An Infidelitous Earth
Spurned by a world oblivious to the the mythical creatures inhabiting it, a gargoyle hunter stalks a manic pyromancer through the streets of London. But a question continues to surface as the hunt goes on: is the Earth worth saving?
James McCrary is not a bad man, just a better animal. It’s the reason Uwe Löwe sprang him from juvenile detention and groomed him as his hunter protege. The reason he prefers his steak “extra rare.” The reason executors from New York to Berlin trust him to “cull” unruly gargoyles. It’s no wonder, then, that the executor over Western Europe calls on him to track down the most dangerous pyromancer London has ever faced and recover the most potent artifact the world has ever known. But what starts as a routine hunt quickly devolves into a citywide war as James begins to see his prey as the predator he truly is.
A familiar feeling, flying through the wilds with the moon smiling overhead. Its teeth gleamed and pulsed with the shifting of the clouds as it drank in the hunt. Below, a man’s frantic steps broke winter’s silence. Behind him soared a grotesque predator. Its webbed wings beat with the same calm as its heartbeat until the creature began to close on the human form fixed in its great, grey eyes.
The wood thickened, the brush broadened, and the beast set down on all fours to continue the pursuit, churning up ice in white cascades. The man before it ran with pure determination in his breast. His heart quaked, injecting pure adrenaline into his limbs, quickening his pace and sending his eyes into quivering fits.
“I know you, Stoneslayer.” With legs pounding into the snow the beast gained, growling. “I know what you have done.”
The man did not turn. He did not talk. He did not tremble. His focus was set on his long and triumphant stride.
“Your hands are black with the blood of my brethren.” It was close now—close enough to pounce. “You will suffer for them.”
The Stoneslayer emerged into a clearing in the wood moments before his pursuer, finally slowing as he did so. The monster, too, came to a halt. Its jowls glowed, dripping with mercuric saliva that caught the moonlight and cast it back through the dark in silver streams. The beast split the sky with a snarl. The man edged away from it, removing his overcoat. As he did so, the moon revealed a row of knives concealed within the lining.
“Don’t bother with those,” the gargoyle remarked, rearing back on its legs. It towered at eight feet. Its horns curled upwards to nine feet. Its wings arced upwards to ten. It was daunting, even in comparison to the admittedly large human that now looked up at it.
Without so much as touching a weapon, the man threw down his coat and stepped backwards past the center of the glade. The gargoyle matched his composure and followed him across the moonlit expanse.
“You are a strong man,” it rattled, closing the gap, “but your strength and your cunning are uneven.” It stopped short. “I am no fool.” The gargoyle’s tail lashed from behind, striking the earth between them and recoiling in a single motion. In an instant, a mechanism planted in the ground triggered and a counterweight fell outside the glade, pulling a roped bundle of sticks and leaves skyward, sans gargoyle.
His blood seethed. The last of his restraint waning, the man backed up against a tree at the edge of the clearing and slid a knife from his boot.
The gargoyle watched him as he moved away. “You cannot trap a true hunter,” it mocked him. “We are—”
“Stop talking.” He lifted his dagger and, for a moment, the wood reclaimed its silence.
“We are the eyes of the nigh—” The gargoyle darted to the side as the weapon came streaking past its face. It continued to fly an unprecedented distance before finally biting into a tree. The blade drove in all the way to its hilt.
Still eyeing the gargoyle, the man grunted and drew a knife from the opposite boot. “You know why it’s so easy to kill gargoyles?” He turned to a second rope affixed outside the glade and began sawing away. “You’re so cocky.” He brought the knife clean through the cable, severing it completely, and stood back.
Within seconds, a wide cluster of netting sprang up from the ground and spread above the entire area. In its center, a large hole flew around the gargoyle before tightening high above and enclosing it in a cage of rope. The animal swiveled around, scanning the trap but finding no discernible gap large enough for it to crawl through, before snapping its eyes back to the man in black.
“Why are you smiling at me?”
“Someone done went and got himself trapped,” the man laughed.
“You think this will hold me?” it roared. “A minute at most.”
“That’s the idea.” The hunter discarded his weapon and pulled himself through the side of the cage; the holes were just large enough for him to fit. He stretched his neck and clenched his fists. This felt too familiar.
His prey faltered. “You. You think you can take on a gargoyle unarmed?”
“I got arms,” he boasted, marching towards his victim.
“I will tear you apart.” The beast spread its wings wide and let loose a shrill bay.
“Come with it, then.”
The gargoyle’s wings shot backwards, propelling the demon within inches of its foe. The hunter reacted inhumanly, ducking under its talons and taking firm hold of its tail. Before the gargoyle could react, it was on its back, breathless. A single, pain-laden gasp escaped its throat.
“How?” it heaved, struggling to stand.
The hunter lurched towards it, simpering. His chest swarmed and swelled. He came at the beast with a feint, forcing its retreat. His offhand flew twice as far, catching its stony jaw straight on. Its head flew to one side, then the other, then back again, beset by a battery of punches. One last straight sent it sprawling to the ground once more. Before the hunter could capitalize, it had flapped itself to its feet. Now it fought on all fours.
“You always try that,” the man mused. “Never works.”
It leapt like a lion in spite of his words, its teeth forward and its arms spread, anticipating a punch. The hunter dropped to one knee, vaulted the beast over himself, and turned to see its tail come flashing across his face. The impact sent him spinning once, twice, thrice through the air before hitting the ground.
He rolled onto his back as quickly as his body would allow, still seeing double but just in time to ward off the gargoyle’s eager claws. Hand in talon they grappled, matching each other’s strength as the creature whipped its argent tongue across its teeth and leaked toxic spatter into the hunter’s eyes. He closed them in time to avoid the poison’s effects, but that bought him little time. The gargoyle’s weight and leverage began to prove overwhelming. Soon, his arms began to shake.
With few options, he brought his heel up into the beast’s ribs four times before gaining enough ground to throw it to the side. Freed, he scrambled to his feet and scraped the saliva from his eyelids. He dared not open them until he was sure that he was free of the toxin. Even so, he could sense his prey’s breaths filling the forest. He smelled its metallic stench drawing closer. He heard the all-too-familiar sound of unfolding wings and counted milliseconds in his head.
Entirely by instinct, he chose a direction to sidestep, turned his frame, and caught the gargoyle’s arm and leg in a single movement. He poured out the rest of his strength to lift the demon, twirl it in the air, and drive his opponent’s face down into the ground. He felt the quarter-ton beast go limp, and finally he released it.
Still gasping, he cleared the remaining fluid from his eyes and opened them. They widened as he watched the tail hurtling across the ground too fast for him to escape. It swept his legs out from under him, knocking him onto his back and forcing whatever air he had left from his lungs.
Exhausted, he turned on the ground to confront the beast, realizing that it was entirely unconscious—its tail was thrashing about on its own.
“Fantastic,” he wheezed, sliding away. Melting down through the snow, he turned his gaze to the great, white observer above. “It’s over,” he said and spat blood to the side. “Why are you smiling at me?” He did not smile back. He lay for several minutes, watching his breath emerge and dissipate into the frigid air until his growling stomach interrupted his dream state.
The hunter stood. He bound his prey with enough rope to hold a dragon, cut down his trap, and took a moment to admire his handiwork. Of all the gargoyles he’d ever captured, this one would be the last.Then he waited until his heart matched the calm of his lungs, and he began at length to drag the beast back through the wood towards London, the moon at his back and a bloodstained smile on his face. He smiled in spite of the fear that lingered when the adrenaline had gone all away. Unease waxed within him. It was the unmistakable sensation that the hunter himself was walking into a trap.