Tainted

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Chapter 15

Isobel stood in a landscape of fire. The tarmac was scorching, almost burning, under her bare feet. She knew her feet would blister if she stood still too long, but she couldn’t compel herself to move.

Pillars of flame burned all around her, a circle of blazing pyres that were once buildings. She recognised the circle of towers she stood in the middle of. It was part of the business park just outside of town. The towering fire to her right was an office block where she’d once been interviewed and rejected for an administrative job. Now it was a lean column of crackling flame. Clouds of ash swirled on the air, sticking in her thick red hair as both blew in the breeze. Isobel could hear screams on the wind and did not want to think about what might be happening elsewhere. People were milling around. Only somehow she knew they weren’t truly people. Was it the hunched nature of some of their shoulders? The way they carried themselves as if they didn’t quite fit in their own bodies? She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something identified them as other, as demonic. One male figure, silhouetted against the flames ambled past about twenty feet from her, blood dripping from his severed fingers. A memory of Ramona’s brutal interrogation of the demon flashed in her mind.

I can control you with my blood, she thought, trying to breathe without inhaling burning flakes of debris.

Another body shambled past in the other direction. A body with no head. Isobel’s eyes widened, her heart jumping into her throat, momentarily blocking her air. Forcing herself to breathe, Isobel watched the headless body of the man she had decapitated wander past.

My sins have come to revisit me, she thought. This must be Hell.

“Hell come to Earth and laying waste to all,” intoned a startlingly pretty voice behind her.

She turned to face whoever it was.

The speaker was a small, dark haired little girl, wearing a loose white robe. Steam rose where her naked feet met the blistering tarmac, but she gave no sign of being in pain.

In fact she was smiling.

A chill ran through Isobel as she recognised the girl from her tower block dream. Only now Isobel could see her face. She was pretty, high cheekbones showing the character her round face would grow into when she grew up, along with large eyes and pale skin that contrasted starkly with her long dark hair. She looked innocent and very, very sweet.

Isobel wasn’t fooled.

“Who are you?” she asked distrustfully.

The girl smiled and Isobel knew she’d break hearts when she hit adulthood, that long dark hair and big brown eyes… she was going to be beautiful.

“I know you can speak,” Isobel told her sternly.

“Of course,” the girl replied.

“Then who the hell are you?”

“Ramona,” the girl said.

Isobel’s mouth dropped slightly, her eyes widened in surprise. “Ramona?” she blinked in surprise. “Not the same Ramona...”

“The same Ramona,” the girl said firmly, cutting her off. “I’m the same Ramona you’ve been gallivanting around torturing and murdering my friends with.”

Isobel blinked again, utterly stunned. “That’s not possible,” she said uncertainly. But even as she said the words, she began to see the resemblance. The girl’s face was smaller, but her bone structure was the same as Ramona’s… and the hair. It was the same colour.

The girl spread her arms, encompassing the inferno that burned around them. “Neither is any of this,” a tiny, evil smile crooked her face, “Is it?” She tilted her head quizzically to one side, an exact replica of Ramona’s gesture.

“Shit,” Isobel breathed, her eyes widening in shock.

The girl’s tiny smile widened becoming a malicious, wicked curve, distorting her delicate, pretty features into something vile.

“But she’s an angel” Isobel said, confused.

“She wasn’t always.”

“I know. She told me she was human once.”

“Executed as a witch and a heretic,” The girl’s singsong voice carried on the wind. “Didn’t you wonder why that was?”

“What are you getting at?”

“He’s calling to you Isobel,” the girl changed subject, leaving Isobel dazed and hanging, her mind spinning with new alien concepts.

“What?” she managed.

“He hurts.” A tiny smile twisted the girl’s lips. “He always calls to you. Through all the pain.” The last she delivered in the same high singsong voice, as if it were a nursery rhyme.

“Jake.” Isobel’s voice trembled slightly as she spoke. “What the hell have you done with him?”

“What haven’t we,” the evil smile widened and Isobel’s heart raced in fear. “Listen. He’s calling to you,” she said again.

Isobel could hear another voice on the breeze now, faint but there. She couldn’t make out what it was saying, but had a horrible idea she knew. She turned from the little girl and faced the direction of the voice. Across the circle, shambling towards her was Jake.

“Jake!” she cried, her heart suddenly bursting with emotion. Her relief was quickly overwhelmed by caution and fear. He was limping, shambling towards her in a zombie-like fashion. He grimaced with each step, holding his side as if he had the world’s worst stitch. He was clearly in a lot of pain.

“Isobel,” he rasped in a surprisingly loud voice that made Isobel jump.

“He always calls to you,” the girl repeated, sounding amused as Jake approached. “He never calls to God. He always calls to you.”

“What have you done to him!?” Isobel shouted, tears beginning to form behind her eyes, she tried to blink them back, but to no avail. The first tear fell down her cheek as she stared down the demonic child before her.

“Oh, this and that,” the girl said in her amused singsong voice. “It doesn’t matter what we do to him, he never renounces you.”

She stared at the little girl for a moment, lips trembling and turned back to the enclosing Jake. “Jake,” she said again, her voice cracking with emotion. Tears flowed down her cheeks. She stepped forward and reached out to him.

“Isobel” he rasped again, reaching his hand out to her. His other clutched his side as he grimaced in pain. Their fingers were only inches apart, less. Despite the infernal surroundings Isobel was excited at the prospect of touching him again. She couldn’t wait to hold him close and get out of this hell. Just as their fingers were about to meet, Jake cried out in pain and doubled over, both hands and arms wrapping around his stomach.

“Jake!” Isobel screamed.

He did his best to straighten up. “I’m sorry,” he squeezed out, tears of agony running from his eyes. He yelled again. Thin wisps of grey-white smoke rose from his arms, his body. Isobel stared in horror as her lover began to smoulder.

The girl chuckled.

“Stop it you bitch!” Isobel yelled, whirling on her as Jake sobbed and cried in pain.

The girl smiled sweetly, “No.”

Isobel just gaped, before remembering her secret weapon. She whipped out her penknife, set the blade against her scarred palm and sliced down the centre of her flesh. Blood oozed from the fresh gash. She whirled back to the girl, holding her hand in front of her, like a talisman.

“I said make it stop,” she snarled through clenched teeth.

The girl just laughed, a high, merry sound, she stared Isobel in the eyes, her evil smile plastered across her face. “You aren’t strong enough to have power over me,” she said, stepping forward, towards Isobel. “He’ll suffer more for your affront.”

Jake screamed, a high tortured sound.

Isobel cried harder, her tears leaving black trails of mascara down her face. “I’ll kill you,” she threatened weakly, taking a step back away from the demon child.

The girl just laughed. “You cannot. You will not.”

“Who are you?”

“I am Ramona,” the girl said darkly.

Jake roared with pain and straightened, spreading his arms as if being crucified.

Keeping her palm out toward the girl, toward Ramona, Isobel whipped her head round to see. Smoke was coming off Jake in thick grey clouds now, she could see his skin blistering from the heat, she watched as the flesh of his forearm bubbled and popped. He screamed continually now.

“Jake!” she shrieked, her whole body quaking with fear and horror.

“Isobel” he moaned, meeting her eyes. She could see his eyes burning, the liquid beginning to simmer behind his beautiful dark irises.

“Jake” she moaned, crying. She felt like her legs were about to give out beneath her.

“She isn’t telling you the truth you know,” the girl said.

“What?” Isobel didn’t even look round, her attention fixed firmly on the tormented Jake.

“Ramona,” she said. “She isn’t telling you the truth, not all of it.”

“What?” This time Isobel looked round. “What the fuck are you talking about?” she cried.

“She was afflicted.”

Jake screamed again and Isobel’s attention shot back to her lover. He threw his head back, screaming, before looking her in the face again. His eyes burst and Isobel screamed with him. The smoke was thicker now. His flesh a red, blackened ruin. The smell of burnt meat filled the air. She could smell him burning. Her mind reeled in horror, unable to form coherent thoughts. She watched as flames licked out of the sockets where his eyes had been. His screams were cut off as fire gushed from his mouth, flames licking up his face.

“He’s waiting for you Isobel” Ramona said as flames burst from Jake’s charred, blackened flesh. “I am the end.” The girl’s hand touched Isobel’s outstretched palm.

* * *

Isobel’s screams were so loud, Ramona burst into her room, her sword already drawn. When she saw Isobel sat up in bed, shrieking, she relaxed a little but kept the weapon out, ready.

It took Isobel a minute to realise where she was. For a moment she could still feel the girl’s clammy hand pressed against her own sweaty, blood-slick palm. She was covered in sweat from her nightmare, her t-shirt and bed sheets completely soaked through. Again. She was breathing heavily, too fast, on the point of hyperventilation. Once she realised she was at home in bed she tried to slow her shaking breath. Looking down she almost didn’t manage it. Black veins crawled all over her arms. Peeking under the covers Isobel could see them writhing down her bare legs. They were all over her. Unsurprising really, considering the evil she had just faced. The vision of Jake’s torment was burned into her mind like the world’s ugliest brand.

I am the end, the girl’s haunting voice echoed in her mind.

God, what a bitch.

“You okay?” Ramona asked.

Isobel regarded her with pitch black eyes. “What do you think?” she snapped, voice still breathy.

“What happened?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Isobel looked down.

Ramona nodded, sensing it wasn’t best to press it right now. “I’ll put the kettle on,” she said and left the room, sword still in hand, leaving Isobel alone with her thoughts.

After their eventful night on the town, Ramona had insisted on staying over to guard Isobel from further attack. Isobel, however, had drawn the line at allowing Ramona into her bedroom to guard her, pointing out that the living room was only about three steps away. Ramona wasn’t happy about it but Isobel was adamant, so she’d taken the sofa. Although Isobel had a sneaking suspicion the angel hadn’t actually slept.

Does she need to?

Isobel shook the question off and focussed on re-learning how to breathe. She’d be so glad when all this was over and she was no longer plagued by these nightmares. The horror combined with the loss of sleep was becoming unbearable. There was only so much a girl could take! Throwing back the cooling, sweaty covers, Isobel padded out of her bedroom, heading for a shower. Her hair was plastered to her neck and the loose t-shirt was stuck to her skin. She felt rank.

The broken mirror over the sink had been replaced by a different one with a cheap gold frame, she’d pulled out of a box of junk she’d never gotten around to unpacking. She washed thoroughly, washing her hair through with her favourite shampoo, taking some time to pamper herself in the middle of this nightmare, the maelstrom of violence and chaos her life had become. She enjoyed making her mind blissfully blank for twenty minutes. When she got out and padded back to her room wrapped in towels, she found a fresh cup of coffee on her dresser. Maybe Ramona was an angel after all.

I am the end.

She shivered at the recollection. Could that evil little girl really be Ramona? How was such a thing even possible? She frowned and picked up her coffee, inhaling the warm, strong aroma. The steam rising from the mug made her think of the smoke rising off Jake’s body as he burned from the inside out. Shaking she put the mug down and turned her attention to her wardrobe instead. Crumpled at the bottom of the wardrobe was Jake’s checked shirt. Her throat felt tight as she picked it up. Cradling it to her chest, she sat weeping silently, wondering what was to become of them.

* * *

Ramona was waiting for her in the living room when she came out. Her sword had disappeared again and she was gazing contemplatively out at the sea, apparently lost in her own thoughts. As serene as Ramona looked though, Isobel couldn’t help but see her through the prism of violence she caused, the destruction she left behind. Isobel had to remind herself that the woman had also cared for her, had tended her wounds while her mind collapsed. She probably deserved better than Isobel’s jealousy and suspicion. She was right, Isobel mused; she needed to man up, to take some responsibility for her own life. If she wanted to find a way out of her situation she had to do it herself. Ramona couldn’t wave a magic angel wand and do it for her. It was time Isobel took control, at least over the things she could.

“Thanks for the coffee,” Isobel said raising her mug to her.

Ramona turned from the window. “That’s okay.”

Isobel looked across the room at the place where she had sawn the head off the struggling demon. There was the faintest pink mark on the pale carpet, but it should have been a lot worse. She had to blink away an image of the struggle; she was seeing ghosts everywhere today.

“There was another summoning last night.” Ramona told her.

“A sacrifice you mean?”

Ramona nodded.

“Was it successful?” Isobel asked perching on the sofa edge.

“It was.”

“Shit.” Isobel drank her coffee, “Do these things happen a lot?”

“Around the time of the apocalypse, yes.” Ramona looked at her, “There’s enough demons running around now that they’ve become involved with the summonings.”

“What does that mean?” Isobel drank, she needed more caffeine for this conversation.

“It means that the summonings are more likely to be successful.” Ramona sighed and rubbed her forehead, “We’re running out of time.”

“When’s it going to happen, the end I mean?”

“There’s not a precise schedule,” Ramona snapped. She let out a weary breath and for the first time Isobel realised Ramona was anxious about the impending disaster. After a minute the angel continued, “It will happen when there are enough demons to open Hell’s gates and bring forth Lucifer to swallow the Earth.”

“Does Lucifer look like a little girl?”

Ramona looked confused, “No one knows. Why?”

“I had the weirdest dream...”

Just then the phone decided to ring.

Swearing at the thing by habit, Isobel dug in her jeans pocket, pulling out her battered old mobile phone. “It’s Jake” she said, looking at the screen. Flipping the phone open, she put it to her ear, “Jake!” she cried excitedly, “Jake, thank God!”

“Isobel,” he sounded relieved, “Thank Christ it’s you.”

She smiled, wondering if she’d ever been so happy to hear another human voice. “Where have you been?” she asked, knowing the smile on her face showed in her voice. “Jake, I’ve been so worried about you.”

“You fucking should be,” he said. “I’ve been in hiding, Izzy, these... things, demons I guess were chasing me. They looked human, but they weren’t, like that girl we chased across town. They got me, Isobel, they locked me up, I think they were going to use me as a sacrifice, but I escaped. I’ve not been able to call until now, but I thought of you.”

“I thought of you too.” Isobel could feel herself choking up again, “I miss you Jake, I love you.” Tears of relief slid down her face.

“I love you too,” he said.

Elation raced through her, her smile broadened into a grin and she felt her heart racing.

“Where are you?” she asked, smiling.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “Somewhere outside town.”

“I’ve got your shirt,” she told him.

He laughed, “Great, I could use a clean one.”

She laughed at that.

“You working tonight?” he asked.

“Actually, yeah.” She grinned.

“Great. Can I meet you at the pub tonight?”

“Sure, I’ll be there from ten.”

“Great,” she could hear the warmth in his voice. “It’s so good to hear your voice Isobel.” The depth of emotion she heard and felt was almost overwhelming.

“It’s good to hear your voice too.”

“Until tonight.”

“Until then,” she smiled. “I love you.”

“Love you too.” He blew her a kiss down the phone and hung up.

She looked at Ramona. “That was Jake,” she beamed.

“I know,” she said. “Is he alright?”

“Yeah, I think so.” She frowned, turning serious. “He said some demons abducted him to use as a sacrifice but he escaped and he’s been hiding ever since.”

“And he waited until now to call?” Ramona raised an eyebrow.

“It’s the first chance he’s had!” Isobel protested. Ramona looked sceptical, “Be as suspicious as you want, but he’s meeting me tonight at work.”

“You’re going to work?” Ramona looked shocked.

“Yeah, I’m going to work,” Isobel said. “My life doesn’t completely revolve around your apocalypse, Ramona.”

“Actually it does,” Ramona snapped again. “You’re tainted for a reason Isobel.”

“I’m damned either way, Ramona,” she reminded her. “It makes no difference whether it’s now or later, it’s all the fucking same. I’m going to work and I’m going to see Jake. Come if you want, but don’t even think about stopping me.”

* * *

It was the first time Isobel had set foot in the Black Swallow for a couple of days. There was a renewed urgency about her steps as she hurried towards the pub eager to begin her shift. She was looking forward to seeing Jake. It would be a relief to see him, to throw her arms around his neck and hold him close.

I love you.

She smiled at the memory of their conversation. Even spending the day with Ramona hadn’t brought her down. The dark haired angel walked beside her, unwilling to let her out of her sight. When Isobel had asked her what she intended to do while she worked, Ramona had said: “Hang out, play pool, win some bets.” Isobel shook her head. Dave would certainly be interested to meet Ramona after all Isobel had said about her.

Maybe he’ll bar her.

The thought amused Isobel, though she doubted it would come to pass. Dave was nothing if not tolerant. In fact she could see Ramona and her boss hitting it off. She could hear the pulse of Black Sabbath playing inside as she approached the doors. Dave was probably in charge of the jukebox right now. Thinking of him nodding his head and humming badly along to the tune brought a fond smile to her lips. It felt like forever since she’d last seen him.

Ramona performed a quick semi-circle, scanning for demonic tails. She checked the roofs as well as the street and Isobel wondered if she wasn’t being a bit paranoid. “I don’t see anything” she said, still watchful.

“You sound disappointed,” Isobel fought to hide her amused smile.

Ramona shrugged, “Just restless. The end is so close I can almost taste it.”

“Itching for some action?”

Ramona looked at her gravely, “Very itchy.”

Isobel half smiled and laughed, shaking her head. Ramona was very dramatic. She pushed open the heavy wooden door to the bar and stopped in her tracks, a horrified gasp escaping her throat.

There was blood everywhere.

It covered the walls, trailing down in thick crimson streams. The wooden floor was slick with it, so much so that she had to be careful not to slip. Gore covered the bar, vermilion tracks running down and pooling on the floor. Chunks of meat, of human flesh, were scattered all over. A corpse sat to her right, the man’s agonised death throes etched on his face. Entrails spilled out of his eviscerated torso, intestines trailing onto the table where his ruptured stomach lay. Other corpses littered the bar, in chairs, crumpled on the floor, lain over tables like sacrifices. She blinked rapidly unable to take it all in, the breath stolen from her lungs.

It was a massacre.

When she could finally remember how to breathe Isobel sucked in a great lungful of air, filling her lungs as if coming up from underwater. The taste of offal and human waste filled her mouth, the rank flavour of raw meat sailing down her throat. She turned and threw up in the doorway, falling to her knees in the blood as Ramona gazed round in horrified awe.

“My God,” she whispered in stunned disbelief.

“That doesn’t even begin to cover it,” Isobel groaned from the floor. She watched as Ramona edged carefully into the bar, her steps gliding easily through the sea of blood and gore. She nudged a chunk of meat aside gently with her boot. It rolled over with a wet sucking noise. A face stared up at her, frozen in a death scream. Isobel turned and retched again, despite there being nothing left in her stomach. “God,” She moaned, using the door to steady herself as she rose shakily to her feet.

“Not his work,” Ramona said.

“I figured.”She replied shakily, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Her mouth was foul with the acidic taste of vomit. “Was this a ritual?”

“No.” Ramona was looking around at the destruction. “Too imprecise. It looks more like a party.”

“A party?” Isobel repeated, aghast.

Ramona looked at her levelly, seeing the shock on her face, “Yes. A party. They had fun.”

“Oh God.” Isobel closed her eyes, fighting another wave of nausea, clutching the door frame tighter, anchoring herself to the world. When she felt better she opened her eyes again.

Ramona was still investigating.

“How many dead are there?” Isobel asked, crossing carefully to Ramona across the spacious, gruesome room.

“Twenty,” she estimated. “Approximately. They’re not all complete.”

“Thanks,” Isobel said, sarcastically. “That makes it so much better.”

Ramona just looked at her.

Isobel was focussed on reaching the bar, on fetching something to steady her nerves and her balance. Something to chase the taste of bile from her mouth. Just before she reached the bar she slipped. Her feet shot out from under her on the bloody, slippery surface and she fell, her back smacking into the hard wooden floor. Blood soaked instantly through the back of her t-shirt, lukewarm and clammy. She shrieked a wordless cry of distress and pushed herself up with blood slick hands. There was little purchase, but she managed, gibbering with horror and panic, to get herself on her feet. She took the last step and slapped her hands onto the solid gore drenched bar. Leaning her body into the wood, she felt blood soak into the front of her shirt.

Ramona just stared at her. “You okay?” she asked.

Isobel just glared.

“I’ve seen worse you know,” Ramona said, resuming her walk around the blood drenched pub.

“You’ve seen worse?” Isobel was shocked as she lifted the flap built into the counter and slipped behind the bar. The bottles mounted on the wall and the glass doors of the fridges were coated in streaks of blood, as if arterial spray had gone everywhere. It probably had. A body lay bent over the far end of the bar, its head dangling on Isobel’s side, the legs presumably hanging on the other. Ramona was talking but Isobel had stopped listening as she stared into the dead eyes of the man she knew.

It was Robbie.

From the posture it looked as if his back had been broken over the bar.

Before or after they killed him?, she wondered, not truly wanting an answer.

His throat had been torn completely out, a ragged bloody hole gaped in his neck, threads of red flesh hung from the opening, dripping blood on the gore soaked floor. Worse than the grisly sight of Robbie’s wound was his wide, lifeless stare. Isobel let out a sob and reflexively covered her mouth to stifle the scream rising in her chest. Her body trembled.

“Isobel?” Ramona said worriedly, crossing to her, “What is it?”

“What is it!?” Isobel asked incredulous, “Jesus, Ramona, what a fucking question!” Tears were starting to leak from her eyes and she wiped at them, determined not to break down again.

Ramona looked over the bar at the corpse Isobel’s eyes were fixed on. “There’s worse in here,” she pointed out.

“Not to me,” Isobel said, shakily. “I knew him.” Despite her best efforts a tear escaped and she blinked back the flood that threatened to follow. “Robbie, he... he was the cook here... sometimes worked bar too… but mostly cooked. Oh God!” Her voice cracked and she stood weeping for a moment, trying to compose herself. After a minute’s silence she turned, still in shock, to the angel beside her. “Ramona, how the fuck have you seen worse than this?”

“I’ve been around a long time,” Ramona said conversationally as Isobel pulled the Jack Daniel’s bottle from its mount on the wall. “I’ve seen people do horrific things.”

“That so?” Isobel pulled the blood coated optic from the bottle, her hand smearing the blood and threw it into the corner. She drank straight from the clean bottle neck underneath. The whiskey burned her throat; a comforting warmth. Isobel sighed at the soothing familiar taste.

“It is” Ramona sounded grim. “I’m not even talking about the famous villains, just normal people. I’ve seen true evil, Isobel, as have you. I’ve been its victim.” She blinked and looked away, momentarily lost in some remembered pain.

“What exactly did they do to you?” Isobel asked.

“I’d sooner not talk about it.” Ramona closed the discussion and leaned over an eviscerated corpse spread on the pool table. Long grey hair trailed out behind the dead man, hanging over the edge of the table. Isobel was halfway through her next swig of whiskey before she realised who she was looking at.

Dave.

She coughed, choking on the whiskey as she slammed the bottle and her hands down on the bar counter. She blinked back tears.

Ramona looked round sharply, “What is it?”

“Dave!” Isobel cried, running round the bar, remembering at the last moment to be careful on the slippery floor. She half ran, half slid across the room, whiskey bottle dangling by the neck from one outstretched hand to where Ramona stood.

Dave’s body was a ruin.

He’d been left on the table on his back, a pained grimace twisting his terrified face. His pale blue eyes stared sightlessly up at Isobel.

He’d been ripped open down the middle, his insides bared for all to see. It hadn’t been clean either. His guts had been torn and ripped during the process. One organ had what looked like a bite mark where part of it was gone. Isobel felt dizzy, wondering how much of him had been devoured. Her hand tightened around the bottle neck as she gazed at the vermilion ruin. Her other hand held onto the pool table, gripping so tight she heard the wood creak. She was shaking.

“He was your boss.” Ramona’s tone was soft.

Isobel fought the bile rising in her throat to speak. “He was my friend,” she spoke through a tear strained voice. She was struggling not to collapse. She closed her eyes as the first tear slipped out. The smell of viscera hit her as she inhaled and she fought to keep the whiskey down.

“His kidney’s in the table pocket.” Ramona said, walking round the table examining the scene.

“You’re not helping.” Isobel cracked her eyes open a little way, as if a gradual revelation would make the gruesome sight more bearable. Finally, she blinked, opened them fully and took a long pull on the whiskey. She held the bottle out to Ramona who shook her head.

More for me then.

Isobel reached out to Dave’s horrified face and gently slid his eyelids closed, hiding the terror of his last moments for good. She cried as she did so.

“Was he dead when they did this?” she asked through the tears.

“No,” Ramona said. “He was alive when they started gutting him.”

“Oh God, Dave.” Isobel started crying harder. “How do you know?” she asked between sobs.

“He put up a fight for a start,” Ramona gestured, indicating Dave’s bloodied hands. There were deep gouges on them and bruises on the knuckles.

Isobel smiled slightly. “That’s our Dave.”

“Also it’s no fun if they’re dead.” She walked back up the table.

“God.” Isobel turned back to Dave’s mutilated body. “I’m sorry Dave,” she said, “You were a good... her eyes caught sight of something, some colour amongst the gore, “...man.” Against every instinct in her body, Isobel moved her head closer to the table, peering at the strange object she had seen. “Ramona.”

The angel looked up from where she was examining Dave’s lacerated hands.

“What’s this?”

Ramona moved down the table until she was level with Isobel on her side. “It looks like a card,” she observed peering into the mess.

“A card?” Isobel sounded disbelieving. She looked again. The thin object nestled amongst Dave’s guts did look like a card. Ramona began to reach for it.

“No,” Isobel said.

Ramona looked at her.

“I should be the one to...” she nodded at the object.

Ramona withdrew her hand and made a go ahead gesture.

Isobel took a deep breath and a shot of whiskey to steel her fractured nerves. Tentatively she reached forward with a shaking hand and plucked the card from its gory home with a wet shlurrp. She grimaced at the noise and used only the tips of her fingers to hold the card. Blood dripped from the edges as she flipped it round to examine it. She shook it gently to get rid of the blood, getting several drops on herself. It was still smeared in red, but she could see the picture more clearly now. The card bore an image of a man and woman, standing before a tall bearded man who towered over them, presiding over the ceremony. Cupid flew at the top, above the tall man’s head.

“It’s a tarot card,” she said, eyes flicking to Ramona.

“Which one?” Ramona asked, frowning.

“The Lovers.” She turned the bloody card so Ramona could see.

“What the...” light dawned in her eyes, “Jake.”

“That’s what they’re getting at,” Isobel agreed, “The Lovers. One of the demons did this, by the looks of it several... and they’ve got Jake.”

“Maybe,” Ramona sounded worried. She stared at Isobel over the macabre scene, willing her to understand what she was thinking.

“This is my fault,” Isobel said, staring down at the body. Ramona said nothing. “Jake was meeting me here.” She swallowed, piecing the night’s events together. “He was early. Those things they...” she squeezed her eyes shut, tears trailing down her cheeks regardless. She sniffed loudly and rubbed her eyes with the back of the hand clutching the tarot card, smearing blood on her face. “They did this.”

Ramona looked down solemnly.

“We’re going to kill them all,” Isobel’s cold voice was full of steely determination. “And when I’m in Hell I’m going to spend eternity killing them again and again and again.” Her voice grew frostier as she spoke. There was a moment of silence as both women stared solemnly at the slaughter before them.

“I know you know Jake’s attracted to me.” Ramona said.

“What?” the suddenness of the comment, the abrupt change in conversation startled Isobel.

Ramona looked at her levelly, “I know Jake fancies me and I know you know it.”

“What of it?” Isobel’s tone grew colder still.

“I did nothing to encourage it. I like Jake, but only as a friend, as an ally. I know its part of the reason you dislike me and I’m sorry Jake’s infatuation with me upset you.”

“Why are you telling me this now?” Isobel asked, a short sharp laugh barked from her throat, “I mean, God Ramona, pick a good time.”

“Jake’s one of them.”

“What!?” Isobel was shocked. She did a long slow blink, trying to process what Ramona had just said. “That’s... no! You can’t know that!”

“This is his message.”

“But that’s impossible!” Isobel cried, “You said demons can only take over the bodies of the damned.”

“He’s tainted,” Ramona reminded her, “He is damned.”

Isobel paused, blinked. “It took him when he was alive? They can do that?”

“If you’re already damned,” Ramona told her. “It’s rare but it happens.”

“Fuck!” Isobel shouted. She spun round, pressing one bloody hand to her forehead. Every time she thought it couldn’t get worse some new horror reared its ugly head. She whirled back on Ramona, “You didn’t think to mention this? You didn’t think it was worth bringing up even once? Hey, guys watch out, you might get possessed?”

“I did warn you they could jump bodies,” Ramona said, “I thought you understood.”

“No!” Isobel cried, “You didn’t exactly linger on the detail.”

“I didn’t think it likely to happen. It’s a rare occurrence. So rare I’ve never seen it happen.”

“Well aren’t we fucking special!” Isobel snapped.

“I don’t know for certain,” Ramona said. “But it’s a good bet.”

“Fine,” Isobel was angry now. “Say your right. How do we get him back?”

Ramona looked at her, “We can’t.”

“We can,” Isobel said, shakily. “We can and we will.”

“Isobel...”

“No.” Isobel held up her hand to stop her and sipped from the whiskey bottle. “My friends are dead.” She closed her eyes and took a breath. Her voice was tight with grief and horror when she spoke. “My home is covered in other people’s guts and now the man I love is possessed by one of the things we have to fucking kill.” She took another drink, “Just fucking stop!” She turned and walked shakily away, drinking from her bottle as she went.

Ramona sighed and gave her a minute before speaking again. “This scene is fresh,” her tone was careful. “The blood’s still wet, some of the entrails are still warm.”

“What are you saying?” Isobel said, staring at a faded concert poster on the wall.

“This didn’t happen long ago.”

Isobel looked round, “How long?”

Ramona considered, “About half an hour ago, maybe a little less since the end.”

“You think they might still be in the area?” Hope sprang into Isobel’s voice. It broke Ramona’s heart a little.

“It’s possible.” She nodded to Dave’s desecrated body. “They wanted you to find this,” she told Isobel. “They knew exactly who to hurt and what to say.”

Isobel glanced at the card then back at Ramona. “Jake drank here, he knew Dave and I were close.”

“And he reads tarot cards,” Ramona said.

“What?” This took Isobel by surprise, “How the fuck do you know that?”

“We talked.”

Isobel sighed angrily, “Why didn’t he mention this at the scene before?”

“Was tarot involved there?” Ramona already knew the answer.

“No.”

“Then he probably didn’t think it was relevant. You know how he is.” She continued looking around, examining the carnage.

“Shit.” Isobel sighed, “I hate that you know all this fucking stuff about him that I don’t.”

A clap echoed across the pub. The two women turned quickly toward the sound. Standing in the doorway was the young woman they had chased into the ladies the other day. She was still wearing the same floral summer dress. Now, however, it was soaked with dark red blood, some so fresh it dripped from the hem of her skirt adding to the flood below. A twisted smile stretched her features into a demented sneer.

“You,” Isobel spat. “Where’s Jake?” She reached into her pocket and withdrew her pen knife, flicking the short blade out.

“He’s with us.” The woman laughed, tossing her blood matted hair out of the way with a shake of her head.

“Not for long,” Isobel snarled.

“Forever.” The woman took a step forward, drawing out the word, elongating it.

Isobel mirrored her movements, stepping toward the monstrous woman.

Ramona, sensing the tension, followed suit, moving up with Isobel. She drew her sword. Blue-white light glowed from inside the steel, illuminating the scene immediately around her.

“Let him go.” Cold hate filled Isobel’s tone.

“No.” The woman’s eyes roved around the bar, settling on the pool table and Dave’s violated corpse. “That one was tasty.”

“You’re gonna die screaming,” Isobel told her, moving forward again. “You’ll beg me for mercy before I cut out your foul fucking tongue.”

The demon just smiled. “He’s calling for you Isobel,” she intoned, emulating the voice of the girl from Isobel’s dream and began to laugh.

Isobel screamed an incoherent cry of rage, all the hate and frustration she felt, all her grief went into that scream. She launched the half full whiskey bottle at the woman’s head and charged. The bottle went wide, shattering against the wall, but Isobel hit, tackling the woman to the ground and landing on top of her in the blood. She punched the woman twice in the face, with all her strength, screaming all the while. She was about to slam her blade into the bitch’s chest when the demon got her feet under Isobel and kicked.

Isobel flew through the air, rocketing across the pub, wind whooshing past her and smashed into the wall mounted bottles behind the bar, shattering them. Glass lacerated her clothes and skin, liquor stinging the fresh wounds. The wind shot out of her. She hit the back counter and slumped, dazed, bleeding and breathless to the floor amid the rain of broken glass and spirits. The smell of strong alcohol perfumed her skin and the air around her. She blinked and sat up, shaking glass from her hair.

The demon was disappearing out the door with Ramona right behind her, glowing sword in hand.

Isobel snatched up her knife and vaulted over the bar, praying she didn’t slip in the blood as she ran after Ramona and the demon.

She burst out into the cool night air, seeing Ramona’s back disappear up a side street next to the pub. Without thinking she ran after her. Her only thought was to find Jake, whatever that took. She’d torture this demon herself if she had to. She hadn’t had time to fully process the horror she’d seen yet, but she knew Dave had died horribly. She’d make sure this demon suffered too.

To her surprise Isobel was gaining ground on Ramona, catching up to the chase as they darted past doorways and industrial bins, deeper into the maze of alleys. She pushed her legs to go faster, desperate to catch up. She was going to kill this one herself. Slowly. Grim determination was writ on her features as she ran. She heard a swoop, like a large bird passing overhead but didn’t look up. She was focussed on her goal.

“Isobel.” A voice next to her. She knew that voice.

Jake!

She whirled round so fast she almost lost her balance.

He stood in front of her, his ripped jeans and blue checked shirt looked dirtier than usual, but who was she to throw stones? She was covered in blood, booze and broken glass. Even dirty and dishevelled he looked beautiful to her.

“Jake!” She gasped, a little out of breath. “Jake, thank God!” She ran to him and threw her arms round his neck, pulling him into a tight hug, the knife still clutched in one hand.

“Isobel.” He sighed into her hair, his warm breath tickling her ear. “Oh, Isobel.” He held her close, pulling her against him, until her breasts were crushed against his chest. Isobel didn’t mind, she just wanted to hold him.

“Jake, thank God,” she said again. She drew back enough to kiss him, planting her lips on his. He opened his mouth to reciprocate. They kissed long and passionately, mouths and tongues exploring each other. “Oh God,” Isobel sobbed when they broke the kiss. She pressed her forehead to his. “Oh God, Jake,” she smiled. “It’s so good to see you.”

“And you.” He said with feeling. “You changed your hair,” he lightly ran a red strand between his fingers.

“Yeah,” Isobel smiled, “You like it?”

“I do,” he said warmly.

They hugged again. Finally Isobel drew back and looked at him. “What happened?”

“I got here,” he explained. “They were already inside, Isobel.” His voice shook, eyes wide with terror. “The demons. They were... tearing people apart. Literally. I saw them rip some guys head clean off.

“God.” Isobel thought of the severed head Ramona had nudged with her foot. “Did you see what they did to Dave?”

“I caught a glimpse.” He shook his head, shivered. The vibration went through both of them. “I ran!” He looked at her with wide haunted eyes. She stroked his arm soothing him. “I didn’t know what else to do! Isobel how the fuck do we fight these things?” I don’t see how we can!”

“I know,” Isobel said softly. “She thinks you’re one of them now.”

“Who? Ramona?”

“Yeah, Ramona.”

“Ramona thinks I’m one of them?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh God!”

“It’s okay,” Isobel said. “I won’t let her hurt you.”

Screams echoed from up the alley.

“What the fuck?” Jake said fearfully.

“It’s okay,” Isobel assured him. “Ramona chased that woman we were after up that way. She probably needs our help actually. Come on.” She tugged on Jake’s arm.

“No. No way.” He was wide eyed with fright.

“Jake it’s alright.” She tried to pull him with her but he wouldn’t come.

“No.” He said firmly, holding onto her arm. It stretched between them, an expanse of smooth, gore drenched flesh.

“Jake...” Isobel began. She stopped as she caught sight of her arm. Under the crust of blood and liquor, black veins were crawling down her arm, towards Jake. His grip tightened on her wrist as she gasped, numb with shock. Her eyes flicked from her arm, to Jake’s eyes and back again. “No,” she whispered.

“Yes.” Jake replied gently, his tone soothing and calm. “It’s alright Isobel. This was inevitable.”

“Let me go,” she yelped, struggling to free her arm. His grip only tightened further, bruising her wrist.

“You’re going to join us eventually Isobel,” he said. “You all do.” A tiny smile appeared on his face, “God doesn’t want you.”

Isobel yanked hard back and forth on her arm. Her efforts had no impact on Jake’s unrelenting grip. Her bones felt like they were grinding under his hand. She looked up at him. His eyes were still gentle, but there was something else, something cruel in them as well. Isobel still had the knife in her hand, but she didn’t want to use it on Jake. He was still in there, she was sure of it.

Wasn’t he?

“Jake, please let me go,” she pleaded.

“No chance.” Jake’s sad smile, mingled with the cruelty in his eyes, in his vice-like grip on her arm.

Isobel knew she’d have to hurt him to escape now. She exhaled, steeling herself to strike when a wet tumbling sound distracted them both.

A severed head rolled across the floor, fetching up against Jake’s leg, its face looking up. It was the face of the brunette demon Ramona had been chasing, an expression of hate and fear etched on her dead, bloody features.

“Let her fucking go.” Ramona’s voice sounded close behind Isobel.

“No,” Jake snarled.

Isobel struck. Her blade whipped forward, stabbing into Jake’s wrist all the way up to the hilt. She felt tendons and nerve endings part under her blow. Jake screamed in pain and let go of her wrist. She stepped quickly away, ripping her knife out as she went. Blood fell from the tip of the blade in thick drops. A stream of dark red blood flowed out of Jake’s wrist, dripping off his arm and spattering the flagstones beneath.

“You stupid bitch!” He roared at her as she stepped back, in line with the advancing Ramona.

“I’m sorry Jake,” she said tearfully. “You made me. Why couldn’t you just let me go?”

“Because I love you.” Jake’s voice cracked with pain and emotion. Isobel couldn’t tell if it was genuine or the demon trying to trick her. Confusion spun her mind.

“Don’t listen to it.” Ramona said from beside her.

She glanced at the angel.

“You know that isn’t really Jake in there.”

Isobel just nodded, her mind whirling. She knew intellectually that she wasn’t staring down the real Jake, rather a monster wearing his face, his body. But, God, it felt like him. Maybe it even was in part. She had no idea. She just glanced back at Ramona and said, “I know.”

“Good.” Ramona still had her blood covered sword out, ready for action. She was bleeding from a head wound and looked generally battered. But she was upright and fighting. “I could’ve used you in that fight. I called in reinforcements but it was harder without you.” She offered Isobel a slight comradely smile.

Isobel returned her smile with her own faint grimace, her eyes flicking constantly back to Jake.

Jake glared at them angry and hurt, gasping with pain from the wound.

“I didn’t want to do that Jake,” Isobel told him.

“But you did.” The wounded little boy voice was mixed with the demon’s hatred, creating a surreal mix.

“I’m sorry.” Isobel’s voice was full of her own pain.

“Fuck you ginge.”

Isobel dropped her gaze momentarily, then raised it giving Jake angry, pain filled eyes. He had known exactly how to hurt her. “You motherfucker,” she said softly, a lone tear running down her cheek.

Ramona started forward.

“What are you doing?” Isobel cried, holding a hand out in front of her to stop her advance.

Ramona gave her a hard look. “He’s a demon,” she reminded Isobel. “One of the demons that massacred everyone in the Black Swallow. That slaughtered Dave.”

“I know.” Isobel sounded mournful as she looked Jake in the eyes, “I know.”

“You’re pathetic,” Jake mocked. “Fucking pathetic. You’ll never stop us, you dumb cunt.” He turned and ran, clutching his wrist into the night.

“Shit!” Ramona cried, lunging forward.

“Ramona, no!” Isobel jumped in front of her.

The angel glared at her.

“It’s Jake,” she said simply.

“Not anymore.” Ramona looked past her. “I can track him using his blood.” She looked at Isobel, “That was a good wound. We can finish him.”

“No.” Isobel was adamant. “Jake’s in there, I can’t just kill him.”

“I can.”

“Ramona.”

The angel was staring after where Jake had disappeared.

Ramona!”

This time the angel looked at her.

“I love him.”

Ramona sighed heavily and lowered her sword, “Fine.” She stalked a little way off before turning angrily on Isobel. “You said in there that it was your fault,” she began, jabbing the sword at her.

Isobel nodded.

“You were right. That demon you let escape the other day was one of the two who did The Black Swallow. If you’d killed her she couldn’t have done that.”

“What’s your point?” Isobel asked coldly.

“Jake is going to kill a whole load more people now. Because you let him get away,” Ramona hissed, absolutely livid. “Consider that the next time you’re standing over the disembowelled corpse of someone you love.”

“Jake is the only person I love,” Isobel countered. She gave Ramona a dirty, hate filled look, daring her to challenge her. When she didn’t Isobel scoffed at the angel and turned, walking towards the end of the alley and the street beyond.

“He’s not your lover anymore Isobel!” Ramona called after her. “We can track him using your taint. We could end this tonight. Isobel!”

Isobel paused in her tracks, only turning when she heard Ramona approaching. The look on her face made the angel stop in her tracks a few steps away. “I am not helping you kill Jake,” she told her sternly. “There’s no way. Forget it.”

“The world will burn.”

“I know!” Isobel cried. “I know the stakes Ramona, but I you can’t expect me to kill Jake! You can’t!” She turned again and stormed away.

A moment later Ramona followed.


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