But that night something made me opt for Salisbury Crags, Arthur Seat’s neglected offspring, alone but for the wind tangling my hair and the scent of damp earth. Something niggled at the back at of my mind, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. I had reached the Radical Road that curved around the Crags like an old scar in reptilian skin. Although the Crags were only about one hundred and fifty feet high, tell that to the poor souls who had been given the push by so-called loved ones, plunging to painful, splattering death at the bottom. My way was lit by the mauve phosphorescence of corpse candles, behind and below me the rust coloured glow of city lights, like old blood or something long dead.
As though to contradict me, a breeze carrying with it the scent of spring and the promise of another sullen east coast summer ruffled over my skin. My menagerie had gone on ahead, and a series of stimulating images of a biker gang who had come here for drugs washed down with some relaxing S and M action told me they were hot on the trail. I stopped for a moment all the better to savour what I had been sent. Even from these pictures, the weight of the gang’s murderous past and present hung around them in shreds of darkness like Jacob Marley’s chains except theirs was not one that could be unforged by some paltry good deeds after the fact. The huge and bloated elementals that had attached themselves to each and every gang member were testimony to that.
The dim glamour of the resulting darkness signalled their presence to me and mine like a beacon. But tonight there was something else hunting in the Park of the Holy Rood, something infinitely worse than a dozen Hell’s Angels painting the city blood red.
The corpse-candles were still with me buzzing around my head and wouldn’t shift when I tried to swat them. Whatever was out there would be getting a great heads up with my whereabouts all thanks to these little bastards. I remembered the old tales about them, that they lead unwary travellers to their deaths in peat bogs and over the edges of cliffs. The wind had turned chill and bitter and I focussed as hard as I could to find my monsters.
The thrum of the life force flowing through the Park, Arthur’s Seat and the Crags was intoxicating enough that I almost didn’t care that my links with the menagerie had been severed. If I could have stood there propped against the rock feeling the elemental magic surge through me for ever that wouldn’t have been a bad way to spend eternity.
And then a body was hurled from the top of the crags, landing with a bone-shattering thud not ten feet from where I stood and for the second time that night another connection was broken.
It was swiftly followed by an enormous mass I couldn’t make out although both were locked in a fight to the death the ripping of skin audible even above the frenzied snarling and snapping. The second arrival was a creature of smoke and darkness swirling in upon itself and yet at the core, a scarlet light burned as though whatever it was had caught fire. The unmistakable sickly sweet smell assailed the night and my nostrils. Demon. A huge horned head whipped round to look at me through gold-slitted eyes and I could see a skin forming all over its body as though it was being born before my eyes. The skin was blackened, blistered as though burned in a fire, with ridges and whorls of a darker matter like ulcerous growths. It was the sheer size of the thing however: in excess of fifteen feet high, golden eyes glowing through the billowing smoke it gave off as though being consumed by black flames.
It roared, vast red maw lined with gigantic mismatched teeth that overlapped, some even protruded through the demon’s own flesh and gouts of what passed for its blood ran down into the scarred and pitted chest the size of a barn. The first arrival was tiny by comparison, the skin dark green, two horns atop the shaggy head and a disturbingly finely boned human face. Hands tipped with dagger-like claws and hooves for feet made it seem as though the god Pan come to life. Except this creature didn’t have much life left, with its slit belly and one hand clasped across it trying to keep the contents from spooling out onto the dirt road.
The roar of the demon wasn’t a respite because something was happening deep in its core: a shuddering, tearing, volcanic eruption as though it was being torn apart from the inside. But that wasn’t it either. That would have been lucky and whatever else tonight was, good fortune had no part in it.
But no one the told the green man. He mustered what final strength he had to roll clear and prepare for a final pointless assault on the demon. He didn’t have the power to get up and face his enemy so he beckoned it closer with a contemptuous flick of his hand, dark with his own blood. Most people, creatures, animals would at least try to make a run for it, even if the attempt was doomed. I don’t think the demon noticed because it was too busy giving birth to something right before my very eyes. The green man snarled in response and tried to lever himself upright, not managing because of the grievousness of the mortal wound in his belly.
“You shall not pass,” he growled.
Cliches even in extremis – you had to admire it. But life, somehow, was like that: significant events for which there were only borrowed words and hackneyed phrases.
I had no great urge to get involved in what was someone else’s beef and turned to leave before I found out just what the newborn looked like. The stench and heat became overpowering and I turned my head back in time to see an second horned head tearing itself free from the first, a process that appeared to be causing it no little effort. Flesh and bone parted with a series of ear-splitting cracks accompanied by another long drawn out bellow and then there were two, identical down to the last detail. I had no doubt that they’d soon they’d be rampaging round the city, the soft human population falling before them like skittles.
As for me, I had more immediate things to attend to.
It was only when the third head appeared announced by the now familiar crack that I realised with a bitter, sinking heart that that wasn’t true. The bastard was now splitting into three and who knew how many more. A city always had its share of devils, demons and other things that thrived in its dark places, but a creature that could reproduce itself to this extent was not something the delicate equilibrium between human and non could support. The question was: who had called it? Following hot on the heels of who was why.
The demons had turned the combined weight of their attention to the green man, so there were to be no more of their brethren at least for now. A giant head with curling, ram-like horns swayed closer to the green man who flicked his head aside in a vain attempt to avoid the eyes. With my own sunglasses firmly in place I strode towards the devil and the deep green man, ready but not willing. I a threw curse stone that had been forged in Roman times at one of the unholy trinity and it thunked it straight between the eyes. I’d bought it on the black market and had known only two things about it: people had died to make it a potent protection; and that it was priceless.
Well it was demon bait now. I just hoped it was worth the sacrifice.