When Nergal, the hero and lord, heard this prayer,
He broke open the chamber of the grave and opened the ground;
and caused the spirit [utukku] of Enkidu to rise out of the ground, like a wind.
~The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet VII, translated by William Muss-Arnolt
The scent of baking cakes and hot, fresh coffee linger for a moment then are swept away by a gust of chilly air as the door of the shop swings closed behind James. “You were right,” he tells Robbie, who’d asked if James wanted his overcoat when he pulled his beat-up old anorak out of the car. “I should have grabbed my coat.”
Robbie grunts in agreement as he tugs his collar tighter around his throat. James flips the collar of his jacket up as he glances skyward. The evening sky is gorgeous, blue fading towards the grey of dusk with orange hints of the sunset to come. He blinks as he pulls his sunglasses from his pocket and seats them on his nose.
Robbie gives him a sideways glance. “Don’t think you’ll need those. We’re running late.”
“I’m trying to look cool.” James stuffs his hands in his pockets and lifts his chin to a haughty angle as he turns towards the side street where they parked the car.
Robbie grins and bumps James’s elbow, knocking his hand out of his pocket, as he falls into step with him. “Let me know when it starts working.”
James gives him a disdainful glare, which, of course, Robbie can’t really see because of the extra-thick, extra-dark lenses covering James’s eyes. He gives up his pose, pulls his other hand free of his pocket, and grins. “You’ll never make it back to your flat before dark. You’ll have to stay at mine tonight.”
He ignores the quick zipping beat of his pulse at the idea of falling asleep with the warm, comfortable, comforting scent of Robbie filling his flat. To waking in the night to hear Robbie’s breathing. To the anticipation of waking early so he can watch Robbie wake, rumpled and sleepy-eyed and yawning.
“Another night on that bed of nettles you call a couch?” Robbie complains. “I’d rather face a kelpie in a dead-end alley.”
James sighs. So much for falling asleep to the music of Robbie’s soft snoring.
“I’ll take the couch of nettles. You can have the bed.” James covers his disappointment with an exaggerated sigh. There’s no point in protesting that, even with the rough weave of the upholstery, the couch is really more comfortable than the bed. And no way to say what he really feels…that the true joy of Robbie sleeping on his couch is falling asleep on the other end of the couch with Robbie only an arm’s length away. “And what would a kelpie be doing in an alley, anyway?”
But Robbie doesn’t come back with a snarky reply. The brisk clip of his shoes on pavement slows to a bare tap and then stops completely as he pauses on the kerb and stares up the street they’re about to cross.
James walks backwards a couple of steps and follows the line of Robbie’s gaze. He breaths in slowly, cataloguing cooling tarmac and clean, cold air and the way the warm, soothing, familiar scent of Robbie is sharpening as he surveys their surroundings. “You see something?” he asks, voice low.
Robbie shakes his head. But he doesn’t take his gaze from the street. “I can’t see anything. But there’s something…” He steps off the kerb.
James moves with him.
All the shops have closed for the day, except for the one they’ve just exited and even it won’t be open much longer. James can’t see anything to cause alarm. Just an empty street, buildings with windows shuttered and doors barred, and pale grey shadows beginning to reach out to colour the tarmac a darker black. But he trusts Robbie’s savant-like instincts. There’s no one better at knowing when there’s something not quite right, where there’s some creature lurking in the shadows or around the next corner.
James nudges him with an elbow. “Let’s go back inside, then. Call it in. Have another cup of coffee.”
Robbie snorts and mutters, “SNB,” under his breath as he starts off down the street.
James reaches out to stop him but catches only the bare edge of Robbie’s sleeve before he’s gone, halfway down the block, stalking along in the shadows close to the nearest building. “Robbie!” he hisses. And then, because his partner is already almost two buildings away, blending into the deepening shadows, James follows.
He catches at Robbie’s sleeve again and this time, he snags it and brings him to a halt. “Do I have to remind you,” he whispers, “that it’s almost dark? And that Innocent said if we went off on any more wild supe chases instead of alerting SNB, she’d put raw meat in our pockets and have us staked us out in Wytham Woods during the next full moon?”
Robbie grunts as he continues on, drawing James with him by the grip on his jacket. “Supernatural Bureau,” he huffs with disdain. “Might as well send in me old granddad.”
“I thought both your grandfathers were dead.”
“Exactly.” Robbie stops and checks the rooftops across from them. “And it would take a baker’s dozen of werewolves armed with crossbows to get me back to Wytham.”
“When we were working that case near Blenheim, you said you like ‘communing with nature’.”
“Not in Wytham,” Robbie says darkly, but when James makes a quizzical sound, encouraging him to continue, he just shakes his head and moves on. Robbie turns at the next corner and comes to a halt so abrupt that James runs into him.
Robbie doesn’t even notice. He just points to an amorphous shadowy storefront halfway down the street. The windows and door and the façade winks and shivers and twitches, jerking like an old film in a projector, fluctuating between the soft, solid yellow of Oxford stone and an eerie, transparent, sickly yellow haze. Oddly, a light—too strong to be a lamp—glows through the nebulous windows as if the sun is shining from inside the store.
Still… “It’s just a ghost building,” James complains. “There were two back over near where we parked the car.” He’s a bit disappointed, even if it does mean they won’t be the objects of Innocent’s ire so soon again. Usually, Robbie’s supernatural hunches are more exciting than this. The last one—the one that made Innocent threaten to make them werewolf bait—had been a bunyip that was living in the Thames near The Trout in Wolvercote. She hadn’t minded that they’d caught the creature that was snacking on unsuspecting tourists and lone joggers, but she’d been furious that they’d tracked it themselves instead of reporting their discovery to the SNB.
A ghost building though…that doesn’t even warrant a write-up. Certainly not a call-in. By the time SNB arrived, it would probably be back to normal anyway. Even if it wasn’t, it’s no danger, especially not to him. Not really to anyone if they’re wise enough to steer clear. They’re so common this time of year, near Halloween, that most people don’t even pay any attention to them. Unless they own the building. Or one happens to pop up on the site of a favourite pub or coffee shop. Even the college kids don’t bother with them anymore. He can’t remember the last time the SNB had to go in and pull out some stupid first year who’d gone into a ghost building on a dare.
“There’s something more,” Robbie says quietly. And once again, he steps off the kerb and leaves James standing alone.
Cold, more bitter than the temperature and sharper, starts at James’s shoulders and shivers down his back as if someone has dragged sharp claws down his spine. The hair on his arms and nape stand up. His testicles tingle and draw up, and the dread that settles into his stomach is like a whirring storm of double-edged knives, one edge sharp and cutting, the other dull and bruising.
There’s not a vatic bone in James’s body. He has neither Robbie’s instinct nor Peterson’s prescience. But he knows better than to ignore this feeling. “Robbie, don’t!” His voice isn’t quiet or careful this time. It’s loud and echoing in the silent street, and it seems to be sucked into the flickering ghostly stone.
Robbie glances back as James jogs to catch up. “I’m not going in,” he says mildly. “Give me some credit.” He stops in the street in front of the ghost building, not even venturing up onto the kerb.
But still, the warning of invisible claws dig at James’s flesh. The knives spin and rattle ominously in his gut as he peers through the window.
Around its edges, the building flutters and shifts in and out of being, swirling like icy fog, twitching like the screen of a telly gone mad. But inside, all is in sharp focus. The colours are shadowed, but strong. But there’s no high-powered lamp, no misplaced sun…just a high window, edges ragged with broken glass and concrete, that shouldn’t be there. It looks like a gaping, teeth-lined maw, spewing sunlight from its throat to illuminate the centre of the large room. Except…the store shares a wall with the store beside it, so how can sunlight be beaming in through a jagged hole?
James edges closer and pushes his sunglasses up. He blinks against the bright light and narrows his eyes. Inside, the space is a crushed and crumpled ruin. The floor is littered with chipped and crushed fragments of brick, some covered with a dark green moss. One concrete wall is ragged, as if someone has taken a sledgehammer and made broken, jagged art all along it. Faded and peeling rectangles of green paint cling desperately to the blocks, breaking up the areas of faded and peeling white paint.
But the room, for all that it looks more like a ruined warehouse than a shop, isn’t the oddest thing. It isn’t what has Robbie’s rapt attention.
There’s a woman standing motionless, with her back to them, in the middle of bright beam of odd light. Her shoulders are slumped as if she’s sad or tired. She’s wearing an old-fashioned white dress with ruffled lace. The strings of a bow trail down, lost in the folds of the full skirt, echoing the strands of long blond hair straggling down her back.
The whole scene is moody and striking. And wrong. There’s something more there than a woman in a ghost building, surrounded by shadows and broken bricks and cold concrete with peeling paint. Something more sinister than just a sharp focus, brightly lit scene which should be hazy. Something more threatening than sunlight where sunlight can’t possibly be.
Robbie stirs restlessly beside him, and James knows that he’s about to call out to the woman. Robbie’s instincts fail him where they come up against his gallantry. Another second, and he’ll be striding without hesitation into a ghost building, asking some strange fae creature if she’s all right, if she needs help. Offering his hand to help her over the broken chunks of brick.
But that’s what’s wrong. And James knows it without knowing how he knows it. The woman is radiant, so white and bright she’s almost blinding. Yet…there’s a blackness hovering around her. He can’t see it. He can’t smell it. But he can feel it—a towering, pulsing, invisible malignance. Her posture, which should seem dispirited, instead feels ominous and threatening. As if she’s going to turn around and reveal, not sweet, sad features, but a terrible ruined face with mad eyes spewing false sunlight and teeth like the jagged window…
That’s when he realizes… She doesn’t look like what she is. But he knows what she is.
He claps his hand on Robbie’s shoulder, and his fingers dig in so tightly that Robbie grunts with pain. But James doesn’t let go. “Run,” he says. “Run.” His grip slips down to Robbie’s bicep and he tugs hard enough to make Robbie stumble sideways.
Robbie resists, trying to turn back to the hazy store, to the bright white figure. “What? James…”
From the corner of his eyes, James sees the figure flicker. It begins to turn slowly, like a monstrous, plastic ballerina in a child’s jewellery box. As it twirls towards them in slow motion, it loses its saturated colour. The light beaming down on it stutters, and its shadow deepens to pitch black. Its pale skin turns grey and an evil green drips from its claws onto the folds of white cotton dress. Its long blond hair writhes and knots as the colour leaches from the strands.
“What the bloody hell—” Robbie’s feet seem glued to the pavement.
James yanks him so hard Robbie turns half way round. James yanks him back to the right direction and shoves him. “Robbie, run! Now!”
James glances back once more, and the room taken on the indistinct haze of the storefront. But the creature, now as grey as a ghost, is harshly delineated. It’s first steps are slow, as if it’s finding its balance.
“What is that?” Robbie resists his prodding, more curious than afraid.
“Utukku.” James tugs at him with more force.
“A demon?” Robbie rasps, his voice unsteady as if he’s just beginning to sense what James already knows.
“A demon vampire.”
Robbie’s at least shocked enough that his feet are moving in the direction James wants them to go. But he’s still trying to peer back as James leads him around the corner. “What does it want?”
“You! It wants you! Would you just fucking run!”
A shriek, as if the ground is ripping, setting loose a screaming wind, rips at James. It’s almost more vibration than sound. A scraping at his bones.
Finally, the fear and certainty in his voice gets through. The black sound, shot through with red fury, gets through. Robbie runs. They run. Slower than James wants to go, faster than Robbie is capable. Shoulders bumping, soles slapping the tarmac with a sound like hands clapping.
James glances back. The grey figure is just rounding the corner. It’s moving faster now, with a slinking, silent grace and merciless purpose.
Robbie tries to turn towards the car, but James grabs his arm again, leads him in the opposite direction. “Up,” he gasps. “We have to go up! Sunlight…”
What little is left of the day will be stronger on a rooftop. It may give them enough light, enough time, to evade the creature. He leads up one street and down another, slowing as they pass breaks between the storefronts, blind alleys full of shadows. Aware that every gasping breath is a second of daylight they’re losing.
Finally, he sees the glint of aluminium midway down an alley. “There!” he gasps. He yanks Robbie into a quick, sliding turn. Cold water splashes his trousers as he dashes through puddles instead of going around.
“Bloody hell,” Robbie chokes out as they skid to a stop at the foot of a rooftop access ladder.
“Go.” James motions. “Fast.”
Robbie’s bent over, hands on knees, spine bowed as he wheezes, trying to regain his breath. He shakes his head and motions for James to go first. “Need…minute,” he manages.
“Now, Robbie. Move,” James orders as he starts up. The metal is cold and slick against his palms. His feet strike the rungs with a metallic clang that seems as loud as the bells of Oxford. He feels the vibration as Robbie starts up behind him.
He glances back, and the utukku is at the mouth of the alley. It’s a silent void in the deepening shadows, and the sight of it rakes at him the way its shriek did. He climbs faster, skipping whole rungs with the reach of his long legs. He’s up and over, onto the solidity of the roof, when he hears Robbie gasp.
He wheels, leaning down to grab for Robbie before he can even see him. Robbie’s almost at the top of the ladder, inches from the safety of sunlight. The sky beyond him is a glory, pinks and reds and oranges streaking across the horizon as if the air is burning softly. But below him, still in shadow, skimming up the ladder, the utukku has reached up and wrapped one lean, scabrous hand around Robbie’s ankle.
James’s fingers find Robbie’s just as they’re torn off the last rung. Robbie’s head snaps back and his shoulders drop as he’s wrenched from below. His body arches back, spine twisting as he scrabbles for James’s hand. As he falls.
James falls, too, dropping to his knees on the rough surface of the roof. The narrow stone ledge around the roof slams into his ribs. What little breath he’s managed to recover gusts out of his lungs.
He just barely manages to wrap his fingers around Robbie’s wrist before it slips out of reach. James’s wrist and elbow scream as Robbie’s weight yanks at them. James grabs Robbie’s arm with both hands and throws himself backwards, scrabbling, dragging Robbie upward, away from the demon. It feels like his shoulders are being wrenched from their sockets, but he manages to pull Robbie to the side of the ladder and high enough to get one of his arms hooked over the ragged edge of the stone roof. The skin on Robbie’s wrist tears under James’s fingernails as he claws Robbie’s other arm up.
Robbie kicks, feet dangling in midair, but he can’t dislodge the creature. He clings to the ledge with his elbows and his fingers. James can hear his nails scraping at the stone. James grabs handfuls of the back of Robbie’s anorak and tries to tug him higher, but the cloth is loose and slick. He slams his hands into Robbie’s back and digs in for purchase.
And then the thing yanks at Robbie again. His body, his head, jerk back and sideways. He clings with just elbows and lower arms on the ledge, knuckles so cramped they’re bloodless, face twisted with fear and exertion.
For a ridiculous moment, the way Robbie’s hanging there reminds James of the Lord of the Rings. Of the scene in the film where Gandalf is clinging to the bridge as the Balrog wraps its fiery whip around his ankles. For a ridiculous moment, James half expects Robbie to rasp, “Fly, you fool!”
Crazed laughter threatens to wriggle out of him. It comes out a sob of fear and desperation. He lunges further out over Robbie and hooks his fingers into Robbie’s armpits.
He can see the utukku clearly as it twists, gurgling deep in its throat, reaching across the yawning space between Robbie and the ladder, trying to tighten its grip. To drag Robbie back. It’s solid and grey, wearing a cloud of stained, dirty linen like a ragged shroud. It’s a thing out of a horror film, all teeth and eyes. Eyes made all the more horrible because they’re as stunning and blue as Robbie’s.
As James strains, trying to pull Robbie away, the demon lets go of the ladder and swings free, its arms wrapping more tightly around Robbie’s calves. Robbie cries out in fear and pain. The thing swings back and forth like a ghastly pendulum as Robbie thrashes to break free.
The weight and movement of the wild drop threaten to tear Robbie from James’s arms, but he hangs on. He heaves backwards, but he can’t lift Robbie and the creature; their combined weight is too great. And he can’t pull Robbie free; the thing’s grip is too solid.
As James struggles, the utukku moves up, painfully, slowly, one hand grasping, the other clinging. Up to Robbie’s knee. Bony fingers sliding up his thigh. And where its claws touch, the wool of Robbie’s trousers sizzles and smokes as if acid is being smeared on him. It opens its mouth, and its teeth scrape across the thick wool trousers covering Robbie’s calf.
Robbie gasps. He freezes. His wild flailing transforms into abrupt stillness. He looks up at James, his eyes wide and round with horror. But instead of Gandalf’s growling ‘Fly’, Robbie says, “Let go.” It’s so quiet it’s almost conversational. As if they’re spending a lazy Saturday afternoon at a pub, sitting at water’s edge, pints on the table in front of them, instead of barely clinging to a rooftop ledge.
Robbie’s voice is so calm. So steady it’s almost more horrifying than the gurgling hiss of the utukku’s breath. “Let go, James.”
James shakes his head, not even able to process how he could possibly do such a thing. His mind won’t even look at it. Won’t contemplate the muscle movement that would be required to unlatch his fingers from around Robbie’s arms.
“The sun is setting. You can’t save us both,” Robbie says, still so quiet. Not even another jerk of his head, not a hitch in his breath, as the thing grips onto his thigh. “Let go. Save yourself.”
“No.” It’s part moan, part fury. James knows what he has to do. But his mind doesn’t want to look at that any more than it wants to look at letting go. But either way is letting go. Either way is terrifying.
The thing hooks a claw into Robbie’s waistband, and pain flashes across his face as acid burns through his shirt and onto his skin.
James pulls back. Shifts back on the ledge. His shirt rucks up and his bare belly scrapes across cold stone and grit. Beyond Robbie’s head, the last sliver of the sun slips below the horizon. The glorious colours of the sky pale, luminance fading to dusky grey.
He has no choice. He leans down, his mouth so close to Robbie’s face that he can feel the heat of Robbie’s fear on his lips. “I can save you,” he whispers. Then, voice cracking, “I’m so sorry. Forgive me.”
And he brushes his lips close to Robbie’s. Allows him to feel the icy chill, mouth as cold as the grave. Allows him see.
Shock flushes across Robbie’s face. Understanding darkens his eyes.
James can see himself reflected in Robbie’s expression, in the mirror of his pupils. He wants to look away, but he forces himself to lock his gaze on Robbie’s blue eyes. He steels himself for the revulsion he’ll see. The rejection. The anger and pain. Shame flushes his throat and face with heat.
Time seems to stand still as James’s skin fades to grey. Not dead grey like the creature’s…a living, vital grey. His hair loses its gold, becomes course twists of pale frosted shadow, sticking up like punkish spikes. He can’t see his own eyes reflected in Robbie’s, but he knows the bluegreen of his pupils is limned in silver, glowing and sparkling like moonlight on ice.
“No.” Robbie almost moans it. “How…?”
Robbie’s muscles go slack as if all the fight has leeched out of him. Sharp knuckles covered in dust-coloured, flaking flesh, brush against Robbie’s shoulder, but he doesn’t even flinch. “No. Not you…” He whispers it.
“Not all utukku are evil,” James says softly.
James tightens his grip around Robbie’s shoulders and leans his forehead against Robbie’s.
Robbie shivers from the touch of his cold flesh and winces as if he’s going to pull away. But it’s almost like they’re embracing, and James clings to him. If Robbie chooses death over him, he wants at least this last memory of Robbie’s warmth against his face, of Robbie’s solid body in his arms.
“What would I become?” Robbie whispers, his breath warm as spring sunlight on James’s face.
“Mine,” James says simply and then holds his breath.
The thing screeches—loud enough, harsh enough to rend stone—in protest and rage. The sound rips at James’s ears. Robbie’s hesitation rips at James’s heart.
And then Robbie rocks forward and upward, closing the distance between them, and his “Yes” is swallowed up in James’s mouth as their lips meet.