The train raced down the track, and everybody who saw it pass gaped, astonished. If Dev had noticed, she wouldn’t have been surprised. A woman on top of a train fending off a gargoyle’s claws was fairly astonishing…
Days earlier, Dev had stepped off the plane and taken her first breath of German air. It was bitter, ashy almost. This was a country with permanent and terrible scars, although to the unenlightened it was no different to any other place. She hoped she could conclude her business here quickly. She didn’t want to be here long enough to grow accustomed to it.
It wasn’t often that she was called to Europe; the Guild had originated here after all. The world’s greatest monster hunters tended to come up in Europe. The problem was the location. A powerful geas lay about Cologne, dating back to the town’s founding in 34 BC. Dev’s heritage made her uniquely qualified to deal with trouble in Cologne. She was the only hunter that could enter the Old Town limits. There was an understandable panic surrounding the killings. Nothing supernatural should be able to enter the Old Town, so half a dozen gruesome mutilations with no trace of the killer’s dna, an indeterminate weapon and bodies being moved yards without a trail was definite cause for concern.
She was exhausted from the flight, but her determination to make this a short visit inclined her to head straight for the Old Town and start her investigation. She took a cab from the airport to the Old Town border. Standing at the edge of the warded area, she was aware of a…pressure, as though the air was thicker. The geas definitely still held, so anything magical or unnatural should be incapable of passing beyond this point. And yet. She’d studied the casefiles. Victims attacked, blood and flesh everywhere. But the bodies were moved yards away and dumped. No trail of blood, no tyre tracks, and no witnesses. Dev figured on two likely methods. Translocation, which was a significant magic to use for a seemingly trivial purpose, or flight. The geas still held, so a flying monster of some description seemed highly unlikely. None of the monsters local to Europe could pass the Old Town limits, and transporting a more exotic beast would be incredibly difficult without leaving some trace for the Guild to seize on.
That left a spellcaster. Which was only next to impossible, as Dev herself could attest to. But why use such a potent magic to move corpses such trifling distances? That suggested the location the body was dumped held some significance. Perhaps a mage was marking out a spellform of some sort. It would have to be of great importance to go to all this effort.
Having satisfied her curiosity for the moment, Dev made her way back to the Cologne Guildhall. It was located on the city limits, an acknowledgement of the geas. She left her bag with an orderly and was shown into the Guildmaster’s office. He was old, looked ancient. He shook slightly as he stood and extended an arm across his desk. Dev shook his hand gingerly, afraid of hurting him.
A smile creased his face.
“Ms Wing, a pleasure it is, to welcome you,” he said in heavily accented English, “From what I have heard you will be getting to the root of our little puzzle very quickly.”
She returned the smile and bowed slightly, replied, “With any luck I shouldn’t be here more than a few days.”
His smile faded slightly.
“No time for taking in the sights?”
She cleared her throat, a trifle embarrassed.
“The city’s aura is…a little hard to stomach,” she told him.
Best to be honest, she thought. Understanding dawned and he smiled gently, sympathetically.
“Well, your trip was long and I think maybe you are tired. I certainly am,” he replied, chuckling. “We shall talk more, come morning. You must breakfast with me and out Chief Hunter.”
She returned his smile gratefully.
“Thank you,” she replied, “that would be a most welcome honour.”
The same orderly from before was waiting outside the office. He led her to the chambers prepared for her, then withdrew. Sleep dragged her down into a jumbled, disquieting succession of dreams; pain and conflict, the sensation of a great, oppressive darkness…it it hadn’t been for the warded walls, the nightmares would have been terrifying.
She awoke the next day feeling far from refreshed, and was gratefully swigging black, bitter coffee in the commissary when she was approached by a small knot of hunters. Journeymen, to judge by their sash, the same rank she herself held.
“Is it true,” asked the young man at their head, “can you move beyond the barrier?”
“Yeah, it tingles but it’s passable,” she replied.
She pre-empted the next question, explaining the Guildmaster’s theory that a hunter descended of stock relatively clear of Indo-European roots could potentially thwart the geas. Her family was pureblood Japanese, although she herself had been raised in the USA because her parents had wanted to spare her from being taken and inducted into their homeland’s equivalent of the Guild. Its teachings and training were strict to the point of cruelty, and there was no life outside of service to the cause.
Devala Wing was unique, and that always came at a cost. In this case that meant notoriety. She rose, waving away further questions.
“Busy day,” she explained, “Really should get cracking.”
She returned to Old Town and strode through the barrier, trying to ignore the tingling. Dev headed straight for the first murder site. It was unlikely that any trace remained, but no hunter worth their salt would ignore the chance of catching a weak trace that might later be repeated elsewhere. She could feel the tension ebb away as she walked. The geas must block the psychic trauma of the land as well as most things supernatural. Maybe she could play tourist after all. For now though, she was more concerned with the feeling of being watched. Everybody is prone to those brief paranoiac chills that lead you to believe some unseen watcher is stalking you, but Dev hunted things that bumped in the night; when she got those chills the unseen watcher wasn’t imaginary.
It was a little after ten in the morning, a brisk but sunny day. And there was no screaming. This eliminated a lot of possibilities. The attacks had all occurred at night, but if her quarry-cum-stalker was moving about, unseen, in daylight then perhaps her mage theory held some weight. She would have to read for signs at both the kill sites and the locations the bodies had appeared. Hopefully the sites would give her something to go on. She consulted her map, trying to picture a pattern overlaying them, but there didn’t seem to be any. Unless the chronology was irrelevant. That didn’t fit with her understanding of magic but she didn’t specialize in human quarry. She’d have to ask back at the Guildhall for assistance on that front. Dev continued down the winding streets, lost in her musings, when the vague unease of being watched apiked. She glanced quickly about, one hand reaching inside her jacket and clasping the sword hilt hanging from her hip. A shadow flitted before her. Dev cursed and threw herself forwards and down, tucking into a roll towards the side of the street. There was a huge downwards draught and the snap of sails billowing in the wind, followed by a sight that chilled her blood. The creature was the size of a small man, just topping five feet, although it was crouch-legged and hunched over. Its hide was the colour of weathered concrete and looked like it would be almost smooth to the touch. Its limbs were long and thin, its body compact and rounded, barrel-like in appearance. The head, which sat atop the narrow, drawn in shoulders was straight out of a nightmare. Beaked, needle fangs, flaring bat ears and furious furrowed brow were bad enough, but the cold, dead stare of its eyes, pale grey and featureless, was causing Dev’s instincts to yell, Run! Hide! Pray! A pair of enormous wings flared out from its shoulders, dark membranes tipped with talons.
Impossible, but undeniably there before her. A gargoyle. It should not have been possible for this native terror of Europe to pass the barrier. Dev willed herself calm, felt her breath slow, her breathing even out. She stood slowly, sword hilt still grasped but not yet drawn. It stood up straight, studying her. The air of menace it gave off was palpable. As it stepped towards her, reaching out with one granite claw, she noticed a peculiar detail. There were seams running round the gargoyle’s arm, down its chest. She slid back, shuffling steps, eyes fixed on the monster.
Steeling her will, Dev drew her sword and leapt forwards, blade clanging as it beat aside the gargoyle’s claw. It reared back as though startled. The creature was unused to prey that fought back. Dev pushed forwards, moving the curved blade in big, upward swipes. The gargoyle flapped its enormous wings and lifted slightly into the air, back and away from the stinging nuisance facing it. Face set in a look of grim determination, Dev powered forwards and leapt. Her outstretched hand grasped the creature’s ankle but it flew on undaunted.
The rooftops blurred as it picked up speed. Dev tried thrusting up at the creature but her uncontrollable twisting made her best efforts ineffective. Not far above her gripping hand was one of the seams that criss-crossed the stone terror. This close, she could see the faint blue glow of a spell of some sort. Playing a hunch, Dev laid her sword against the seam and pushed. The creature bucked and twisted, its mouth open in an eerily silent roar. Dev grinned fiercely and pushed harder. With a sharp pop like a blown fuse, the seam parted and Dev found herself falling away from the gargoyle.
Her descent was halted abruptly and painfully. Wincing, she glanced around. The world still flew by, except for the floor. Her stunned brain identified the rhythmic clattering. A train, she lay on the roof of a train. A shadow swept across her field of vision, angled towards her. Cursing, she struggled upright and swung her sword. The gargoyle arrested its dive, cautious now of the blade’s bite.
The train raced down the track, and everybody who saw it pass gaped, astonished. Dev didn’t notice, too busy parrying stony talons. She stumbled as the train swayed, and her sword slipped from her grasp. The gargoyle immediately closed in, and Dev ducked away. Blows thumped against her back and shoulders, painful but not the tearing, rending pain she’d expected. She looked about her, noted the multiple lumps of rock that lay around her, some tumbling off the roof of the train. Taking her bearings, she realized the train had crossed the barrier.
She muttered a prayer of thanks to her ancestors that the barrier’s prohibitive qualities worked both ways. Dev grinned at the mostly intact foot she had kept ahold of. With any luck the culprit could be traced and the Guild could get some answers. Setting a murdering fiend loose where no Hunter could reach may have been simply for the sake of mayhem, but Dev felt certain that this was a mere hint of darker designs.