He’d tracked it across the entire countryside. It wasn’t easy. He could only find its tracks at night when there was enough moonlight breaking through the clouds like a rip in a bag of grain. When he first started hunting them, he could spy their prints along trees, roads, houses, pillars, castles, and even kings and queens as they sleep. They weren’t overtly unique compared to other tracks. Under the dusty blue of the uncensored moon, they had a sinister edge, but so did everything at night. They looked like horse tracks, only narrower, like their feet had been stretched in some bestial torture chamber.
The thing he was hunting, it was the monster in the well, the echo of a shadow on a floorboard, and the devilry scratched in every old world text.
The trail ended in a city on the edge of the continent where the Lost Sea met a mile-long stretch of sand. Every sedimentary pearl was blocked out by docks and piers, like the town didn’t want to acknowledge the natural world below itself. It was called Largo. It was a mix of medieval weapons and machines. Steam powered trains dissected the city in bridge-born tunnels, which spit-up into the sky in mechanical puffs. Large mansions, with glowing stain-glass windows gobbled-up the streets, like every homeowner wanted their wealth to rival a cathedral.
This opulent merchant town was a perfect host for this parasite to mole into. Money and superficiality were the perfect breeding ground for this monster. The hunter didn’t even have to wait for night to know it was here.
He’d been hunting them for the last ten years. When he was child, he was taken into the mountains by some elders. They showed him how to fire a silver bullet into the nozzle of a wine bottle. They showed him how to recognize their icicle teeth dangling out from the sea of faces in a busy marketplace. But most of all, the training in the highlands prepared him to kill humans, since they were almost always made to be puppets.
The hunter was tall, pale, and blue-eyed. He wore a ministry robe to avoid being mugged on the highways. His gun, an oversized pistol with a little steam engine on the handle, was tucked beneath his robes. His bullets needed the mechanized velocity to hit his prey, which could run up the side of a building and leap across the roof in the three blinks of the eye.
It was during the day when he arrived in Largo. The sky and air had the crisp coolness of being next to the sea, like you could taste salt around you and in the clouds. Largo was a remarkably clean city, with hundreds of ordinances and curfews to keep the cobblestones free of people and things. When he arrived in the city, he immediately walked to the pub to eavesdrop. After a few hours feigning one pint of ale, he heard rumors of a little girl, the daughter of a famous art dealer, who was so talented at painting, she could make anything in the world look beautiful.
He knew where his prey would be.
The girl and her family lived in the largest house in Largo. It was a pointed blemish on the shingled horizon. When he arrived at the home in the afternoon, he knocked on the door with the metal tip of his gun. It echoed throughout the house. Nobody answered. The windows were dark and almost dusty. No servants had been around in some time. After a few more minutes, he picked the lock and shuffled inside like a curtain. The house was freezing, a byproduct of his prey. There were no candles, torches, lights, or mirrors in the home. Every giant room was stale and cobweb friendly.
After hours of looking, he noticed some light peeking out of the basement door at the backend of the kitchen. He clicked the giant safety off of his gun. The latch was supposed to be silent, but the cold air made it snap. Something heavy shifted in the basement.
He opened the door again with his gun. The stairway stretched ahead of him with a single lantern beaming like a curled and captured sun. He shuffled down the stairs quietly, making sure his boots weren’t colliding with the lips of the steps. He walked and walked. Each time he thought he reached the bottom of the stairs, they’d spread out again like a tunnel. The light wouldn’t change either, it was locked in this illusion. He sighed. The trap was triggered. It already knew he was here. He pulled out his silencer, a small steel barrel with language etched on it, and tightened it around his weapon. He fired one burst into the door. It split open like a chunk of ice. Threads spilled out, along with a black mist. He protected his face with his sleeve and sat back down. In a few seconds, the real door appeared like a bit of blood beneath a scab.
Beyond the door was a long hallway with paintings along it. Lanterns divided each picture. On the other end of the hallway was an orchestra of growls and snorts. Two shapes were scurrying and running into each other. They were on chains, which were spiked and blood-wet. The metal snapped apart as the two forms sensed his presence. He fired once, dropping the first face in the gloom. The other creature crawled onto the wall like a centipede. It dived at him with the sour smell of decomposition. He fell back avoiding the charge, throwing the figure over him. Scratches and claws bit into his face. He closed his eyes and thought of the mountains. The rocky air stopped him from panicking as his nose and lip split-in-two. He fired his gun into the space above his chest. The misshapen tornado went still.
He coughed blood and stood over the two forms. The lanterns started to die behind him. There were voices in the pictures. He heard music playing, and a little girl laughing. He coughed, and snorted a bunch of blood from his face. They were the girl’s parents, he was sure. They’d been skinned and remade, only with strips of string instead of veins running through their bodies. Their faces were melted apart and rotted. Clothes mixed with skin. They looked like half-finished dolls.
He didn’t look at them too long.
He couldn’t be cautious any longer. He charged down the hallway. Pictures along the walls came alive in waves, bolts, fires, and screams. A splash of water knocked him off his feet. Lightning scorched his shoulder in a curled bolt. Fire burnt the bottoms his feet.
How many traps had it left for him?
After a few more painful moments he was through the hallway door. It opened to a massive studio, with a vast window looking out onto the water. A giant stage, armored with art supplies and sketches sprawled across the room. At one end of it, a little blond girl with a red beret painted furiously over a man-sized canvas. The girl didn’t even notice him. She was filthy and thin. On the other end of the stage, under the glow of candles and light, was his prey.
It looked like a man, especially with the grey hood and cloak hanging over its broad form. The cloth was pulled tight like a child. It was hunched over thanks to its hoofs. Its face was grey and long. It had fangs hanging out so wildly, it looked like a sheet of overgrown petals. It had two red eyes narrowed out over where its nose would be. They had no eyelids.
He pointed his gun at it. The girl didn’t turn around. She was too afraid to look anywhere.
“Can it wait, human?” A voice in the room spoke. It was low and deep monster-thunder. It spoke telepathically. It had too many teeth to manipulate a tongue.
“Why?” he replied, squinting one eye at the demon.
The creature shook his head and shrugged its pointed body.
“Because even I would like to look beautiful,” it said.