A Dark-Adapted Eye

I was flying high above the city, lights like rusted stars beneath me. The big beasts were out tonight and I raced past vast serpentine shapes, coils arcing through the air, some with prey leaking their lives onto the night wind and others with joy-riders astride their sleek flanks, wild cries swallowed by the sky. On the ground a dark mass had devoured half of the Meadows and was making it’s way up through Morningside. But I wasn’t confined to the prison of my own skull anymore and such concerns were only part of a larger and more intricate whole, one that consumed me even as I tried to unravel it. No longer separate and discrete, I was part of the fabric of the world: the weft and weave of night joining the dance of the cosmos and beyond; the rhythm of prey and hunter, light as air, fast as light.

I swooped down past lit tenement windows, orange beacons to whatever wanted to spy, past lovers’ quarrels, furtive stirrings in dark alleyways, the blare of car horns, the desperate calls of dogs and other creatures one to another, the ebb and flow of life incessant, irresistible. Low now over pubs and clubs, pumping out a never ending sea of humanity in search of fast thrills and faster food, the debris nourishing the wild things that crept out from the shadows.

Soaring over the affluent houses of the Grange, a massed, silent citadel of privilege set apart from the tattered glamour of the rest of the city. Huge Victorian villas in enormous grounds, some containing only one elderly coot too stubborn to die, too infirm to make the most of it. This was where the bankers and the wealthy elite lived secure behind their stone fortresses, dreading the day the barbarian hordes stormed the gates.

And come it would.

Monday, Monday

I woke up after seven to darkness and the dead, so closely packed it was impossible to tell how many there were. They stood silently, their milky eyes though blind, still able to track me wherever I went, like a field of grey translucent sun flowers.

Had my live visitors wrecked my wards earlier today? I’d rip their limbs off and feed them to them if they had, but somehow I didn’t think it was their style. Besides the wards were so powerful, I didn’t see how anyone could disable them but me.

The Deadlights woke, excited by the promise of all that dark energy and the room thrummed with them, making my head hurt worse than it already did. I waded effortfully through the frozen press of the dead, as though miles down underwater, with a million tonnes of water bearing down on my unprotected head.

I remembered I had a job on tonight and as if to confirm I got a full on visual from one of the Boabhan Sith showing the unmistakable shape of Salisbury Crags and the whispered message:

“The Guardian is awake. You must come.”

I also remembered that it was probably a bad idea given the Hand-of-Glory some kind soul had sent me last night.

It would be madness, mayhem, murder and worse if I accepted such a rash invitation. But then again, it was either that or spend a cheerless Monday night in the cold bosom of the dearly departed.

Of course I went.

My Favourite Things

I had to get out of the house. Pulling on whatever was at hand I was able to cover the resulting catalogue of sins against fashion and common decency with my full length leopard print coat. The telephone rang. I ignored it and left, heading for my nearest greasy spoon for breakfast, or since it was now night, dinner of dead animals and burnt fat.

I had just given my order to the harassed waitress, when my mobile started up with its Snapper download of my current favourite Ten Good Reasons To Kick Your Head In when a man in a base-ball cap pulled low over his face and scarf wound tightly around his neck and jaw, slid into the chair opposite me.

“That seat’s taken,” I said.

The peak of the cap raised slightly and a pair of burning orange eyes with what looked like boils around the contours stared into mine. The skin stretched tightly over the nub of a nose was dark with overlapping scales. Whatever else he was, human didn’t begin to cover it.

“I think you’ll want to make an exception for little old me, Rosie darlin’.” The voice was low and guttural, with a strange fluting quality as though there was something else in there straining to get out. He could go and strain elsewhere as far as I was concerned.

“Tell you what Toad, if you don’t leave immediately, I’ll be the one taking exception. That would be bad.”

“Big talk. Let’s see how talkative you are when my employers get through with you if don’t do what you’re told. That goes for those two you were just entertaining in your boudoir earlier. Have a nice little threesy did you?” He, it, whatever the hell it was, hawked and spat on the floor. The waitress gave a gusty sigh and bent down to clean it. He stared at her and the words she was about to utter died in her throat and she backed off and into the kitchen.

“Jealous? I’m willing to bet the only action you ever get is limited to onesy. You,” I said impatiently after he looked blank.

He was about to say something but I held a hand up to cut him off, “Okay, I’m curious. Who are you?”

He lowered the scarf and a lipless mouth was revealed with row upon row of pointed little teeth on show in what I took to be a smile.

He laughed at the revulsion on my face and said, “Me? I’m nobody. Just a messenger you might say. And the message is this: stay away from the Fox twins.”

I was genuinely amused. “Or what? Is this like a double bluff where you really want me to go see the Foxes, because I have to say it’s working.”

The would-be messenger stared at me, incomprehension plain on the lizard-like features and we all know what usually happens in the old messaging business. I leaned over to him and he withdrew by just the merest fraction of an inch, but it was a telling one activating the adrenalin and pitching me into hyper focus like with Ruby earlier, but this one would be more of a challenge.

“I ain’t dead Rose, you can’t mess with my head.”

“It’s your body I want, but then you must get that all the time,” I grabbed him by the neck before he realised what I was doing. Something metallic clanged to the ground and I was betting it was his blade. A quick flick of the eye downward told me I was on the money. Pulling his face closer to mine as though for a kiss, I flicked the blades on my finger-knives to the first setting: a mere half an inch of razor-sharp serrated steel. Enough to penetrate the skin, not enough for internal organs. He had his back to the two other diners and it looked like we were just getting cosy.

“You wouldn’t dare,” he wheezed.

I stroked the scales on his face with the tip of the blade on my index finger, just hard enough to pierce the tough skin along his jaw and down to the jugular.

“Wouldn’t I?” I whispered, lips inches from his and those sharp little teeth. I flicked the second setting on my middle finger and it went a little deeper into the scaled meat just shy of his jugular. He whimpered and bled.

I smiled and went to work.

Red in Tooth and Claw

On some nights on Leith Walk you can hear it calling like a grieving lover for the one it hunts and feel a faint trembling of the air as though the world itself fears what is about to come.

And that’s as it should be, because something has made Leith its larder. Locking doors and windows cannot keep it out and the penalty for such impertinence is a slow, agonising death. All that remains is to hope that it kills you quickly and that you do not catch sight of it as it consumes the flesh you can’t now call your own.

There is a new rule of law in town.

And this one’s rare steak bloody.

Hey There Gorgie Girl

She had been murdered before the Sainsburys in the Edinburgh area of Gorgie had been built, but that was as much as she remembered. The murder hadn’t even happened in Gorgie, but for some reason that was the place she had chosen to linger. Perhaps it was an old memory of the route to work she’d taken on the day of her death, just like everyday, on the number 25 packed with sleep befuddled commuters. More likely it was just random, like the dreams endured night after night by the living; triggered by a chance word or association and unfairly singled out by the mind from the deluge of the day’s detritus.

But there had been no one around when he had grabbed her from behind after she had gotten off the bus halfway down Leith Walk and bundled her up an alleyway where he slashed her throat with a broken bottle just because he could. She did remember trying to stem the red tide of her blood with grasping ineffectual hands, but the tide was not for turning.

Now she frequented the shadows in the early hours, ranging around the closes and dead-ends of Gorgie’s tenements, waiting, waiting for him to show himself. She’d been growing stronger since her death (at twenty-one), evolving into a force he’d have to reckon with if he ever dared show his face. And he would, she knew, eventually. Her rage was a molten, living thing that allowed no respite, no drifting off into the space of whatever happened next.

But her interaction with the world had had to begin modestly: first with rats and mice; then cats and later dogs. By sheer force of will she had learned how to lure the unfortunate creatures up darkened closes (the smell of a bacon roll here, the simulation of an owner’s voice there) and over time she refined her techniques. Now she could chew through flesh as though it was papier mache and only last night she had made her first practice kill on a human. He had been an old man, granted, but everyone had to start somewhere. His name had had been Robert Carswell, and he had been driven out of his bed by a rampant insomnia made infinitely worse by the recent death of his wife Muriel. He had thought a peaceful walk along darkened streets would soothe his aching head.

And now he lay beside the Tynecastle Stadium, hours from discovery and beyond hope.

She knew she needed some more target practice before he came and she had even picked out a likely victim: a young girl not much younger than she herself had been, out late after a work’s night out.

Everyone ended up in Gorgie’s mean streets at some point whether they intended to or not. And maybe, just maybe she was a Gorgie sort of girl after all.

Reconstructive Surgery

It had been born in a chance encounter between fork lightning and a hillock already gravid with the old magics. Now all the wildling had to do was survive until adulthood worked its own brand of enchantment making it invulnerable to attack. But that was a long way off; a journey fraught with danger.

Rather like the one it was now embarked upon in the wee small hours of a Monday morning. It had broken into a ground floor flat at 18 Marchmont Road as the occupants, a young couple called Babs and Jamie Robertson and their two month old baby Noah, slept. It had been watching the young family for three weeks and it knew their movements with an intimate if unloving precision.

Babs, a nurse at the Royal Edinburgh, was on maternity leave and struggling with the demands of a new born baby. Jamie, a freelance graphic designer with too much time on his hands, generally got under her feet feeling more than a little put out that he was no longer the sole focus of her attentions. So far, so normal. Neither of them had the slightest inkling that they had caught the attention of a malign spirit, one that was bent on getting rid of their child and taking its place in the nest forcing them to care for it; identical to their lost son down to the last eyelash. Unlike the cuckoo though, the wildling would eventually murder its adopted parents at the moment it reached maturity. A bloody rites of passage that was the hallmark of all its kind.

But tonight was only the first small step on that road and the wildling needed to make sure this part of the plan went seamlessly. It stood, a smoky shadow without substance or form apart from a dull red glow that throbbed somewhere in its core. It looked down at the sleeping child, dark lashes fanned out on each plump cheek and felt contempt for such a weak, lumpen creature. It was going to have to take on the appearance of this mewling ball of flesh while its harassed parents tended to its every need. They’d wonder what had happened to their placid baby boy, why he was so cruel and vindictive, first to them and then later to other children. His teachers would huddle in groups in the common room discussing his latest essay, the ways in which it showed what a disturbed little shit he was and endless referrals to an army of psychiatrists and psychologists who would all come to the firm conclusion it was the parent’s fault.

It reached into the cot and took the child, smothering its face before it could cry out. It was important to keep it alive for now so the replication process could begin. It would of course end when it neatly slotted into the cot recently occupied by its true owner some time before Babs and Jamie woke. It wrapped the struggling baby into a blanket and fled, this time having to use the door which shut with a gentle click. Aided by a loosely worked spell of forgetting, no one noticed it as it ran through the chilled night air up Marchmont Road and headed for Blackford Hill, a lonely spot at this hour where it could begin its work.

Finally it came to rest on a little hillock much like the one where it had been spewed into existence and laid the child down on the ground.

Life, it reflected to itself as it began to put on its first flesh overcoat, was a funny old thing…

Soul Sucker

“Horror’s not my thing,” I said, “Stepping out the front door of a Monday morning’s scary enough for me. Now, back to you young lady. When did you get sick and what happened?”

“I’m not sure. I was sick at school a few months ago and daddy had to fetch me and bring me home. I just got worse and worse until I couldn’t really get out of bed anymore. It feels like I’ve been in this room my entire life. I am going to die though, I know it,” tears spilled down her wan little face and I fished out a clean hanky and wiped them away.

“Don’t be daft, nothing wrong that we can’t fix.” Another lie.

“Wh-what is wrong with me?” she sniffed.

“Hold on-there,” I said while the Dead-Lights played over her, uncharacteristically gentle. It only took a few seconds for them to get to the source.

“Found it. This will sound funny to you, but you’ve got a little hole in your aura.”

“Aura? What’s that?”

“It protects you, like your skin protects your insides, only this protects your mind. Everyone has one. Imagine if you didn’t have any skin, your insides would be outside and you’d have to run around carrying them in a wheel-barrow,” I mimed this, puffing out my cheeks as though at the effort and she gave a weak giggle. I wasn’t aiming for a precise comparison, just something a child could get her head round.

“Your aura’s like that except it protects your thoughts, your feelings and keeps other folks thoughts out. You’ve got a tiny hole in yours. Not to worry though, I know just the person who can help you fix it.”

“Why can’t you do it? Why do I have a hole?”

We were getting onto sticky ground. She needed to know some truth, but not the whole truth which was that some sort of parasite had broken through her natural protection and was literally sucking the soul out of her. Why the parasite had picked her, how it had broken through and when it would finish her off was the million dollar question.

“I’m not a healer. But I know someone who is. She’s really nice, you’ll like her.”

And she would; everyone liked Ruby Fox, but Ruby like the rest of the psychic community didn’t like me. This appeared to be because of my little nocturnal hunting expeditions which they thought the height of immorality. I thought they were the pits of hypocrisy and we usually left our mutual loathing at that. But Ruby specialised in auras and healing and there was at least a chance she could restore Emma to health while I hunted the spirit that was killing her.

Stick to your strengths as my old mother might have said…

Mirror in the Bathroom

I had the dream again last night, always the same sequence of events, the same cataclysmic outcome. Except now it was happening every night, proof as if any were needed that it was almost upon us.

I’m drying myself after a shower in the bathroom. I go over to the mirrored medicine cabinet on the wall, rooting around for something I can never find. As I open it, something catches my eye, a flash of movement, I’m never entirely sure. I slowly adjust the mirrored door knowing I’m being watched I rub the steam away and see the outline of a young woman standing directly behind me, clouds of water vapour gently eddying around her.

I whirl around and she puts her finger to her lips with one hand holding out the other with an odd formality as though asking me to dance. An alien thrumming through my head tells me she’s dead, although the solidity of her body belies that fact. But it’s her face that makes me want to scream: devoid of features apart from two indentations where her eye sockets should have been. But it’s not a smooth blankness, it’s as though what passed for the skin of her face is malleable like putty and has been flattened by inefficient careless fingers, leaving bumps and odd ridges in their wake. I try to call out but my voice has deserted me and I know I’m alone.

With her.

She’s dripping from head to toe and her dirty white dress is torn and hanging off one shoulder.

She walks towards me, the mottled flesh of her narrow frame discernable through the thin fabric of her dress. I press myself as far against the wall as I and try again to shout, but can’t summon the breath, choking instead on the hot, sulpherous steam.

My own power blazes through my bones and before I can even direct it, bursts from me and slashes the thing’s face and body and then again and again, numerous times, too many to count. Bright blood wells to the surface of these cuts like a profusion of jagged red mouths just before it begins to gush onto the floor. Something is moving around beneath the skin like a frightened rodent and the more I cut, the more excitable the burrower becomes. I throw myself to the left towards the bathroom door, but the bloodied figure gives me a contemptuous, almost lazy swipe that connects with my shoulders. I hit my head off the tiles, and feel a warm wetness running down my face and pooling beneath me as it cools. My vision blurs and I fight to stay conscious, but it’s only a matter of time.

I can only see the creature’s bare feet from my vantage point on the floor and now they begin to walk towards me slowly. No need to rush, not now. With a detachment born of blood loss and shock, I watch it approach, stand over me for what seems like minutes but could only have been seconds and then it squats down beside me, so I can see its face. The wounds I’ve slashed into its skin gape wide and move of their own volition. Inside the raw meat, the wet flick of an eye, the extrusion of a decayed tooth roils in a fevered constant motion. I whimper and try to edge away but I can’t move, can’t call out, can’t get out of this one.

Because this time, it’s not a dream and she’s finally decided to come for me.

And there’s not a damned thing in this world or the next that I can do about it.

Old Gods and New Tricks

“Lady,” it said, stepping out from the dark and blocking my progress. But it turned out to be a he, huge at six seven, but there the similarity with a human male ended. A corpse candle up to no good fizzed past his face and circled him as though for my benefit. His skin was a rich moss green and two sharp, jutting horns rose from either side of his head, their base lost in the thick tangled matt of dark hair which hung down to his chest. Long legs covered in shaggy hair ended in hooves, but for all that the face was human, finely boned even, with a full red mouth that looked faintly obscene especially when it smiled as it was doing now. The chest and arms were recognisably human too: muscled and curiously hairless as though to suggest vulnerability when I knew there was none worth the name.

A ripe, animal stench reached my nostrils and I fought not to gag. He smiled wider at that, showing wickedly sharp incisors that could crack an elephant’s thigh bone all so he could suck the marrow.

More corpse candles appeared circling us in a bobbing, weaving ring of purple light and I could believe the old stories where they led unwary travellers to their death. Their beauty made the thing in front of me all the more perverse and the fear crackled along the length of my spine, forcing the hairs on the back of my neck to attention.

“How do you like your final resting place,” he said indicating Arthur Seat and Holyrood Park with a sweep of his arm.

And then he lunged.

High Spirits

Storm clouds gravid with snow mobbed a sickly sky, tainting the jaundiced daylight a death-bed sepia. I trudged to my next job through the detritus from the last snow fall, virginal purity violated without so much as a proposal to show for it. As I was nursing a particularly vicious hang-over, I felt pretty ravaged myself. The address I’d been given was in the Grange, Edinburgh’s most exclusive post code. It was only half an hours walk from my flat in Bruntsfield, but in terms of the aspirations of a worker ant like me, it was like a mouse pining for a castle on the moon. My blinding headache jarred every step of the way turning the short journey into an epic worthy of Homer never mind NASA. When I finally lurched into the right street I was greeted by the first line of defence of the rich: the seemingly endless vista of anonymous tree lined street; the second being the high stone walls, over which nothing was visible, presumably to discourage the crass curiosity of those vulgar enough to be less fortunate.

If I had known then what I know now, I’d have told my erstwhile employers exactly where to stick their sicko ‘requirements’. Maybe they, along with half the street, would still be alive now…