Blood. Holy Christ, there’s so much of it. Everywhere. Bodies. Human bodies. Crumpled, laying in distorted ways, jagged bones jutting through ripped clothes as they lay lifeless on the cobbled stones. Against the buildings. So many. My stomach rolls, and I look away. I breathe, carefully picking my way through. It’s cold. Windy. Now the streets are barren. Where did the blood, the bodies go? I’m not here alone. I feel a presence.
It’s behind me. Hugging the shadows. So fast, I can’t tell if it’s running, flying, or scaling the walls.
Doesn’t really matter. Either way, I’m being stalked.
And it’s one of the Black Fallen.
Hurrying along the sidewalk, I slip into a narrow alley and press my back against the aged stones. A dim streetlamp overhangs the eve above, and the shadows reach long and jagged toward me. I listen closely. The air suddenly shifts, and in the next second I leap over the alley to the opposite wall. I climb, and in seconds I’m on the roof. I crouch, my fingers curled around the ledge, peering into the pitch darkness below. Waiting.
I know he’s coming for me.
I want him to.
Leaning back on my heels, I find the hilt of my silver blade that’s tucked into the back of my jeans, and palm it tightly. My eyes search the alley, the street and shadows below. Then I lift my gaze to study the jagged rooftops. It’s here. Hiding. Lurking. Adrenaline rushes through me, and I draw a deep breath—
I’m on my back, rolling away, then I lurch up and crouch several feet from the ledge.
No one is there. My blade is drawn, my body rigid. Ready.
“You’re fast,” a voice whispers behind me.
I whip around, and slash my blade.
A figure jerks back, then a laughs darkly. “Almost too fast. But not quite.”
Suddenly, he’s in front of me, and strong fingers grasp my throat. I’m lifted off my feet as he walks toward the ledge. I try to slash at him with the blade, kick, throw my legs around him, but I’m paralyzed. I can’t even scream. The shadows fall onto his face, blurring his features together. I can do nothing more than stare.
“You’re powerless, my young mixed-blood,” he says. His voice is deep, his accent . . . old. “You can do nothing to stop me.” He swings me out and shakes me over the ledge. Nothing but air separates me from the stone cobbles thirty feet below. He’s using some kind of mind-power shit on me and it’s pissing me off. My gaze never leaves the vicinity of his.
“Oh. Strong-willed, are you?” he says. I can hear laughter in his voice, shaking me again. He’s only toying with me, amused. “Strength will get you nowhere with me,” he warns, and gives me anther shake. “See how you’re nothing but a weak mortal now? All those powers you’ve acquired? Gone. You’d be better off to join us.” He cocks his head. “Would you?”
I try to answer, but my throat is squeezed shut.
He laughs. “Oh. Forgive me,” he says, and loosens his grip on me. “Now, what was that?”
“Go fuck yourself,” I say in a hoarse whisper.
Instantly, my throat is released, and I’m falling fast, the cobbles reaching up to me, and his laughter resonating off the stone walls, and the broken bodies along the cobbles begin screaming my name—
“What?” I jerk up, my eyes fluttering open.
“You were sleeping,” a raspy, familiar voice says. “Are you all right?”
I turn my head and look. It’s Eli. Relief washes over me. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
Eli’s blue eyes narrow. Nail me to my seat. “Liar.”
I smile. “Just a dream, big guy. No big deal. Honest.”
Eli’s mouth tips at the corner. “You don’t have normal dreams, Ri.”
He’s right. I sure as hell don’t. “I just dreamed a Black Fallen kicked my ass.”
Eli sighs and closes his eyes. Frustration rolls off him in waves. “Riley,” he begins, and looks at me.
“I know, I know,” I finish. “Cross my heart, I will let you know if anything weird happens.”
His cerulean stare is disbelieving. I really don’t blame him, either.
“We’re almost there. Fifteen minutes, tops.”
I lean forward a little and glance past Eli at Jake Andorra. My new boss.
He grins. “I promise.”
The Rover pitches forward and my hand involuntarily tightens around the leather strap suspended above the door that I’ve had a death grip on ever since the vehicle left the parking lot at the airport. Our driver, Peter, is an old guy with a shock of gray hair covered by a tweed cap. Peter is clearly insane and lacks an updated driver’s license. Maybe he’s never even had one. Peter hits the gas and passes a slower driver. We all lunge forward. My stomach turns.
“Och. Sorry ’bout that,” says Peter nonchalantly in heavy Scottish brogue.
“Ignore him,” Eli says, and leans close. His lips graze my ear, and I’m not at all surprised at the shiver it causes within me. “He likes to get you riled up.”
I glare at Jake, who shrugs. “It’s true,” he admits.
I turn away and ignore him. Eli’s right. Jake is one cocky ass. Hot as mess, but an ass all the same.
“Thank you,” Jake says.
I shoot him another glare. Mind readers suck. And I’m surrounded by them—including my immortal druid boss and the gorgeous vampire sitting next to me.
Staring out of the window, I can see my ghostly reflection in the glass. I finger my long bangs. Gone are the magenta highlights I’ve worn in my hair forever. My varying layers now hang straight in solid sheets of jet-black. Jake had advised me to draw less attention to myself. That almost makes me laugh out loud, even now. As if the inky angel wings tattooed at the corner of my left eye and the massive dragon etched into my back and down both of my arms aren’t enough of an attention grabber. I had agreed, though, to axe the highlights for now. Besides, they were work to keep up with. And they seemed to fit my lifestyle back in Savannah as master tattoo artist and proprietor of Inksomnia. Back when life was easy and uncomplicated. Greasy Krystal hamburgers and hot, melting Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Chick-O-Sticks and RC Cola. Boiled peanuts. Crabs and oysters.
Nothing will ever be that easy again.
Jake Andorra recruited me to join an elite task force known as WUP, or Worldwide Unexplained Phenomenon, a few months ago. Up until then I’d been a slayer of all things otherworldly and dangerous—until I became both of those things myself. Now everything has changed.
I study the Edinburgh skyline as it emerges through a hazy gray mist. The heavy, salty scent of the ocean—a smell that I’m very familiar with—seeps in through the cracks of the car and infiltrates my nostrils as it rolls in from the North Sea. A small slice of familiarity to keep me from missing home, from missing my little brother, Seth, or my surrogate grandparents, Estelle and Preacher. Or my best friend, Nyx. But this is my first task for WUP, and I have to give it my very best.
We’re in a steady stream of traffic as our convoy of four vehicles moves along the M8 toward Edinburgh. We’d landed in Glasgow and met up with a man named Darius, who now trails behind our Rover of Death, piloted by Peter the Insane, in another vehicle. Although Darius helped save my life once before, I don’t know him well.. He’s an ancient immortal Pict warrior, and I mean ancient as in from the days of Merlin kind of ancient. From what Jake tells me, Darius is a powerhouse of strength. Mind and body. But that’s all I know. Behind Darius are two other elite WUP crew members: Ginger Slater and Lucian MacLeod. The only werewolves I’ve ever met. Like Darius, I still have more to learn about them.
In the final car are two people—or vampires, if you want to be exact—from home who were also recruited to the Scotland task force. One, Noah Miles. Eli’s best friend and head guardian of Charleston, South Carolina. A total bad-boy vamp who pushes every single limit thrown his way. Easygoing and full of southern charm, it’s almost like watching a magic show when he morphs into full-fledged fighting vampire. It’s a thing of beauty. To me, anyway. And he’s saved my ass more times than I can count.
And then there’s Victorian Arcos. Our history is so complicated it could fill a book. Even as I think about the strigoi vampire who bit me—whose DNA flows through my veins—I have to look away from Eli. A scrutinizing look from him, and I can tell he knows where my thoughts are.
I blow against the window and the glass fogs from my surprisingly still-warm breath. Outside, the air is chilly, everything a stony gray. Because I have the ability to hear things acutely miles and miles away, I have to work extra hard to tune everything out and concentrate on just my thoughts. Of who and what I am. Of what’s become of me.
I was bitten by not one vampire, but four in total. Three of those bites came from deadly, powerful strigoi vampires. One came from Eli, simply because he wanted some normal vampire venom flowing through my body. Three were courtesy of the Arcos’, including the one who now rides with us through the streets of Edinburgh. It makes things tense between all of us, and it makes me . . . special. I carry a little of each of their extraordinary traits. I’m not quite strigoi, yet there’s very little of the human left in me now. But after that dream I just had, who the hell knows how much help I can be here. What if the Fallen have the power to strip me of all my strigoi abilities? I can’t even think that way now. I have to concentrate. Fight. Stay alive.
Eli’s fingers lace through mine and he squeezes my hand. He knows me so well; he’s trying to distract me from thoughts that he knows disturb me.
Eligius Dupré. Deadly predator. Violent vampire. Fiercely loyal. And now he’s my fiancé. My sensitive, hot, kick-ass vampire fiancé. We’ve been through a lot together. He saved not only my life, but my brother’s as well. I owe him everything, and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him. I’m almost a completely respectable woman now. Who would’ve ever thought that I, Riley Poe, ex-gang member, troublemaking punk kid could have a degree in art, own her own ink shop. and be engaged? How’s that for crazy? We haven’t set a date yet, but I’m pretty sure we won’t even have time to think about that until matters are finished here in Scotland.
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 in the city 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 on two wheels, 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 one wheel, 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 WUPs 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 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 step 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 Steele 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.
“You may settle your belongings wherever you wish on the second floor,” Gabriel says, his eyes sweeping over all of us. “There are several chambers to choose from. The third floor is primarily for training. We’ll meet in the library for briefing in fifteen minutes,” he says, then nods at Jake. “Andorra?”
They both exit the room.
Sydney steps forward. Her long blond ponytail brushes the middle of her back, and her dark clothes nearly merge with the shadows. “All right, guys. This way,” she says, taking the lead up the wide wooden steps.
Eli’s hand rests on my lower back as we follow Sydney. His big body, although not fiercely warm, is comforting against mine. Noah, Darius, Victorian, Ginger, and Lucian follow behind us. The wood creaks and groans beneath our feet as we climb to the second floor. Sydney stops just a few feet past the landing. “These apartments were for the teachers of the Crescent School for Unruly Children,” she says, wiggling her arched blond brows. “Two shared bathrooms: one for boys; one for girls,” she says, pointing to the middle of the long corridor. “And a large linen closet at the end.” She points in that direction, too. “Okay, I’ll leave you to it. Meet you in the library in fifteen.” Sydney disappears down the steps and recedes into the darkness.
“You two,” Noah says, looking at me and Eli. “For the sake of all of us, take the room at the very end.”
I grin and shoulder my way past him. “No arguments there.” Noah shakes his head as I pass.
With Eli’s hand still at my back, we walk the long hallway to the last apartment. The corridor is dark, like the rest of the Crescent, and a long strip of faded green carpet stretches straight down the middle. The walls are of stained wood, so dark they appear black. Several old photographs in oval frames grace the wall in a straight line. Stone-faced women, their hair pulled back severely in tight buns, and men just as stony stare back. No smiles. All business. I swear, it looks like they’re straight out of a horror movie.
Ginger and Lucian take the first apartment at the opposite end of the corridor from us. Vic is across the hall from them, Noah is one door down. Darius is next to us.
I drop my duffel on the floor and take quick stock of our room. It’s—surprise, surprise—dark. I move through the low light filtering in through the window to flip on a lamp perched on an old desk in the corner. The room is cast in a muted blond haze and illuminates a fireplace; a queen-sized bed, complete with heavy green curtains; a nightstand on either side of the bed, each with a lamp; and a tall armoire in the corner. A wooden chest is situated at the foot of the bed. I walk to the window and look out. It’s gray and bleak, and my attention is drawn to the distraught angel in the center of the fountain. I stare at his face, chiseled in stone and chipped with age. His eyes are squeezed tightly shut as he cups his hands to his mouth.
Suddenly his features blur, becoming distorted, and I blink. When my eyes focus on his face, he’s staring directly at me. A shot of adrenaline ripples through me.
“Ready?” Eli says, his lips brushing my neck.
I blink again, and the angel’s face returns to its original stony state.
What the hell?
“Ri?” Eli says, then turns me around and stares down at me. “What’s wrong?” Instant concerns flares in his cerulean eyes. The muscles in his jaw flinch. Like I said, he can be overprotective.
I smile. “Nothing. Just getting used to this creepy place I guess.” Not a lie. “Let’s go before Jake gets his knickers in a wad.”
Eli stares a few seconds more, weighing what I say and determining if he believes me or not. He probably doesn’t, and with good reason. I’m not sure I believe myself at this point. “All right, Poe. Let’s go.”
A familiar feeling fills my insides as we leave the room and step back into the shadows of the corridor. It’s a feeling that’s becoming too much a part of my everyday life. I guess I have to just get used to it.