The Orphaned City
A monster had been born in the city of London.
Bronson had heard the rumours months ago. But he had dismissed them as morbid fantasy. It was well known that London had been cleansed almost ten years ago along with the other major cities in England and Scotland. The genocide had left deep scars on both sides and Bronson could not believe that any monster would return to this city so soon after such an act. Despite this logic, the rumours had continued and eventually Bronson had felt it necessary to look closer. He had sought out evidence. It had taken weeks and he had followed the rumours from Kensington to Croydon finding little until he looked under the streets. It was a tube station that eventually yielded fruit. There were tracks in the dust, similar to a man's boot. But with four small marks in front. They looked like scratches. An untrained eye would have easily mistaken the tracks for a man's footprint. They would have missed the extra marks or dismissed them, but Bronson knew better. These small marks were claws that had burst through the leather of the creatures boots. These tracks did not belong to any man.
Bronson followed the tracks into the darkness of the Piccadilly line. It was dank beyond the platform and smelt strongly of fuel. His nose burned after a few moments and a pain started in his head. The air hummed around him and his footsteps crunched every now and then as he trudged through a myriad of insect life. There was little chance of avoiding them in the darkness. Rats and mice that were almost the same colour as the tracks thrived on the insects. The sound of them all around him made Bronson's skin crawl. He could hear the echo of trains, hopefully, a long way off, and tried to focus on that as he made his way further into the tunnel. He lost the tracks as he got further away from the light of the station, but it did not worry him. There was only one way anything the size of a man could go down here.
It got darker the further he went and Bronson argued with himself about using his torch. It would help him see, but it would also mean that any monster down here would be far more likely to see him before he saw it. But with the amount of noise he was making anything down here would hear him first. The darkness was making a search difficult and his mind kept providing interesting visual thoughts on what would happen to him if he tripped down here. How long would it take him to become buried under the rats? Bronson stopped and took a few rank breaths. He wiped his head; it was getting hotter the further he went. Something crawled over his boot and he shook it off. He had always known that there were rats and mice down the tunnels, but this was a lot more crowded than he had expected. They were everywhere. Bronson did not like rats. But he was inquisitive by nature and began wondering how they all lived down here. What did they eat beside each other and the insects? Surely there had to be something else. A monster's scraps perhaps.
Continuing on was difficult, the heat, blindness and rodent infestation made it heavy going for the hunter. But he was not a coward and slowly he progressed, feeling out where he was walking with each step. It was slow progress, but he did not fall. A sound from Hell made him freeze as he stepped on what must have been a cat. Bronson cursed loudly as he realised and the wretched creature fled back the way he had come. Bronson turned the way he had come to continue his verbal abuse and spotted something glinting just off from the tracks. He debated for a few moments whether going back was worth it. It was probably rubbish that someone had dropped on the platform and had gotten blown down here. But it might not be. His gut told him it was not rubbish and like he had been taught Bronson listened to his gut.
The glint turned out to be the light from the station hitting a watch face. It had once been expensive but now was cracked, broken and worn by a dead man. The body had been pushed up against the wall and folded tightly into a depression. Bronson cursed realising he must have walked right past it. He could not have been more than two feet away. Taking a deep breath of burning air Bronson grabbed a cold arm and pulled. The body came out easily enough with a few tugs and unfolded out onto the ground. Bronson turned away and thanked any god that would listen that the overpowering smell of fuel, heat and filth meant he could not smell the body. Turning back, he swallowed the bile that had risen in his throat and tried not to throw up. A few moments were all he needed to be able to look back at the body and not see a man. This was no longer a man; it was a clue, a trail to follow. The light from the station was strong enough here that he could see that this body had been fed from. Most of the clothing was gone and what was left had been shredded so the monster could get to the meat. The teeth marks, shredded flesh and absence of certain organs was a well-known sign to all Hunters and Bronson did not look longer than a few moments before he reached a conclusion. There was an adolescent Ghoul in London. A fledgling Ghoul, barely six years old by the looks of the claw marks.
When he had learned all he could stomach, he went to put the body back. It took him longer to fold the body back up and push it into the depression. He stopped several times to breathe and more than once considered just leaving the body where it was. But had he done so the Ghoul would know someone had found its larder, it would be more careful and he would risk losing track of it. He considered calling the police, but then he would be forced to spend time answering questions that he could not afford to answer. How do you explain to a police officer that you were in the tunnel hunting monsters? So he had struggled and had fought with the body until it was back inside the depression. Then he had walked away, scuffing as many of his tracks as he could see.
Once outside again Bronson took the time to breathe air that did not stink. He fumbled with a cigarette, but his hands were shaking too hard for him to manage a light. Giving up, he began the walk back to his office. A small and shabby room above a kebab shop. He thought hard as he walked. He knew he no longer needed to actively hunt the Ghoul. All he had to do now was wait. Ghouls were rarely wasteful and he was confident this one would return to the body. His hands were still shaking by the time he reached the shop and he dropped his keys trying to open the door. Jimmy the owner of the kebab shop waved him inside as he did most nights.
"You want some dinner?" he asked, his smile fading when Bronson stepped into the brightly lit shop. "You look like you need it, or a drink." Bronson shook his head.
"Naw," he breathed, pleased that the smell of food did not make him lose what he had eaten this afternoon. "I'm not sure if I'm ever going to eat again." Jimmy winced.
"Another domestic?" he asked, Bronson nodded. It was easier to let Jimmy come to his own conclusions about what he did for a living. Jimmy had assumed he was a police officer at first but later had amended it to private detective. Bronson found it was safer to let Jimmy think what he would, it was easier as well.
"Yeah, a bad one." He managed "I'm gonna go lie down."
"You change your mind about that dinner later come on down, I'll be here till 4." Jimmy waved at Bronson's back as he went back outside to the small grubby door that would take him upstairs.
Bronson stumbled into his office and flicked on a light. He looked around and sighed. He lived in his office, which was really more of a small studio flat, a very small studio flat. He ambled into the bathroom, splashed some cold water on his face and stumbled back into the kitchen/bedroom/living room/office area. The sofa that doubled as his bed creaked as he fell onto it. He lay there in the dim light and tried to think what to do. He would go back to the station. He would wait and when the Ghoul showed itself then he would act, fast and sudden. The element of surprise, the plan was simple, effective and had worked dozens of times before. There was no reason it would not work this time.
Three nights later Bronson was trying to think of a better plan. For the last three nights, he had returned to the station and waited and for the last three nights he had seen no sign of the Ghoul. Looking down at his watch Bronson sighed. The watch had stopped working in 1992 and now was only correct twice a day. He didn't need it and had only kept it for sentimentality. It had been a gift. It didn't matter that the hands no longer moved. He knew only ten minutes had passed since he had entered the station this evening and settled to wait and watch. But it was cold and impatience was a fault of his that had on more than one occasion gotten him in trouble. Five years ago he had been impatient with Lucy. She had been small, beautiful and unbelievably strong. It was why he had been drawn to her, why he had started to train her, and why he had loved her. But she had been too young. He should not have tried to teach her. She still had too much of her childish confidence, too much naivet. She had believed she was invincible. She was not invincible and the monsters had been all too willing to prove this point to them both. He could still remember the night she had died. He had heard her fear and desperation as she cried out to him, but it was her eventual silence that had been worse. Guilt had eaten at him for a while after that he had come close to quitting but it was his duty to protect London and after three weeks he had picked his shotgun back up.
Bronson shook himself trying to avoid falling too deeply into the memory. He focused again on the hunt. The station was busy during the day and early evening but at this time of night there were very few people around and it was deathly quiet. He had settled himself against one of the walls, wrapped himself in blankets and tried to look inoffensive. The floor was cold, but that helped keep him awake and alert. He had carefully chosen this position four nights ago. It was close to the entrance to the tunnel but not too close. He was confident that this was where he would eventually find his quarry. The tunnels were a web beneath London, but he did not worry that the Ghoul would hide in them for long. Ghouls were not by nature subterranean. They were fliers, not diggers. He was convinced his prey would enter from the street, not the tunnels and if spooked his prey would be far more likely to flee to the sky than the ground.
Movement caught his eye and he tried not to flinch. He kept his head low and watched the movement out of the corner of his eyes. His target emerged, not from the street as he had expected but from the tunnel. It was small, clearly an adolescent and walked hunched. It held itself like an elderly man bent in the middle. But it moved smoothly like a young man, nimble and fast. Bronson growled before he could help himself. There was defiantly a Ghoul in London. Nothing moved quite like a Ghoul, decrepit but smooth. Bronson watched and waited for his the Fledgling-Ghoul to move away, up the stairs and out onto the street. After a few moments, he followed behind. His shotgun rested comfortably between his shoulder blades, it had been made to fit there and did so perfectly.
The shotgun on his back had been modified to deal with creatures like this. The round it fired would do enough damage to cripple or possibly kill the Fledgling-Ghoul if his aim was good. He reached back and ran his fingers over the barrel. Touching it at the start of a hunt was something of a ritual and like flicking a switch, Bronson felt himself become sharply focused. He grinned fiercely and followed the Fledgling-Ghoul. It stank and he got a nose full as he emerged onto the street. The Fledgling-Ghoul was keeping to the shadows ahead of him, moving with surprising speed in the direction of the river. Bronson kept back and muttered a curse under his breath. The closer he got to the river the more crowded it would become. He could not fight the Fledgling-Ghoul in a crowded place. He could not risk people finding out about the monsters that stalked the shadows. It would result in panic and people can do unbelievably stupid things when panicked. But fortunately, for him, the Fledgling-Ghoul understood that it could not risk detection any more than Bronson could and it turned east before coming too near to the river. Bronson began to slowly close the distance between them.
As he got closer he started to make deliberate sounds. He hoped to frighten the Fledgling-Ghoul into panicking. Eventually, he knocked a can and the Fledgling-Ghoul turned. Its eyes widened when it saw him. Hunters were well recognised, and even those who had never before laid eyes on a Hunter knew one when they saw him. The Fledgling-Ghoul made a sound akin to a startled cat and ran. Bronson laughed, pulled his shotgun from its holster and gave chase. The Fledgling-Ghoul was fast but it was young and it had not learned all it was capable of. Bronson was well able to keep pace with it as it turned corner after corner trying to lose him in the small streets and alleyways. He was still confident. The Fledgling-Ghoul was panicking and would make a fatal error all too soon. He would have it then. It disappeared around another corner and Bronson followed, running flat out.
He banked hard as he found himself running right into the Fledgling-Ghoul's back. It had run into an alleyway and frozen in panic. It was staring at its surroundings looking rapidly for a way out. But there was nowhere else for it to run. It had made the fatal mistake. Bronson jumped back far enough that the Fledgling-Ghoul could not reach him. A Ghoul's claws could shred a man in seconds, even a Fledgling-Ghoul had claws like knives. The Fledgling-Ghoul turned and looked at him. Bronson looked right back. It was small, no bigger than a pre-teen boy. Its face was almost human save from a few telltale signs. The eyes were too big and the mouth too wide. This one had not got the hang of its camouflage yet. It snarled showing teeth, sharp like razorblades, long and serrated. Bronson growled right back. The Fledgling-Ghoul took a step back and glanced around itself, looking again for a place to run.
"Aint nowhere left for you to run boy." Bronson sneered. "You shouldn't have come here. Didn't your mum tell you London ain't safe for your kind no more?"
"Mother!" the Fledgling-Ghoul called out. Bronson frowned. He'd never heard a monster call for its mother before. It was disconcerting. His moment of bewilderment stopped him from noticing the Fledgling-Ghoul tense. "Mother!" it called again. By the time the word was out of its mouth it had leapt upwards faster than any human eye could follow. Its claws dug deep into brickwork and it clambered ungracefully up the wall, slipping every few feet. The brickwork was old and it crumbled. It was not strong enough to hold the Fledgling-Ghoul.
"That won't save you." Bronson grinned, "I don't need you to be close to kill you." He lifted his shotgun.
He was taking aim when it finally reached his brain that he was in trouble. He had been so focused on the Fledgling-Ghoul that he failed to notice how quiet the alley was. How still the streets around them seemed to be. A chill crawled over Bronson's shoulders as he finally noticed how unusual and how wrong this was. Nowhere in London was this quiet, unless it had been purposefully made quiet. He looked away from the Fledgling-Ghoul on the wall, glanced around and cursed himself. He had been foolish to follow so unquestioningly, he was out of practice and had let his impatience rule him. He hoped it would not cost him too dearly.
The She-Ghoul slid soundlessly out of the shadows and into the alley. She moved silently like fog and from her posture Bronson knew she too was hunting and no doubt had been from the moment the Fledgling-Ghoul had walked past him in the station, perhaps even before then. This was an obvious trap. It had been carefully planned and implemented. This She-Ghoul was clever. Bronson watched as she approached. She-Ghouls were smaller than the males, weaker and unable to fly. But they were fiercer by far. Ghouls bred rarely and the young often died, but it was never because a mother was not willing to shred anything that dared to interfere with her child. A She-Ghoul with a child was something rare and deadly. He had taken down only one before. The hunt had taken seven seasoned men, three of which had been killed and two more injured before victory was had. It was suicide to take on something like this alone. Bronson took a deep breath. If he was to die tonight he would not hide from it. The She-Ghoul stopped in front of him and smiled. In the light, he knew her and was no longer surprised at the trap.
"I have heard of you, Myra," He said slowly. The She-Ghoul seemed surprised at this, although whether it was because of the words or the fact Bronson was speaking at all none could say.
"Some have," She answered after a moment. "More know my brother." Bronson nodded. He knew of Tobias, all Hunters did.
"I was hunting." Bronson spared a glance to the Fledgling-Ghoul on the wall.
"We too are hunting." He was answered
"I thought you might be, but I hoped against it." Bronson lifted his shotgun and took aim at the She-Ghoul.
"I suppose I cannot fault you for that." With those words Myra lunged.
But not at Bronson. Instead, she threw herself to the side so as to avoid the bullet Bronson fired. What killed Bronson were the claws in the back of his neck. They slid in roughly, tearing the skin instead of slicing it. They came together and pulled, breaking the spinal column and removing a large fleshy pulp along with bone. Bronson fell, paralysed and dying.
"Well done." Myra picked herself up from the ground. "But you are still not using the smooth side." She took her son's hand and showed him his claws. Gently she ran a finger over the serrated side and then the smooth side. "Remember, smooth going in and rough coming out."
"Yes, mother." The fledgling nodded and licked blood from his claws and fingers. "Are we safe now? The hunter is dead." Myra sighed and looked at what was left of Bronson. Her expression was not convinced. "We are safer. But we are not safe. Not yet." She looked again at Bronson. "Go and eat child. His memories will teach you much about the dangers of the Hunters and maybe we will learn a little of Tobias' whereabouts if we are fortunate."
The fledgling-ghoul knelt to eat.