But there was no more time because the world was fire and fire was the world. Through the flames I could make out charred bodies tied to stakes and a man sitting astride a throne of molten bone, his long hair aflame and the skin peeling from his body like an overdone roast. A huge crack appeared in the cobblestoned street and a dark tide rose, taloned beasts fought their way to the surface and flew into the air shrieking their blood lust. I just had time to haul Rufus into the circle with Ruby and I before the horde were upon us. We never stood a chance.
I knew I was being followed as I walked down Lothian Road. The walk was supposed to focus my mind on strategy and absorb the energy from the presences in the November night air while I was about it. I got to the block where the old Woolworths had been and felt it again: that sense that eyes were boring into the back of my head. I looked back and got a quick flash of something small and scaled diving into a doorway.
Acting on impulse I jumped onto a number 11 bus intending to get off somewhere along Princes Street. The town was quite crowded for this time on a Wednesday night especially since it was arctic and had started to snow, little flurries soon becoming big, fat, fan dances.
The bus was packed and full of wet, steaming people, some of them in all senses of the word making me want a drink myself. Instead I contented myself with going over what I knew about the Baobhan Sith, or common or garden vampire’s that haunted Stockbridge.
They tended to live in clusters with a dominant vampire calling the shots. They were like insect colonies operating on what seemed to be a form of weird shit telepathy although no one had gotten close enough to know for sure and lived to tell the tale.
Holy water and stakes were a joke and one soul who’d tried them ended up impaled on the pointy end of his own stake driven by slow, incremental degrees through his rectum. It had taken him a long, long time to die so I’d heard. Like Luke she could withstand daylight and although she did not sleep in a coffin, she kept some for her own amusement, once memorably to bury one of her human hangers-on alive.
How she had ever managed to attract any human followers given her meat-eating proclivities was a question for the shrinks frankly.
But then fools and their lives were easily parted in my experience.
I took a fast black north to Granton, a part of the city clinging for dear life onto the south shore of the Firth of Forth like a spurned lover. The landscape was flat and bleak in a city famed for its curves and vitality. It had been heavily industrialised and then left to rot like so many places in Scotland. To be truthful, it had always depressed the hell out of me: grey and abandoned as though it had been stuck onto the rest of the city as an afterthought by an absent-minded god who had promptly forgotten about it. Trust Ravi to have picked this spot.
My destination, Granton Square, turned out to be more of a circle as I discovered after being turfed unceremoniously out of the taxi by the taciturn driver.
“Watch yourself here hen,” he said through a cigarette clamped between his teeth Clint Eastwood style, “they come out at night.” And with that he roared off down the road speeding on his way to suck the fun out of someone else’s night.
Hen, indeed. Where the hell had that little generic moniker come from?
I stomped round the faux square trying and failing to establish where 1A was. It must basement but I just couldn’t find which one. In the pitch black surprisingly few lights winked out and the street lights only managed an anaemic glow. There was no one about and surprisingly little traffic as though everyone had just decided that this really was not the place to be and had left it to its fate. Rather like Ravi’s previous home in the murky depths of the Gyle.
There was the distant noise of the occasional car, but the serenity of the square absorbed it like an over-indulgent mother. I remembered from somewhere that Granton had not been inhabited by people until comparatively recently and that may have explained the wraith like creatures that stalked the place. These wraiths resembled animals that couldn’t decide what species they belonged to: feline shaped heads, with tusks where teeth should be and legs ending in human hands not paws. One was following me now, a low growling deep down in its malformed throat. I sympathised with both the sentiment and the indecision.
A door slammed and then the sound of someone young and fit on stairs and indeed it was because Ravi burst into view from the building two doors down. He bounded over and picked me up as though I weighed nothing and, swinging me round, kissed me full on the lips. The familiar clean, herbal smell of him made me forget momentarily that I had been considering kneeing him in the nuts.
“I didn’t think you’d come,” he said, putting me down.
“Well to keep me here, you’re going to have to get me a massive drink and get it now.”
“All taken care of. I made some food in case you were hungry, or in between incidents.”
He laughed and the swirl of darkness that always accompanied him hugged him tighter as though protecting him from me. I was again reminded that this man had had a violent past: maybe that was why he was trying so hard to have a peaceful, nurturing present. I hoped to the god that I didn’t believe in that nothing like ever happened to me….
I came to in a huge room with a high vaulted roof. A fire crackled merrily in the grate and I wondered if I’d fallen into a fairy tale. Beauty and the Beast perhaps where the twist was that Beauty actually turned out be a bit of Beast herself. I was wrapped in a musty smelling blanket and the appetising smell of roast beast reminded me how hungry I was. The Guardian sat opposite me, bandaged but surprisingly chipper given the filleting he’d just had.
“For you,” he said indicating a little side table to my right. On it was indeed a roasted animal of some unidentifiable species part rodent with a large dash of goat judging by the horned head. Beside it was a cracked goblet, full to the brim with red wine. I did as I was bid.
“I usually prefer my food live and uncooked,” he said smiling.
“Where was I?” I said, ignoring him and stuffing huge mouthfuls of tasty meat down the hatch. “And what the hell is this place?”
“Well to answer your second question first, this is the heart of the city. So many souls living and dying here have made it…beat shall we say. You were about to join the Highway of the Dead. Had you fallen all the way, I wouldn’t have been able to bring you back.”
“The Highway of the Dead runs through your gaffe. That sounds cosy. Why?”
“Rose,” he said gently, “I keep telling you. This is the Edinburgh’s heart. When its citizens die, they converge here and make the journey together.”
He smiled. “Where do you think? To whatever’s next. I take care of all the people who live here, my people, from the cradle to the grave. Sort of like a supernatural welfare state.”
He laughed, but if it was a joke, I didn’t get it.
“So you’re telling me I didn’t fall all the way and if I had I would have died? Well what bastard pushed me?”
“Yes you would have died. Would that have been so bad? You are a very troubled soul Rose. Death might bring you peace.” He smiled. “One of my servants was angry at your presumption to open that which was not offered. I caught you before you hit the ground. I may be injured, but this is my home and I am master here.”
The handsome human features became neutral, composed. He was healing at a rate of knots and I knew that was my cue to get the hell out of Dodge.
There was only one teensy tiny little problem however.
I didn’t know how.
Riding the X12 bus home after another dispiriting day at the office usually brought Robert at least some grain of comfort. Not today though. It was just after 6pm on a wild November night with gusts of wind so strong, they shook the bus like a terrier with a rat. Reminded of the Twilight Zone episode where an airplane passenger looks out his window during a storm-racked flight to see a monster on the wing tearing it to shreds, Robert shivered, pulled his anorak tighter around his neck and studiously stared ahead at the CCTV monitor as it flicked from upstairs to down. There was something wrong with the colour, as though it was being leeched out of the screen leaving only a jaundiced, sepia tint. Just like my life, he thought.
He turned to the Metro newspaper article he’d been tussling with all the way from Corstorphine, but it was no use. He was thinking as usual about Jenny, his darling wife, who had not only just told him she was in love with another man, but was pregnant with his child.
That had ‘brought things to a head’ she’d said, smiling faintly, as though her adulterous coupling had been some sort of boil that she was desperate to pop. But she was the one who was going to do the popping in eight months or so. It wasn’t as though she was some prize pig either. Robert couldn’t for the life of him work out where his shy, dowdy, little wife had met her fertile Romeo never mind why he’d been attracted to her.
It wasn’t as though she worked for a living, Robert had seen to that. He’d insisted she stay home and taken care of her every need. Or at least, that’s what he’d thought. Clearly he’d turned out to be a bit of a disappointment between the sheets. Images of the pair in a hundred different positions came unbidden as they always did, searing themselves into his brain. The bitch had actually told him that she hadn’t wanted kids, but apparently she had.
Just not Robert’s.
Round and round on the vicious cycle merry-go-round. When would it end? Christ he needed to pull himself together. He heard a faint, insectile whine and looked up at the monitor again. He couldn’t tell which part of the bus the camera was spying on because the picture had distorted as though it was being stretched. But that wasn’t it either, because as he watched, Robert could see what looked like a face forming, with sharp humanoid features and long gleaming eyes. The lipless mouth opened impossibly wide as though in a silent scream.
Was that what the whine was?
The wind rocked the bus as it rounded a sharp bend and Robert thought they were going to tip over. Good, he thought. It would be a relief if it ended here for all of them, here in the no man’s land of the A8 as it led away from the city into the enveloping dark. If his life was ruined everyone else’s should be too.
The alien head on the monitor had now developed serrated teeth the colour of old dishwater. Was it smiling for Christ’s sake? It was almost as though it could hear his thoughts. Was that even possible? Had his distress driven him over an edge that he couldn’t even see any more, much less scramble back onto.
Free me, it said, voice like the tinkling of tiny, malevolent bells. Free it? And then what? His head felt heavy as though he’d been drinking all day as opposed to the four pints with whisky chasers he’d downed in quick succession during his lunch-hour, uncaring of the consequences.
Free me. Kill them all.
“What, all of them?” Robert asked aloud, prompting curious looks from his fellow passengers.
Robert thought for a moment. He wasn’t a monster godammit.
“Can we start with the fat guy at the back and just see how it goes?”
We were in a small freezing room, devoid of furniture apart from a gurney that looked like a relic from a haunted asylum horror flick. Undaunted, Vic had been pummelling my bruised flesh and stretching my aching bones with such a sustained ferocity that I was seriously considering asking him to knock me out.
“You’ll feel better in the morning,” was all he would say. I lay under a thin cover stark naked and feeling like my entire body had been set alight. And not in a good way.
“My mother always told me to live in the present,” I moaned.
“You never knew your mother and I’m beginning to doubt you ever even had one. Oh, by the way, what I said to the blond geezer, what’s his name? Rudy isn’t it? Brave bloke by the way. Takes guts to even think about standing up to Mike or me. Oh yeah and talking of guts, unless you want to lose them, lock your door when you turn in tonight.”
“What about all that owe you stuff Vic, are you planning to off us in an all singing all dancing show of just how grateful you are?”
“Rose, don’t you know what tonight is?”
“Go on, amaze me.” I winced as he dug his fingers deep into the meat of my shoulders.
“Just think about it.”
I did. My spirits, low enough to do an Olympic level limbo, flatlined.
“What if it doesn’t hold,” I said eventually. “The door, I mean.”
“Don’t even think about it. Now hold still.”
“What do you know about wulvers Vic?”
The pummelling paused and then:
“Enough to know you leave them the fuck alone. Here goes.”
I felt the slow trickle of something warm across my back and didn’t bother asking him what it was. A low rumbling sound filled the room until a heavy weight fell across me muffling my hearing but it didn’t matter because I could feel it, like a cat’s purr. A warm lassitude spread through my limbs as though I had been injected with something. A persistent little voice at the back of my mind was trying to remind me about something vital but I was too tired to make the effort and instead opted for the proffered oblivion. I was at the end of whatever served as my rope and if my body didn’t heal some of the damage it had suffered over the past few days it was Goodnight Vienna, whatever the hell that turned out to mean. As long as it didn’t involve Midge Ure, I was psyched.
Edinburgh’s birth and the land upon which it was built was nothing more than a volcanic plug spewed out of the belly of a bilious god; destined to become a precarious high point where people felt safe from invasion, but unfortunately were not. They built a wall, a stone girdle as though that would protect them from what was within. And when the girdle became too tight, they built up and up giving the world its first plague ridden high rises. But that of course was so Old Town darling, and the New was supposed to be the antidote to all that nasty disease and poverty. And maybe it was, but it was also sterile, without the bloated, infarcted beauty of the old where most of the supernaturals made their home.
But there was a newer, tougher breed of supernatural that had no need of such sentimental aesthetics and I was going to its lair. As I turned left into Dean Terrace past the carefully preserved des res from another era, I tried to focus on the non-existent plan which so far amounted to rooting around in the monster’s lair while it was absent hoping to find The Mask which of course would just be lying at the end of a trial of arrows along with some clues about the identity of two murderers who may or may not have known its owner twenty very odd years ago.
Finally onto Ann Street and I would have loved to have known how a flying lizard centuries old had managed to infest one of its mansions. Number 28 was next, the lights were not on but that did not mean no one was home. I walked up the short rubbish strewn, weed filled path and rang the bell which I could hear clanging around the house.
No one came. Not one to take no answer for an answer, I pushed at the door and it opened. It wasn’t really that surprising that she didn’t think to lock the door, it wasn’t as though she needed to be security conscious and if random council workers or posties went missing more plausible explanations could be found, palms greased, influence exercised. The beauty of this type of predator was that it lay in wait amongst its prey perfectly camouflaged until it was too late.
People didn’t tend to suspect their neighbours of being vicious, vampiric killing machines. Or at least not for long…
“All right back there?” shouted Rufus.
“Peachy,” I said. “Are we there yet?”
The van came to an abrupt halt and I fell across the smaller wulver causing it yip, a high distressed sound. My face was now level with the Guardian’s faithful friend and its top lip wrinkled, a low snarling sound, so basso profundo that I felt it in my chest. I hurriedly pushed myself away from it, pressing for all I was worth into the farthest corner.
“What the hell happened?” I yelled. Ruby and Rufus jumped out the van, shouting something I didn’t catch. Carefully edging towards the door handle, I slowly pulled it down and got out into the cold night. It was snowing heavily as though the city was trying to put out the flames. We were on the winding road that led to the top of Arthur’s Seat and I could see the dull sodium glow of the fires that were razing the city to the ground. Of Ruby and Rufus there was no sign.
Then I heard it: a vast roar of rage that came from further up the road just at the sharp bend in the road. I ran towards it and then down a snow covered grass embankment in time to hear Ruby scream:
“Oh my God. Oh MY GOD!”
But at first I couldn’t see what the fuss was about because a battery of Corpse-candles rose and began buzzing around my head limiting my vision to a mauve coloured blur of light that had its own weight, like a coating of scum on the top of a pond. 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. They didn’t like the wind and driving snow judging by the way they parted slightly after a particularly vicious blast straight from the North Sea.
Ruby was sobbing, a hoarse, guttural sound of defeat and despair and still I could see nothing. But it didn’t matter because by then I felt the thrum of the life force flowing through the Park, Arthur’s Seat and the Crags. The Deadlights rose up and out in that familiar silver spill which could only mean one thing: something or someone was at the point of death. I was lost momentarily in the pull of all that elemental magic, a high that no amount of alcohol or drugs could match.
Or at least I was until a body was hurled from somewhere above, landing with a bone-shattering thud not ten feet from where I stood, ruining the mood.
The body was followed by an enormous mass I couldn’t make out. It took precious seconds before I could work out that 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.
Standing for ages at the bus stop near the Minto Hotel desperate for a pee. Still no bloody bus. One had to come soon surely to God? She should have had Jerry pick her up but she’d been so involved with Joyce that she’d forgotten the time. By the time she’d spoken to Jerry, he was three beers in. She calls the taxi number again and then another. Engaged or no answer. She’ll try again in a minute. Another woman is already standing at the bus stop: small and slim with a tailored dog-tooth coat and high heels.
“I’ve only come out in the worst possible outfit haven’t I?” the woman says grinning and sounding a little pissed. “It’s okay though, my husband’s picking me up. He’ll be here any minute.”
“Would you by any chance like a lift?”
“No thanks, I my husband’s coming for me.”
Not true but there is something about this woman with the fluting, fake laugh. A white mini pulls up at the curb next to them and the woman totters to the back seat which seems strange to Michelle. The driver rolls down the window.
“Happy to give you a lift darling.”
“No, really it’s not necessary,”
“I insist,” says the man, leaning over to open the passenger door in front. “Always happy to give a lady a free ride,” he continues, winking broadly.
“No,” she says with more force than she’d meant. “My husband’s coming-”
“Don’t know why he’s not here already darling. I wouldn’t let my wife out alone at this time of night. Not with the perverts that go about nowadays.”
“I’ve told you-”
“Okay, okay,” the man laughs, raising his hands in mock surrender. “It’s your funeral, isn’t it Steph?” Giggling from the back seat is the only response. Why on earth had she got in the back?
“Tell you what though, could you do us a favour and shut the door. It’s bloody Baltic.”
There’s no harm in helping him out, is there? She approaches the car, almost slips on the ice and snow slimed pavement and reaches out to shut the door. The woman for some reason has gotten back out the car and is now behind her. Maybe she’s dropped something and is going to retrieve it. Before she can reach out for the door, she’s pushed from behind and falls against the car, hitting her head on the side of the roof. Strong arms bundle her inside and the car screeches off.
The three vampires materialised out of the gloom luminous against the night sky gravid with snow.
“We found nothing mistress,” said Morgan in her best imitation of polite. I wasn’t fooled though, being able to see into her bloody little fantasies with me as head scream queen. Of the three she was adapting the fastest to simulating humanity. Was it so wrong to improve the already considerable skills of a ravening predator?
Her prey of choice was, after all, only human.
“There’s nothing here,” said Margaret in her fluting, girlish voice. Marjorie said nothing, curling her lip to reveal sharp, white teeth.
“Where are the…brother and sister?” asked Morgan.
“I was hoping you’d be able to tell me,” I said.
Marjorie lifted a slender hand.
A milky, tainted light appeared from our left, coming from the city. But it wasn’t anything to do with the fire. A multitude of corpse-candles, will o’ the wisps, fizzed past my face and I involuntarily stepped back to avoid them. Their touch bewitched the mind into seeing what it wanted to see: loved ones long dead; treasure beyond counting; the list limited only by the imagination of the willing victim. I wasn’t ready to know the shape of my heart’s desire.
A chill wind blew my hair across a frozen face obliterating momentarily the piles of rubble and hulking machinery dotted around like a dinosaur’s graveyard. I was bone weary and sore from my assorted wounds. The playful scratch by Morgan throbbed and I suspected it was infected.
But I hadn’t been paying proper attention because the tainted light had not passed with the corpse candles. A low sepia cloud descended with the suddenness of a tsunami. It roiled in on itself briefly before covering the ground, enveloping everything in its path. I could see odd elongated shapes within it, like the distorted shadows of human beings thrown out by a fire. One shape raised a six fingered hand the fingers of which looked as though they had more joints than any mere human possessed.
The Sith were afraid. My beautiful bold carnivores were finally afraid. A thrill of satisfaction gave me the strength to go for the knives hanging at my belt. Whatever it was would have to pry these steel babies from my cold dead hands.