when I saw him.
The matriarch sat on a throne of broken boxes at the far end of the room. I felt her eyes on me.
“Let the kid go,” I said. “This doesn’t have to get any uglier.”
She didn’t answer, but rose and stalked towards me.
Fear jolted through me, but I kept it off my face. Entering guard, I held the Blade with both hands. She stopped a few feet away, spreading her claws, each of them as long as a knife. We circled each other.
Suddenly she attacked, using the range advantage from her freakishly long arms; I parried, striking sparks off her talons and used the opening to slash at her head. There was a brief tug of resistance as the tip of the blade caught her eye; she let out a ripsaw snarl, clasping one hand over her eye and retreating.
We circled each other for a few seconds more. Her hand fell away from her eye, and I saw it was gone, the socket weeping reddish fluid. She blinked, as if processing what happened, and her face twisted in rage. She let out a roar that shook the room and rushed forward, shockingly fast, and seized me by the throat, cutting off my air.
I fought, but she lifted me up off the floor, and my skull started to pound with pressure. The Blade clattered to the concrete from my senseless fingers. “Gahk!” I cried and pried at her grip. It was like trying to bend rebar.
She slammed her fist into my ribs at the pace of a busy workman’s hammer, wham-wham-wham; something cracked and nauseous agony exploded in my chest, tearing the breath from my lungs.
She opened her mouth to speak, then paused. She glanced over to the boy in the corner, then back to me. She felt at her empty eye with her free hand and a slow smile split her maw. “For that,” she growled, “You watch.”
She dropped me. My head cracked against the concrete and stars burst in my vision.
I could do nothing but watch as she stalked towards the child, pausing to kick away the Blade into a corner. I tried to lift my arms, to push myself to my feet, but my limbs just weren’t responding.
Terror and rage and self-loathing rose in me, all at once, blending into something that stabbed at my insides. Bile rose in my throat.
It wasn’t right.
The thought almost made me laugh. I, of all people, should’ve known the value of ‘right’. The last few days replayed in the back of my mind; a man I’d loved like a father ordering my execution, fleeing the only home I’d ever known, chased by people who I had considered family. And now this.
My eyes burned with tears, and my knuckles started to ache as I clenched them harder and harder.
A child was going to die. Because I’d been weak. Because he’d been unlucky. Because some fucking monster decided it would be fun. The kid didn’t deserve it. He hadn’t gone looking for it. And it was still going to happen.
It wasn’t right.
Something in my head went click.
Yes, I was weak, I was hurting, I was alone.
But I wasn’t dead yet.
And I was damned if I was going to lay there and watch a child die.
I focused, pouring every ounce of effort I had into my battered limbs. My arms felt like they were made of lead; sweat broke out all over my body. I groaned, pushing myself up on my elbows.
My entire body was on fire, but I forced myself to my knees. The muscles in the back of my legs screamed in pain, but from there, I got to my feet. All the pain in my body coalesced into one overpowering, all-encompassing sensation. My legs shook precariously.
But I stood.
The matriarch froze mid-walk, turning and staring.
My breathing was ragged. “Can’t have him,” I muttered, “‘til you go through me.”
A wave of… not anger, something else, something lighter and stronger and calmer, washed over me then. Numbly, I realized that light, pure white light, was coming from somewhere. Warmth spread through me, soothing the pain, putting life back into my limbs.
Something told me to hold out my hand; I did so, and the Sword appeared in my grip. Wisps of light rose from the steel and from my hands.
The matriarch gasped, eyes growing wide. A second’s stunned silence. Then she leapt at me, hate in her eyes.
The Blade felt weightless. The first swing took off her outstretched right arm; the second took her eyes. She screamed and stumbled back; I stepped forward, following her retreat. The final thrust went up through her sternum, then out again in one fluid motion.
And it was over.
The boy was staring at me, white light reflecting in his eyes. I took a step forward and he flinched.
Moving slowly, I sheathed the Blade. “It’s okay,” I said. “What’s your name?”
His eyes flickered to the matriarch’s corpse on the ground, then back to me. “Gabriel,” he said.
“Okay, Gabriel,” I said. “Do you want to go home?”
I offered my hand. He took it and silently, we went outside. There was a payphone not too far down the road. I called nine-one-one while the kid sat down on the sidewalk. I stayed with him until I saw the flashing lights of a cop car coming down the street.
“I have to go now,” I told him. “Tell the police what happened, okay?”
“Okay,” he said quietly. “Thank you.”
My breath caught for a second and despite the pain, something in my chest glowed. “No problem,” I said.
Then I walked to my car and got in.
I was already on the highway when the cop car reached him.