2020: 3rd Place, Fiction - Ethan Miller, “The Nightwalkers”
Acidic rain drizzled from the dingy sky onto the stranger’s coat as he waited, leaning against a thrumming boiler. An unearthly bellow could be heard in the distance, but he knew its source would not arrive quite yet. Even so, time could not be wasted any longer. The stranger leaned forward, cracking his spine briefly before striding off into the night in search of another like himself — someone who knew how to deal with the monstrosity that was yet to come.
Stepping through puddles of grimy rain, the stranger found his way to a familiar building: McBane’s Pub, which smelled of gasoline and matches, yet somehow relentlessly attracted the stranger and others like him.
The stranger shoved the door open and scanned the room for a particular man, eventually finding him near the bar. Sitting down, he turned to his old friend, who at the moment was wearing his oddly raven-like mask.
“I assume you’ve heard the calls tonight,” muttered the first stranger, almost as if he was talking to himself. “They’ve been getting louder. Closer.”
“I am not a fool, Mr. Craven. I’ve been dreading dealing with the repugnant creature for days now.” His voice echoed faintly in his mask.
“You think too highly of yourself, Goodwell. I doubt you even noticed, considering how you never take off that ridiculous mask of yours.”
“The rain makes people sick; I’ve said it for years. I refuse to breathe the rain’s disease,” said Goodwell indignantly. “And as for my mask, it doesn’t hinder me in the slightest.” With that response, the two sat in silence with their tasteless drinks in hand, unaware of the man watching them from a nearby table.
Solomon Barnes had been watching the two men at the bar for a while now. They’re probably some of those nightwalker folks, he figured to himself. Nothin’ but trouble, the lot of ‘em. Always looking for some kind of reward for their less-than-decent work. Taking a heavy swig of flavorless alcohol, Solomon left the dim pub.
Throwing open the squeaky door, he stepped into the night, grumbling quietly to himself. He walked through the city alone, ducking under stray electrical cables and various pulleys. The city itself was rusted into oblivion; every piece of metal was tarnished, and anything not made of metal was rotting away from the rain. The rain was still drizzling down ceaselessly, and it made Solomon’s skin tingle like it was slowly eating his flesh away.
Solomon worked his way to the main Boiler District — an endless maze of steam engines and copper pipelines. Grumbling, he began his ascent to the first of hundreds of machines for his weekly quality assessment. He glanced around, pulled out a notepad, taking count of major rusted areas, a number that never failed to increase night after night. While continuing along with his routine, a shrill noise broke the quiet rhythm of ticking panels and bubbling pipelines.
Swearing under his breath, Solomon glanced around. The rumbling screech he’d heard was only comparable to the most dangerous pressure leak he’d ever heard. He shuddered to think of the kind of trouble he’d be in if he missed something so catastrophic, but at least he could try to find it before something horrible happened. Frantically pacing between generators, Solomon searched for the screech’s source, scrutinizing every inch of every boiler down to the smallest dial. He dashed from pipe to pipe, and suddenly he heard the noise again — this time, much, much louder. Craning his neck up slowly, Solomon saw a nightmarish creature crouched on top of an old, pitted steam turbine.
The beast was horrifying to behold: its eyes glowed yellow in the fog, while a mane of bramble-like appendages sprouted from its neck like a crown, slowly shifting and twitching in the air like a cockroach’s antennae. Its shadowy-gray, muscular limbs ended in taloned claws that bit into the steel it stood on. Slowly, its twin tongues edged out of its mouth, hungrily licking its fangs. Solomon’s screams echoed in the dead streets.
Back at McBane’s, Craven and Goodwell crashed through the pub’s door with unnatural speed and began weaving through alleys and jumping pipelines, eventually arriving at the Boiler District. Back to back, they entered the labyrinth of pipes and wires, scanning for anything unusual. Craven quietly loaded his large revolver and gave it a good luck spin, while Goodwell clutched his various caustic tinctures and devices. After a few tense minutes of searching, the hunters came upon the sundered body of what was once an engineer.
Suddenly, an ear splitting howl came from overhead, and the beast lunged towards them, ready for the kill. In an instant, Craven and Goodwell leapt out of the way, and the beast skidded across the cobblestones, leaving deep gashes in the ground. Goodwell grabbed an intricate bronze orb from his belt and hurled it at the creature before it could attack again. The device smashed into the side of its face, releasing a gas from within. The beast roared in anger as its eyes burned from the noxious vapor. Fighting through its pain with monstrous rage, it tore through pipes and gauges to get to its prey: Craven.
Craven, who would never get used to the idea of hellish creatures chasing him through tight spaces, quickly rounded a corner onto a series of steel platforms, but the beast was on his heels, and its vision was slowly clearing. Out of options, Craven vaulted over a rail, managing to land on a large water heater. Then, with an ease only a professional killer might have, he tore his revolver from his belt and fired three rounds into the monster jumping after him.
With a yelp of pain, it misjudged its landing and fell to the ground below with a heavy thud. Heading after it, Craven slowly climbed down until he stood in front of the beast, which struggled to its feet to face him as it bled profusely from its wounds. Another orb whirled into view, burning the beast’s lungs once more. It roared in anguish, but Craven crouched in front of it, unshaken.
“You know, I used to kill wretches like you out of necessity,” Craven said to the dying monster, slowly getting closer and closer to its massive maw. “I fought to keep people I cared about safe from harm. But now, they’re all gone. So I ask myself one question every time I hunt one of you down: why do I keep doing this again and again? What’s the point of hunting you down if there’s always going to be another monstrosity to find afterwards?” Now, the beast watched him intently, its massive, yellow eyes unblinking.
“And you know what? The answer is always the same,” Craven told the monster. “Because I enjoy it.”
Three more gunshots echoed in the night, hanging in the air like the toll of a church bell. Solemnly, Goodwell appeared behind Craven and removed a tinderbox from his coat, along with some gasoline, and set the remains ablaze, never saying a word. By the time the massive body had begun to smoke, Craven had disappeared without a trace. Taking a deep breath through his peculiar mask, Goodwell leaned against a boiler, watching the embers float into the bleak sky that still drizzled rain down upon him — a lone stranger in the night.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.
Miller, Ethan, "2020: 3rd Place, Fiction - Ethan Miller, “The Nightwalkers”" (2020). Young Lions Award Winners 2020. 4.