“Aye, Peter,” Jake says. “And keep your mobile with you at all times,” he tells the older man. “Just in case.”
In case of what?
“Will do, Master Jake,” old Peter says.
Now we’re on Canongate, walking two by two on the sidewalk. Eli and I follow Jake and Tristan at a leisurely pace. Just out of Tolbooth Wynd is Tolbooth Tavern. I may hit that on the way back. We pass several storefronts—Carson Clark Gallery, an antique map store with several cool prints framed and displayed. A whiskey shop, a few cafés, a kilt maker, a woolen shop. Part of me seriously wishes I were nothing more than a tourist, browsing stores and cramming delicious food in my mouth. Buying postcards.
Not gonna happen. Not on this trip.
The farther up we ascend the Royal Mile, the denser the sidewalk becomes with people. I get a few curious looks at the ink on my cheek, but for the most part nothing obnoxious. The steel strapped to my side bounces with each step, and I shove a hand in my coat pocket to brace the sword against my thigh. It’s already becoming easier to move with it. Amazing.
I notice everyone around me. I hear them whispering, making idle chatter inside pubs, utensils clacking against plates as they eat. Laughter. Normal stuff. We move through the night, and the streetlights fall over us. Shadows lengthen as we walk.
“Look,” Eli says, and points.
Way up on the craggy hill, as if it carved out of the rock itself, is Edinburgh Castle. It’s lit up, and glows like a beacon over the aged city. “Pretty cool,” I answer, and truly it is. Different from Julian Arcos’s castle in the Carpathians, yet the architecture is just as breathtaking.
Ahead, several police cars and an ambulance are parked outside of a row of flats. A news truck sits outside.
“The combustion,” I say to Eli. “I can smell the charred flesh from here.”
“As can I,” Eli answers. “Sure you want to go?”
I look at my fiancé and smile. “No, not really. But since I’ve hacked off several newlings’ heads, I am forcing myself not to be squeamish. I need to see it. Helps me understand what we’re up against.”
“That’s the spirit, girl,” Tristan says over his shoulder. “A true warrior.”
“I’ll clear a path,” Jake says.
And by that I know he means he’ll use his power of suggestion to make all the police and reporters look the other way as we go inside.
Sure enough, the reporter we saw on TV glances once at us, then turns and heads to his truck. The police all do the same. Jake, Tristan, Eli, and I walk straight through the apartment building and to the victim.
The scene is far from pretty. The apartment door is ajar, and the pungent scent of burnt human flesh permeates the hallway. You don’t have to have special powers to smell that. Not this close. Jake enters first, followed by Tristan, then Eli, then me.
“By Christ’s blood,” Tristan mutters. My eyes follow his to a pile of ash and bone, with two curiously unburned legs, heaped in the seat of a lazyboy chair. The TV is on. Smoke smolders from the pile of ash that used to be a human being.
“Why aren’t the legs scorched as well?” I ask, studying the horrible scene. On a side table, a photograph of a group of young kids. Probably grandchildren. And from the looks of the remaining legs, it was an older woman. Wearing little black grandma loafers.
So incredibly sad.
“I canna tell what or who is responsible for this,” Jake admits. “If it’s the Fallen, they’ve discovered a way around their rejuvenation.”
I take one last look at what used to be someone’s grandma. “Well, that just pisses me the hell off,” I say. I feel dark hatred for the Fallen. Instinct kicks in, somewhere deep inside of me, somewhere within my strigoi powers, and I graze my fingertips across the charred victim’s leg. The skin is cold, lifeless, yet immediately my mind hums with the old woman’s last moments of life. Flashes of her little apartment blink behind my eyelids. She’s sitting in her chair, her feet propped up, watching the television and eating some cookies with her tea. Her face is aged and lined, but kind. A long shadow stretches across the room and across her lap, and when she notices it, she glances around the room. The moment her eyes light on the intruder, shrouded in a black cloak, her heart quickens. The intruder moves closer, and the old woman drops her tea cup to the floor where it spills out. Her eyes are stretched wide in horror. The intruder’s face is hidden in the shadows of his hood, and I can’t see his face. But as the woman begins to cry, then choke and cough, the shadowy intruder lifts a single hand to her mouth and touches her lips with a long index finger. The old woman tries to cry out, but she’s silent. Her heart is erratic now, and pain is etched into her grandmotherly features. Then, she begins to smolder. Smoke streams from her middle. Her gaze lowers to her stomach, pain laces her eyes, and then her heart stops altogether. Smoldering smoke turns to flames. But not before the intruder sinks his hand into her chest and retrieves her heart. I shake my head, and my mind returns to the present. I glance at my companions. I’d seen enough. “Let’s go.”
As soon as I step from the apartment, my attention is caught. Again.
I hear a man shouting. Angry shouting. I sense a heavy testosterone level in the air. Violence. My eyes scan the street and sidewalk in front of me.
“There,” Eli says, inclining left.
Up ahead, the aged spires of St. Giles’ Cathedral jut into the night’s sky. A young guy is shouting and cursing just outside of the cathedral. He holds his head, turns around, kicks over a metal trash bin. Kicks over the table and chairs to an outdoor café. Two young women, walking toward him, cross the street and hurry toward us. Avoiding the out-of-control guy. They’re frightened. So are several other passersby.
Something draws me to him, and I duck behind Eli and cross the street. Three curses sound behind me, and I throw a hasty glance over my shoulder at Tristan, Jake, and Eli. I got this. Something’s not right with this kid. Keep walking. This I say to Eli and Jake. I turn away before I see if they actually listen to me, and head straight for the guy.
“What the feck are ya lookin’ at?” the young guy yells to a small walking tour passing by. They all hurry across the street from him, and he laughs.
I pass through the tour and make my way directly to him. He’s grabbing the sides of his head again, pleading, cursing, and he drops to the ground in a squat. Just as fast, he’s up again, pacing. He’s maybe twenty years old, if not younger. Hard to tell. Short-clipped brown hair, about five feet, ten inches. Solidly built.
He won’t go down without a fight.
When the guy catches sight of me, his eyes widen. “Help me,” he says. It’s barely more than a whisper.
In less than a split second, his blue eyes darken to nearly black. A slow grin stretches and distorts his attractive features into something gruesome. A face not his own. It’s freaky as hell, and I wonder if anyone else can see it but me.
“You think you can save him?” A cracked voice, not his own, emerges.
“I know I can,” I answer, and lunge, grabbing both of his hands. My skin contact against his sends tingles up my arm. My head starts to throb. In front of my eyes, a swarm beats wings of inky blackness. But I can’t tell what the swarm is. I see long, spindly wings, bones, and ripped flesh. Not birds. Not bats. I blink several times and concentrate. Hard. Through fuzzy vision, I stare into the guy’s eyes.
Then, everything spins, and warps. I’m alone, and . . . freezing rain pelts my eyes and cheeks as I run hard, fast, the muscles in my thighs burning almost as much as my lungs. I grip the leather hilt of my sword tightly, throw a quick glance behind me, see nothing, but I don’t slow up. I can hear them everywhere, all around me, a thousand whispers going off at once, and it makes my adrenaline kick into high gear. I run harder. St. Giles’ is the only place I know to go. But is St. Giles’ still St. Giles’ here? Hell if I know, but I get the feeling its not. It’s just a few blocks farther and is the closest sanctuary without taking shortcuts. Shortcuts equal shadows. Here, in this place, in the shadows? Somehow I know they reign, and they’re way too powerful and too many of them for me to take on with one blade. I’m too new at this. I’m used to fighting newlings and seasoned bloodsuckers. Not . . . whatever these things are. How did I get here? I glance around, and although I see Edinburgh, I see where I’d just been walking with Eli, Jake, and Tristan, it’s . . . different. Am I on an alternative plane? Is hallowed ground still hallowed here? I suppose I’ll find out real soon.
Brown, icy slush piles stagnate against curbs, on sidewalks, in potholes and cobbles, and I pound through a big puddle of it as I make my way up the street, toward the ancient minster. Slush? When did it snow? And where in Hell is that kid? Lamppost to lamppost I run, my boots growing heavier with each step as I stay beneath the lights. I somehow know it’s always deserted here, and on the cusp of darkness; like negatives from a film camera, it has a sepia tone and there are always shadows. I’m on Fallen terra firma. I arrived the second I touched that crazed kid on the street. I know very little about the Fallen, but I suspect they’re in control of my surroundings. Are these winged things demons? Jodís? Has to be something concocted by the Fallen because I doubt it’s the angels themselves. Jake said they don’t like to get their hands dirty, right?
That guy is in here. Has to be. An innocent soul who relies on me. That’s all that matters. And he’s here somewhere. I’m gonna find him. . . .
St. Giles’ comes into view, which is weird, since I had been standing directly beside it earlier. I run toward it as fast and hard as my legs can carry me. The moment my feet hit the church grounds, the whispers grow in numbers, so much that it begins to sound like a hive of angry bees that someone has just beaten with a stick. They’re coming after me. Fuckers. I fly up the walkway, past a stone Celtic cross with a tattered and faded purple cloth draped over it, skid up to the heavy double doors, and grab the knob. Not locked, but the door is jammed. Whispers turn to voices, mocking, almost as though they’re toying with me. “Goddamn it!” I curse, grunting, as I repeatedly slam my shoulder against the door. “Come on!” I yell, grunting. When that doesn’t work, I kick it—hard, over and over, the flat of my boot striking sharp against the wood. Finally, it gives, and I stumble inside.