Garth was staring down the barrel of a shiny silver forty-five, and the only thing his panicked brain could think of was ‘how did that girl’s wrists not get hurt?’.
“Wait, I’m not a-“ Garth said, flinching out of the way. A concussive report blasted his ears, and he felt the sting of dirt hitting his skin.
“I’m not a monster!” Garth shouted. Called it. Some distant part of him was smug at predicting the girl’s shoot-first attitude. The rest of him was terrified.
Sometimes you don’t feel the bullet hole until you find it with your fingers, I wonder if my blood’s purple now too. He thought near hysterically as he patted himself down.
The girl looked behind her, eyes widening in fright as she spotted the Kipling closing in. She raised the gun and fired off three quick shots, putting down the lead ghoul. She shifted her aim to the second, and the gun was silent.
Dropping the pistol, she turned and ran toward Garth, taking her chances with him.
Garth wouldn’t usually do someone a favor after they’d shot at him, hell, he’d probably have found some way to take revenge --Anonymously, so the person didn’t shoot at him again-- But this time, It was a teenage girl who had no business being chased by monsters in the first place.
On account of the circumstances, Garth decided to give her a pass, starting out across the river with his duct-tape spear held high.
She was leaping into the river when the remaining ghoul caught her ankle, dropping her face first into the water as Garth charged forward, giving his best barbaric yawp.
She flipped over and was kicking backward when Garth arrived, taking a stance and plunging his drill bit spear toward the ghoul’s eye. The ghoul flinched backward and the drill bit stopped in front of its face. Damn.
The month he’d taken boxing lessons as a kid before he’d decided the brain damage wasn’t worth it, the instructor had tried to tell him to punch through the other guy’s head. Garth had never really thought about why. Because they flinch backwards and you miss or deal next to no damage. Same holds true with spears I guess.
Garth was a complete civilian, hadn’t ever been in a real fight, or entertained joining the military, but he was a fast learner.
He took another step and plunged the drill bit forward again, aiming for the riverbank beyond the ghoul’s head. The bit caught the monster’s ocular bone and scraped into its eye socket, rocking it’s head back. He could feel the bit rubbing against the bones with his hand, making his hair stand on end.
“Gyaaa!” The ghoul shrieked, closing its long fingers around the duct-taped end of the spear, nearly wrenching it out of his hands as it thrashed.
“Motherfucker!” he muttered through clenched teeth as he tried to pull the spear out of its grasp.
With a crunch, the girl swung a river rock up and brought the fist-sized weight up against the creature’s skull. It went stiff and fell face first into the stream. Garth pulled the spear the rest of the way out and leaned on it as he helped the girl to her feet. They watched the Kipling twitch in the stream as they caught their breath. Garth was half expecting it to melt away in the water like cotton candy, but the body simply lay there, water swirling around it.
“You’re welcome.” Garth said, holding his back and twisting until it popped. He must have tweaked it while he was stabbing the ghoul.
“Sure,” The girl said, staggering out of the stream and looking around the banks for something. A moment later she paused and looked back up at Garth with suspicion.
“Who the hell are you?”
“My name’s Garth.” He said, giving her time to tell him her name. she just scowled and looked him up and down.
“Why do you look like Barney’s illegitimate love child that got lost in the woods for twenty years?”
“And your name is…?” he asked, motioning with his hand for her to respond, his patience with the girl running thin. She didn’t come across as the weepy pubescent in a slasher film, that was for sure. Maybe the tough tomboy that dies first or second to prove how badass the killer is.
“Well Leanne, when Barney the Purple Dinosaur and his hot intern love each other very much, they do a special kind of hug that makes babies.”
“Unfortunately, Barney is a much beloved public figure, and his image would be irreversibly stained by a child born out of wedlock, so he hired some goons to make the hot intern disappear. She managed to get away from them and hide in the woods, and the bad guys claimed they’d killed her so barney didn’t have them iced.”
Her jaw dropped.
“She spent the next thirty years living in the wilderness of Oklahoma, training me in the art of purple-foo, so that one day, when the time was right, I could return to civilization and avenge my mother.”
Leanne squinted at him, his absurd story visibly replaying in her mind.
“Anyone ever tell you you’re full of shit?” she asked.
“Anyone ever tell you you’re a soulless ginger?” Garth shot back, crossing his arms, mindless of the ice-cold stream of water passing around his ankles. It actually felt kind of nice.
“Just my dad. I hate my dad.”
Garth chuckled and turned back to his toolbox on the other side of the stream. Grabbing the heavy fabric bag, Garth crossed back over the stream and knelt down beside pale corpse face down in the water, flipping it over.
“What are you doing?” Leanne asked, coming to stand over his shoulder.
“You got the letter this morning from the little ugly frog-man?” he asked.
“You can read, right?”
“Yeah.” Her voice had a hard edge to it now.
“Then you should know these suckers should have some kind of gem beside their heart, it was mentioned in that bureaucratic form letter.” Garth pulled out a drywall cutter from the bag and traced it along the ghoul’s chest. The thin blade peeled away the first layer of skin, but refused to make a dent on its ribcage.
“Damn,” he muttered, taking out his chisel and tapping it against the creature’s rib bones with his palm.
“Whoah…” Leanne knelt down beside him, her eyes focused on the creature’s guts with unbridaled curiosity.
“Could you pass me that rock?” Garth pointed at a hand sized rock on the bank. hitting it against the chisel, he was able to crack the bones and pry away each individual rib, until the internal organs lay bare before them. After a minute of searching, he found the gemstone in a pocket of skin buried just behind the heart.
Maybe it would be faster getting to it through the back? He thought as he studied the gemstone. It was a muddy brown, partially opaque stone with minor flecks and inclusions. Garth almost thought it was a pinkie sized blood clot until he felt how hard it was, washed it off and held it up to the light.
Well, you only live once. Garth thought, putting the pinkie sized gemstone into his mouth and swallowing it.
“Why’d you swallow it?” Leanne asked.
“The letter said to ‘consume’ the heartstone.” Garth said. “Unless consume was a metaphor or used in a completely different sense, it means ‘eat’.”
“Alright then,” Leanne said, holding out her hand. “Gimme the chisel, I’ll give you this one because you helped me out, and I shot at you, but that one-“ She pointed at the ghoul with three bullet holes “That one’s mine.”
“Fair enough.” Garth said, passing her the chisel and rock before climbing to his feet and carefully stretching his back. Garth thought he could feel something, a tingling warmth at the edge of his perception, but it wasn’t like popeye with his spinach, he couldn’t feel a profound difference.
Add another condition to surviving: eat enough Heartstones to kill a bear barehanded.
As he was considering the best way to get large quantities of farm fresh Kipling heartstones straight to his door, Garth’s gaze landed on the patch of wet sandy bank beside the ghoul’s corpse. There was dead moss where his knees and shins had rested, in two distinct leg-marks.
“What the hell?” Garth knelt down to look at them. The moss crumbled away from his fingers as he touched it, looking as if it had been dead for years. Garth was fairly confident he didn’t just sit on the only shin-shaped clumps of moss in the entire state. It had to have something to do with him.
hyper fertility? He put his hand down beside the moss and held it there, glancing at Leanne hack away at the other ghoul’s chest while keeping his head on a swivel in case more baddies showed up.
A scant minute later, he felt something tickling the underside of his palm, writhing beneath it like it was alive. When he pulled his hand away, he saw a palm-print shaped clump of moss. The dense green plant continued to grow for a minute or two, expanding visibly in front of him before it slowly began to turn yellow, then orange, and finally grey.
Well, Garth thought, standing. At least I know what hyper fertility does now. The question now was, how could he leverage it to his advantage?
Could I grow food in a matter of minutes? could I grow… Garth’s eyes widened as he realized the implications. It was just an idea right now, he had no idea if it would work or not, but there was a possibility he could make any kind of plant he wanted. And he meant any kind.
Pitcher plant that weeps highly flammable oil? No problem. Making an american version of bamboo that grows in an instant, spearing its victims? easy.
Maybe even some kickass weed that didn’t make Garth paranoid. Or cocaine. Drug lord of the apocalypse, that’s Garth Daniels. That would probably make Beladia sad, so maybe not. Probably not a good idea to piss off the person giving you your powers.
His mind reeled with the limitless possibilities.
“What’cha doin?” Leanne said, coming over to the stream to wipe off her stone. It looked a little more transparent than the other one, with a pebbly exterior, but it was definitely the same thing.
“Having an epiphany.” Garth said. He glanced over at her. “You know any libraries near the edge of town? The Maddison library is in the center of town, same with the Coffee Hut.”
“My school’s got a library, it’s just over there.” She said, nodding the way she’d come.
“Excellent.” Garth said, heading that way. Leanne watched him go for a second before stuffing the gem in her pocket and picking the .45 off the dirt and brushing it off, jogging to catch up.
“Not eating yours?” Garth asked, glancing over his shoulder.
“Nah, you’re my purple guinea pig,” Leanne said, coming abreast of him. She glanced up at Garth’s face, squinting against the morning sunlight. “If you start convulsing and bleeding from every orifice, can I have your spear?”
“So what’s so important that you gotta go to the school to get it? You helped me out and I gotta pay you back, but I don’t really wanna go back there.”
Garth stopped and looked at her. “Was there anything still alive in there when you left?”
“No,” she said, avoiding eye contact. “I just…rather wouldn’t.”
“If I’m going to a library, it’s to get books, obviously.”
“What, you gonna beat the slendermen to death with them?”
“Slenderman wears clothes. I call them ghouls.”
“I want an encyclopedia of north American plants.” Garth said as the trees thinned. He could make out the schoolyard a few dozen feet beyond the tree line. He swept his gaze back and forth across the field, and couldn’t spot any of the pasty bastards.
Garth stopped and leaned against a tree and glanced at the ragged girl with half-soaked clothes.
“Look, Leanne, I could have taken the evocation specialist wizard glass cannon build, and it would have been fun, but everyone worth their salt knows that a druid has far more survivability, so I swallowed my pride and I took the Druid. Wanna be my animal companion?”
“Just weird.” Garth corrected, hunkering down to pick up a little brown fleck off the ground. Garth turned it over in his hand, resting it on his palm. It was an elm seed from the summer before. “Now I’m pretty sure if I get a book on edible wild plants, I can keep us fed all the way to the coast without having to dive in and out of cities and risk getting eaten in turn. We have to think about the long term here.”
“How are you gonna do that?” Leanne asked.
Garth felt a tingling in his palm, some current passing between him and the tiny seed in his hand, but it didn’t sprout in his palm. He found that if he concentrated on it, he could amp up the tingling, or make it go away almost entirely, still it wouldn’t sprout. Must need dirt.
“Hold this.” Garth said, reaching into his bag and handing her his scuffed up buck knife. He then took the seed and put it on the tip of his finger before jamming it down into the dirt.
“If you don’t start making sense, I’m just gonna have to-“
Leanne’s mouth hung open as a sprout climbed out of the ground. It started as a tiny seedling with two little leaves reaching up and touching the tip of Garth’s finger, sowly writhing out of the ground, surging up like he was pulling it out of the ground himself. Every second, Garth made sure to keep in contact with it, since he didn’t know how long it would keep growing before it died.
“Could you trim the lower branches, please?” Garth said, climbing to his feet to follow the elm at about six inches a minute. Garth grabbed one of his smaller chisels and began to weave the top branches around the handle. The branches swelled under his fingers, cinching tight around the handle.
After a stunned moment, Leanne did as he asked, shearing away the lower branches until Garth told her to stop. He took his hand off the sapling and used the buck knife to cut off the base.
“There you go,” He said, handing her the short spear. “You needed something to back me up with.”
“I think I see what you mean.” Leanne said, hefting the wrist-thick wood that had fused around the chisel handle.
“Okay, still looks clear, let’s go in.” Garth said, leading the charge toward the parking lot. According to Leanne, the back doors were locked, so the only way in and out of the school was the front door.
When he pressed the steel doors open, the faint stench of rotting meat wafted into his nose.
“I can see why you didn’t wanna go back.” Garth whispered as they crept through the dark halls. About halfway down the hall, they came to an intersection. Garth peered down the halls. Remember to look both ways, kids. Halfway down the ajoining hall was a dead ghoul with a gaping hole in its head.
“You?” Garth whispered, glancing back at her. In the dim light, he saw her nod.
“What’s down there?”
“Detention room.” she said, her voice faint. “Erik Porter, William Yates, and Ms. Henner.”
“You knew them?”
“That’s the principal.” Leanne said, pointing at the ghoul corpse. So they really did start as human? Garth filed that away and set his mind to task.
“Did you take the stones out of their chests?” he asked. Leanne shook her head.
“I’ll do it, okay? Just watch my back.” Might as well spare the girl from eviscerating anyone she recognized.
Poor girl must have put a bullet between the eyes of people she knew. No wonder she didn’t want to come back here. Then why did she? She doesn’t know me well enough for that. Garth mused to himself as he approached the corpse on the floor, keeping his eyes on the body.
A snake that’s been dead for days can still bite you.
“Okeeey,” he said, flipping the corpse over with the butt of his spear. The ex-principal’s lipless mouth gave it a toothy grin below the gaping bullet hole in its forehead. The second thing he noticed was another, more impressive gaping hole in the creature’s chest.
His heart was gone, taken clean out of his chest.
The sight sent chills down his spine. There’s someone else in here. Someone or something had already looted the poor principal, relieving him of his heartstone.
Garth turned and ran back to Leanne, his duct tape moccasins whisper quiet on the tiled floor. “Did you see anyone come in as you were leaving?” he whispered.
She shook her head.
“Were there any people in here that weren’t accounted for?” he asked quietly.
Leanne was about to answer when the double doors slammed open, spilling light into the main hall.
“Gawd-damn, it’s dark in here!” a silhouetted man with a AR-15 shouted. He was followed by two more heavyset men with heavyset guns.