I glance outside to check on our progress, and we are much closer to the city. Tall dark spires and ancient stone architecture poke through the mist, and the formidable Edinburgh Castle looms above Old Town in its gloomy, ominous splendor. I’d Googled the city to familiarize myself with it, and I admit: it’s pretty freaking cool. Even knowing evil resides here and what we face in taking that evil down doesn’t deter me from wanting to check it all out for myself. Scottish history seems interesting and this place is loaded with it. So says Jake.
Peter exits the M8, and in minutes we’re weaving through the narrow streets of Edinburgh. I stare at the old architecture, the people. It all looks so normal, like any medieval-born European city that I’ve seen in books. Everything’s made of dark, aged stone, and it’s easy to imagine horses, carts, and people from times past wandering the streets and throwing buckets of pee out of the windows. If I didn’t know evil lurked in the shadows, I’d never guess it was here.
But it is here. Dormant for now, but just below the surface. And they’re waiting for us. The Black Fallen. And after that short dream, I feel they know me. I’d better watch my ass good.
Peter takes a turn that I’m pretty sure sets the Rover on two wheels, and my hand tightens against the strap once more. From the front seat Jake chuckles. My eyes follow the cars coming toward us as we drive on the opposite side of the road, the city’s notorious black cabs littering the cobbled streets and zooming past us. My brain won’t accept it yet. It’s just weird to be on the other side of the road. Yet I have this insane desire to give it a try and take a drive myself. Maybe later. After we’ve taken care of business.
Merchant storefronts line the street, most with their own quirky, painted signs hanging above the entranceways. A bakery. Yes! My stomach growls at the thought of what lies in the display cases. And there’s a chip shop—battered, fried fish and fried potato deliciousness. A corner market swings into view. As we pass by storefront after storefront, I wonder if any of them are the place Jake mentioned: a restaurant with take-out ice cream. Vittoria’s. It’s on my list of places to find first.
Jake has informed us that Gabriel, another WUP member and an immortal Pict like Darius, will meet us and introduce us to Old and New Town Edinburgh. Gabriel is WUP’s Edinburgh contact and has been here since before the organization was even formed. He knows the streets, backward and forward. I hope I don’t get lost. Savannah is easy. It’s not a big city at all and is easily navigable via the town squares. I’m thinking this will be a little tougher. I’m ready, though. I like a challenge.
Peter turns onto a one-way cobbled drive and squeezes the Rover under a stone arch with an aged plate sign that says OLD TOLBOOTH WYND. I want to close my eyes, the Rover is so close to the sides of the archway. Instead, I glance behind us at the other WUP vehicles.
“Tight fit, aye?” Old Peter says with a cackling laugh.
I meet his twinkling gaze in the rearview mirror. “You barely squeaked by,” I answer.
Peter and Jake both chuckle. Eli shakes his head and grins at me.
Once through the arch, the cobbled path opens up to a small, ancient, bricked courtyard flanked by a weathered wrought-iron double gate, which stands open. Through the gates the path winds around a stone fountain. I check out my immediate surroundings. Behind the fountain is an old, narrow, crescent-shaped stone building, three stories high and flagged with windows. Several steps rise to the red double doors.
“This used to be a school,” Jake says, turning halfway in his seat to face me. His accent is odd. Not thick and modern, like Peter’s, but older. “Gabriel has owned it for a verra long while. Since it closed, anyway.” He turns back in his seat. “Now ’tis WUP’s active Scotland headquarters.”
Peter stops the Rover and puts it in park, and I release the door and get out. A light mist falls, and the wind cuts through the courtyard, sharp and brisk, and stings my cheeks. I don’t get cold much anymore, but this weather sinks straight to the bone. Shoving my hands deep into the pockets of my ankle-length black trench, which does at least keep my clothes dry, I study the fountain as I pass. It strikes me. I can’t help but stop and stare. In the center is a derelict angel, wings hanging limply behind him, his hands raised and cupped over his mouth as if shouting something at the top of his lungs. Water spurts from his hands and washes over him into the fountain’s pond. For some reason the statue chills me. Overhead, ravens screech, and as I glance up a swarm of black moves from one side of the crescent to the other as the birds fly in a flock. I notice the only sound I hear besides the water falling over the angel are the ravens’ wings beating against the wind. They sound like harsh whispers. Freaky weird.
Then I sense it. My eyes dart all around me. Searching. Seeking.
“You can feel it, aye?” Jake asks close to me.
I meet his alarming green eyes. “Evil,” I say. It’s so heavy. It feels like a wet, hot blanket draped over my body. While the city doesn’t look it, there’s definitely a feeling of it in the air.
“Pure evil, through and through,” he says.
Our gazes lock, and there’s an immediate understanding between us.
“Lucky for us, though,” he says, “we’re in the window.”
The sound of car doors slamming silences my next question (What window?) and draws my attention back to my immediate surroundings. I turn to watch the other WUP members climb out of their vehicles. Darius is closest, and he walks toward me with long, purposeful strides. He’s tall and muscular, with dark auburn hair pulled back at the nape of his neck. Beneath the dark shades lies a pair of disturbing, ancient amber eyes. He stops a foot away. “Riley,” he says, giving me a slight nod. “Ready to begin?”
There’s an air surrounding Darius that reeks of, I don’t know. . . . mystical madness. “I hope I can help.”
A smile splits his face, revealing a dimple in his right cheek and straight white teeth. An amazing transformation, that smile. Truly handsome. Breathtakingly so. “You will.”
Eli is suddenly beside me. I’m pretty tall for a woman, but Eli towers over me. He’s just a big guy. He doesn’t touch me. He simply stands. Protectively. Something we’re still working on, I can assure you. Eli has been a little overprotective in the past, and for some of it, I’m eternally grateful. But he knows I like to handle myself. “Darius,” Eli acknowledges. I resist jabbing my elbow into his gut.
Darius nods. “Dupré.”
Just then the double-hung, red-painted doors in the center of the Crescent swing open, and out steps Gabriel, along with Sydney Maspeth. Sydney starts down the steps first, making her way toward me. “Riley. Eli,” she says, smiling, and grabs my hands. “So glad you came. I was worried you’d change your mind.”
“Not a chance,” I answer. Sydney is shorter than me, petite, blond, and tough as nails. Yet she moves with a particular grace that gives away her once-genteel lifestyle. In another life, she was a grade school teacher from the Carolinas. Then Sydney shed her Steel Magnolias persona and now she fights monsters. Other than her sick ability to read a dead language, she has no outstanding gifts of strength. But she’s been trained by Gabriel and can fight like a banshee. She’s still graceful as ever. And she’s immortal. I guess that has pluses and minuses. Even dressed in black cargo pants, boots, and a heavy black turtleneck sweater, with her hair pulled into a ready-for-ass-kicking ponytail, Sydney moves as though she’s floating, feet barely touching the ground. Even her hand motions are elegant. She might as well have on a tutu.
“I see you survived Peter’s driving,” Sydney remarks.
“Barely,” I answer. “He’s worse than, well, me.”
Sydney laughs, and Gabriel is there beside her. “Ms. Poe,” he nods, then meets Eli’s gaze. “Dupré.” He extends a hand.
Eli takes it firmly and shakes. “Gabriel.”
Gabriel, like Darius, has no family name. He is Eli’s height and just as solid. He has long, straight black hair that he keeps pulled behind his neck in a silver clip. His eyes are a weird mercury color that can stop you in your tracks. I’m not kidding—literally freeze you where you stand. His face is cut and strong. Basically, he’s pretty damn sexy.
His stare is almost as profound as Eli’s.
I’m punched in the arm. Without even turning around I know it’s Noah.
He leans down to me. “Can you feel it?” he asks. Noah has sunkissed brown dreads, and pulls them back in a thick, untamed tail. Crazy silver eyes—much like Gabriel’s—stare down at me.
“Hell, yeah, I can feel it,” I answer, and I know he’s referring to the same ominous evil blanketing the city that I had detected earlier.
“Let’s all go inside,” Jake says, nodding toward the red doors. “We can get better acquainted with each other,” he says, his eyes aimed directly on me, “and with what’s out there.” With a quick glance to the sky, he jogs up the steps. I wonder what he’s thinking. With Jake, you never know.
We all give one another an inquisitive look, then grab our bags from the trunks and move toward the Crescent building that will, for now, be our new home base. WUP headquarters.
The silver blades in my duffel bag, along with the very special potions concocted by Preacher and Estelle, my surrogate root doctor grandparents, rest as heavily on my shoulder as the solid weight of death I feel hanging in the air around me.
* * *
Inside the Crescent it’s old, dark, and chilly despite the fire snapping in the fireplace. The air smells of charred wood and musty earth. Dim yellow light spills from several tarnished sconces embedded in the stone walls. They cast a hazy luminescence onto the wood-plank floors, and I notice my shadow stretches peculiarly when I move. Like my arms and legs are twice as long and my head distorted. Weird.
The foyer is empty. A row of old iron hooks, no higher than hip level, lines one wall of the entryway. Coat hooks, probably for the children who once went to school here. I don’t know. Something kinda creepy about that.