Late April. The daylight hours were already growing perceptively as the May Day celebrations drew near, which was good news to the people living within the rural Irish village. The news spun stories of ancient monsters which stalked the night, bloodthirsty beasts that longed for their destruction. A highly trained team had been dispatched to track and neutralize the threat, but mothers still called their children home as the sun began to dip below the western horizon; the monsters had been photographed at Tara, some said, and others insisted that they had been sighted near the village.
Thomas O’Leery wasn’t concerned about the monsters. In his forty-seven years, he had witnessed worse things in his country than a handful of ugly nocturnal beasties and he felt confident that his training from the IRA would be sufficient if they were as dangerous as the papers claimed they were. He pulled the barn door closed behind him and calmly walked back to the house through the growing shadows of twilight to where his tea awaited him. Perhaps he would turn on the telly and see if there was a game show on, something lighter than the evening news was bound to be he thought. After all of the talk from patrons at his small gas station, he had heard all drivel he wanted to about monsters.
The sun finally set, and from the barn a sound akin to the cracking of stone could be heard. It grew louder until it exploded in the night, joined by a chorus of roars and demonic cries as the gargoyles awoke from their slumber. Bits of hay slowly floated down from the loft now as Aiobhall looked around, silently taking count of her companions. Arthurius, Deacon, Winston and Ronald were all there and she breathed a soft sigh of relief that the day had passed uneventfully.
“Oh sure, hide in the hay,” Winston muttered in his eloquent English accent as he picked the hay from his feathers. “Bloody brilliant idea! Now it’s everywhere!”
c**k-bite, Aiobhall thought angrily then checked herself to keep from giggling. The English gargoyle resembled a giant rooster more than anything else, and both Ronald and Arthurius had been at great pains to make as many genital-related jokes as possible. It seemed to be rubbing off.
“Breakfast is still good,” Ronald assured them all, brushing the hay away from the bacon, ham and fried potatoes. “Still hot, too. Thomas must have just been here.”
Aiobhall remained in the loft, snuggling back into the hay happily and breathing in deeply the sweet, clean smell. She had come a long way, and waking up here was a step up from the sewers, damp caves and airships they had been sleeping in. It was a far cry from the loud, demanding city she had been hatched in; there was an ocean now separating her from that, from her clan, but this was a welcome change. It felt safe, wholesome.
It was difficult to determine where it all began. It could easily have started when small groups of gargoyles were moved, in secret, to St. Peter’s Basilica in Montreal from all across Europe during the 30’s and 40’s by a mysterious benefactor. The majority were refugees, fleeing the assault of Hitler’s forces on their homes. Aiobhall’s people had come earlier still, evading the destruction Ireland civil war was wreaking in Dublin. She was uncertain as to what drove Arthurius’s people from Egypt, but Aiobhall was certain that there were few people alive within the city of Montreal who remembered a time that the strange statues had not adorned the church. Aiobhall, Arthurius and Deacon were from the first generation of hatchlings who were laid, and raised, in the city and grew up under the careful eye of their guardian, Father Matthews.
Perhaps it had started much later than that after the stranger from a clan in Manhattan had appeared and Aiobhall had had the dream. She still remembered it vividly, remembered the mist and the sound of marching feet. She remembered climbing to the top of the Basilica to discover Father Matthews’ bloody and crucified corpse. She had tried to warm the clan elders, but Illia had dismissed it. The next night, the crucified remains of Father Matthews had been found in the park and the horror frozen on his still face in the news had been hard to forget.
The clan elders were now missing, and Aiobhall and her rookery brothers had now traveled from Montreal to Manhattan, from Manhattan to London and from London to the Hill of Tara trying to uncover mystery after mystery. Shrike had left them to join Talon, the leader of the Labyrinth Clan in Manhattan, to hunt down members of the anti-gargoyle group known as the Quarrymen. To replace her rookery brother the group had been joined by Ronald and the dreams kept coming. They had sought and found King Arthur and Sir Griff to warn him that Excalibur was in danger, but from what they could not say; the dream had been very vague, but the sword of the Once and Future King had been one of the four weapons Aiobhall had seen. They were in Ireland to see about the Gáe Bulg, Cú Chulainn's legendary spear of light and to try and find the next piece of the puzzle that would explain the connection between the legendary weapons.
None of it made sense any more, and for every clue that they seemed to solve they found themselves more lost within the flow of events. She wished that Shrike’s tinfoil hat had stopped the dreams. Perhaps then they would have returned to Montreal to search for the missing clan elders and they would never have met the detestable Winston in London. That, however, was wishful thinking and did nothing to change the fact that she was now in a barn in the Irish countryside waiting for Beltaine. Whatever happened next would come then.
She jumped down from the loft and joined the others as Arthurius replayed a message on his iPhone, his brows drawn together and large ears pressed back in confusion. The jackal-headed gargoyle was normally an intimidating figure but he looked comical now in his bafflement. He deleted the message, still casting doubtful glances at the electronic device in his hand.
“Who was is?” Ronald asked, mouth full. They all recalled the phone ringing just as the sun came up.
“I think,” said Arthurius hesitantly, “that it was Xanatos.”
The group fell silent.
“But how did he get our number?” Deacon ventured.
Arthurius shrugged. They had often heard the name of David Xanatos, knew that he was somehow behind the events that had led them here, but they had never had any contact with the man. To the contrary, the man had seemed to be in hiding even from his wife. It was chilling to realize just how powerful the man was if he could obtain the unlisted number to Arthurius’s phone and would then call them.
Before future comment could be made, the phone range again.
Arthurius click the screen to answer the call carefully with a talon. “Hello?”
“Your Mastercard Gold account is due to terminate,” said a thickly East Indian accented voice. “Without action on your part, your account will terminate in three days time. Please stay on the line to speak to the next available representative.”
Arthurius frowned. “But I don’t have a Mastercard…”
“Thank you for holding,” said an equally thick accent. “My name is Mabinder. How may I help you with your Visa Gold account today?”
“Wait, Visa? The recording said this was Mastercard!” spluttered Arthurius. The others watched in confusion.
“I’m sorry sir, I was confused for a moment. How may I help you with your Mastercard Gold account today?”
“I don’t have a credit card!” yelled Arthurius. “Why are you people calling?”
“If you are interested, sir, I can have you approved today for a low interest credit card - ” Mabinder was cut off short as Arthurius hung up the phone muttering about telemarketers. Ronald and Winston both visibly relaxed, and Aiobhall giggled.
“What were you expecting, Arty? It’s not like you’ve given this number out to anyone who would be trying to reach us here.”
“I thought it might be Xanatos again,” he admitted, tucking the phone into his belt. “He had called us once already. He knows about the lab we destroyed and the hard drives we took. He may even know what this strange disk is.”
“I thought we had established it was a battery?” Ronald cut in. “It tasted like one.”
“What, are you a connoisseur of batteries?” Winston demanded in disgust. Ronald ignored and picked up the last piece of ham.
“Whatever it is,” Arthurius continued, “he probably wants it back. I thought he might have called to make demands, to tell us where he wanted it all left.”
Arthurius fell back to studying the metal disk which resembled a large watch battery. They had obtained it the previous night, but what it was still troubled him. His internet searching had been to no avail before dawn, and he was considering a new search now that he knew it was a creation of Xanatos Industries when his ears twitched. He could almost have sworn he had heard something strange in the night. Moments later, Ronald and Winston both looked up. The quiet thwup thwup thwup thwup thwup-ing sound was growing closer. As one, the five gargoyles stepped out into the night to investigate the source of the noise. It almost sounded like the quiet working of a stealth helicopter, but it couldn’t be? Who would have one in rural Ireland?
“Run!” said Aiobhall as a new sound rent the night. It was the distinct roaring of a helicopter and it was drawing nearer. She was already off and running, the white fabric of her long skirt trailing back behind her. “Split up and head for the trees!”
“We’ll meet at the gas station,” Arthurius called to the others, following Aiobhall’s example and veering hard to the left. He didn’t look back to see if the others were following. He didn’t stop until he had reached the shelter of the trees and safely hidden himself away.
The house could still be seen from here, as could the barn. The buildings were illuminated as if by the light of day by a large black helicopter. On the rudder were three perpendicular red slashes. As the gargoyles watched from their hiding places, armored vehicles began to arrive, some mounted with heavy artillery weapons. All of them were black, all bore the same three red slashes. Armed men poured out of the vehicles and repelled from the chopper, swarming around the house and the barn. As they watched, the gargoyles had no way of knowing that Thomas had been true to his word about keeping their secret. It now seemed that his had been yet another of the many recent bitter betrayals they had suffered.
They had no way of knowing how cunning their enemy was, or that the show before them was just a small part of the resources available to the group of Quarrymen who help the European Union gargoyle hunting contract. They had satellites and tracking technologies at their immediate disposal, anonymous tip lines for sightings or receiving phone numbers. They employed mercenaries, scientists, doctors and actors. It was just unfortunate that tonight’s actor had fumbled the script on what would have otherwise been a perfect performance.
Without being able to take to the air and glide, the journey to the gas station seemed to take an eternity through the dark wood. It was not yet midnight, but it felt as though hours had past. Every noise had been a cause for distress, every shadow a potential threat as the helicopters flew overhead and vehicles thundered along the road. Aiobhall was almost relieved when she reached the end of the trees and the gas station stood before her on the other side of the service road. There was no sign of her companions, but she knew they would meet her here eventually if they were able. She scanned the road and the skies quickly, listened for the soft sounds of the stealth helicopter. Had they not already encountered one, she would not have known to listen for the invisible menace. But all seemed silent now and she was able to quickly cross without incident.
The station was deserted. Nothing moved within the small shop or anywhere around. Aiobhall had half a notion to go into the shop to wait for the others, to take a few moments to read the newspaper for more news on the hunt but something felt wrong. As she drew near the front door, a small red spot of illumination chilled her to the bone. She froze, staring at it, but it did not move. She hastened away from it, thinking to check the dumpster in the back for a paper and to seek cover in the distant trees. Movement caught her already anxious eye as she turned the corner, a familiar purple form poking up from the bushes and waving to her. Abandoning the idea of a newspaper, join Deacon in hiding.
“How long have you been here?” she whispered, breathing heavily.
“Not long, a few minutes maybe. Have you seen anything?”
Aiobhall shook her head. “No, nothing. I’ve heard them a few times, and I’m sure I imagined hearing them even more, but they don’t seem to have followed us here. Have you seen any of the others? Are they here with you?”
“No,” Deacon whispered, “you’re the first gargoyle I’ve seen but that doesn’t mean we’re the only ones here. The others could have gone inside, or moved back into the trees back there before I got here. I was kind of slow,” he added with shame.
“We all were Deacon, don’t worry yourself over it. We had to move carefully, so the others may not even be here yet. There’s no one inside, I know that much. We should wait here a while longer.”
“Right, then we can go check those trees behind us to see if there’s any sign of them there.”
They settled in to wait, their bodies tense as they watched the back of the shop for any sign of movement. The open field around them made Aiobhall nervous; they could be easily spotted from above here, but to move anywhere else would limit their ability to watch for the others. The aerial search seemed to have moved on, however, and she allowed that to serve as some comfort until the night was rent by a thundering BOOM!
Without thought, she and Deacon jumped up from the brush and ran towards the gas station. The sound had come from the front. As they reached the side, they were joined by Winston, and the three pushed forward to investigate.
Arthurius lay in a bloody heap by the shop window which had held the illuminated dot. As Aiobhall gasped, Arthurius groaned and she quickly dropped to her knees beside him. She pressed the red stone of the ring she wore carefully to the wound in the back of her companion’s head where the fur and flesh had been stripped clean and bone gleamed in the moonlight. The stone flared brightly and the flesh began to knit itself back together. The wound was still viable as an angry red spot when the light died away, and it was still tender to the touch, but it was no longer exposed, no longer bleeding, and Arthurius stirred back to consciousness.
“Arty, what happened?” Aiobhall urged him.
“Shot,” he grunted, allowing her to pull him to his feet. He fumbled with the holder on his belt for a small, handheld device and clicked a knob. He then placed the muzzle of it on his arm and pulled the trigger. It made a hissing noise, and Arthurius sighed with relief as the last of the pain and discomfort vanished.
“We should find cover,” Winston said, looking quickly from side to side and causing his blood-red comb to quiver and flop comically.
There were two quick BOOMs from the trees across the service road and Ronald raced through the scree towards them. “Run!” he called. “They’re behind us! RUN!”
The needed no other urging. They ran back behind the shop, Aiobhall doubling back when she glimpsed the dumpster from the corer of her eye and leaned into it. The others protested loudly, cursing and pleading with her to follow them. She emerged a moment later, clutching the crumpled and disorganized sections of a newspaper. She tucked these into her belt.
The squeal of tires lent new urgency to their flight, as did the unexpected appearance of the large helicopter as it bore down on them. The gargoyles fell to all fours, their talons digging into the soft earth for purchase as they hurtled towards the trees. A spotlight flicked on, and the shouts of men on foot rang out behind them. They hit the trees, but did not slow down.
After three miles, the trees ended at another road. This one was paved and was bordered on the other side by fields. At the far end, they could just make out more trees but they would have to pass through the open to reach them. There would be no shelter, and they hesitated.
“What do we do?” panted Ronald. “We’ll never make the other side.”
“We can’t go back, they were right behind us!”
“Suppose we just stick to this belt of trees? We could go left or right and miss them…” Winston suggested half-heartedly.
“Ditch the phone,” Deacon hissed. “They can use it to track us!”
“We need it!” protested Arthurius. “It’s our only connection to the Manhattan Clan and Lennox!”
Further discussion was cut short as a shot ran out and a bullet struck the trunk of a tree near Winston’s head. Panicked, the gargoyles raced into the open as fast as their pumping, aching limbs would carry them. They shot across the road and down into the fields, easily jumping the fence and darting in among a heard of cows. The animals began to low nervously as four gargoyles ran out on the other side of them. The large black helicopter appeared again overhead and a rain of bullets fell down upon them from the Gatling gun.
Aiobhall rolled as she was hit, felling the bullets grazing her limbs and piercing through the membrane of her wings. Adrenaline kept her going and made her only dimly aware of the roars of pain from her companions or their number. The cows were now racing blindly around them, panicked by the chopper and the gunfire. Only after she had leaped over the fence at the far side of the field and reached the trees did Aiobhall stop to look back, and only then did she notice Arthurius at the other end of the field.
He had stood, and was now running using only his legs. As she watched, he jumped and used the back of a cow to launch himself up into the air. He spread his wings and soared up beneath the chopper where the large gun was useless against him. Chest heaving, he thrust his talons deep into the underbelly of the machine and held fast as the pilot began to turn in circles to dislodge him. The crew inside began to fire handguns into the floor as Arthurius struggled to turn himself around and climb down towards the rudder of the helicopter.
The others were too far away to hear his roar, but they heard the explosion and saw the fire bloom as he thrust his claws into the blades and pulled them free. He then spread his wings and soared up and away as the chopper plummeted to the filed below. The crash was spectacular, and the centrifugal force of the ensuing explosion was enough to catch Arthurius and send him likewise crashing to the ground.
“Arthurius!” Aiobhall cried, using a nearby tree to get herself air born. She used the turbulent air currents to glide to Arthurius’s side and landed beside him, again pressing her ring to him and watching it flare, less brightly. He pulled himself shakily to his feet as the others joined them and with the assistance of Deacon and Ronald was able to flee deep within the trees before falling panting to his knees.
“That,” he gasped, “should buy us some time. We have to find somewhere safe to spend the day.”
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