Tainted

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Chapter 22

Isobel woke to silence, sunlight blazing down on her in the still August heat. She wasn’t sure where she was at first, the quiet was so disorientating in the wake of the battle. The ground was rough and grainy under her back, the sun warming her face. For a moment she wondered if she’d died and gone to Heaven… but of course that wasn’t possible.

Isobel blinked her eyes open, squinting into the glaring sun, shining directly in her face. With a groan, she raised an aching arm, lying it partially over her eyes to block the glare and sat up.

Any illusion of paradise fell away as she rose; her body hurt all over. Her arms and legs ached from fighting and swinging her sword, her throat and back were sore from the pummelling she’d taken from the demons and her hands stung horrendously from the self-inflicted wounds. Looking down she saw the terrible red lacerations criss-crossing her palms had been cauterised by the heat of the fire. Angry red welts had swollen up in their place, screaming raw agony at her. She hissed in pain as she flexed her hands. God, they were sore.

Heaven could never be this painful.

She winced at the terrible pain in her neck as she turned to survey the scene. Blackened burnt out skeletons of trees smouldered around her, the towering office blocks now little more than gutted concrete hulks, the embers of dying flames gradually fading in their shattered windows. She watched as a tiny flame on the ground near her flickered and winked out of existence.

There was no one around. It took a few minutes of groggy sitting for Isobel’s fuzzy, aching brain to process the strange fact. There was no one around. Not even the sound of distant people or cars. A black bird flew overhead, cawing it’s a song as it passed. It took her hazy mind a minute to identify it as a crow.

That doesn’t bode well.

Where had everybody gone? Where were the corpses she’d seen? The steaming heaps of viscera? The angels? Where the hell was Ramona?

Did we actually win?

The idea that they hadn’t froze her for a second. Could this be Hell? She remembered the terrible pain of putting her hands on the burning portal to Hades... the darkness. She’d been a ball of screaming agony for she didn’t know how long. Then she’d passed out. Could this strange silence be the start of her everlasting torment? The calm before a never ending storm? A distant mechanical noise startled her. She looked up to see a plane passing high overhead, writing white tails of graffiti in the sky. Isobel smiled. She was safe.

Safe as possible anyway.

She reflected on what a strange spectacle she must make to the passengers above. A lone woman sat in a burnt out field. The thought and that of having to explain what had happened here spurred her to her feet. She gasped in pain as she rose, her aching muscles screaming at her, crying out in agonised protest as she stood. Somehow Isobel took her first step forward. From there it was easier. Gingerly, Isobel made her way, grubby and sore back to civilisation.

* * *

The first place she went was her mother’s flat.

Jake was gone. Isobel imagined he’d gone home, but nonetheless a twinge of anxiety shot through her. After everything that had happened she couldn’t help being worried. She pulled out her phone and dialled Jake. The other end rang half a dozen times and went to answer phone. Jake’s warm voice came on asking the caller to leave a message.

“Hi Jake,” she began, “its Isobel. I’ve gone home to rest after... everything. I’ll call you later. I love you.” She found herself a little relieved not to have him answer. Worried about Jake and her unexpected response to his non-answer, she headed to the only place left for her.

Home.

She felt a sense of trepidation as she opened her front door, the key sliding home with what sounded like an ominous click. After a brief pause to summon her courage Isobel turned the key, opened the door and stepped into her flat for the first time in what felt like days. So much had happened. She’d seen and done things she never would have believed or even dreamt of last week. And now it was all over.

Until I die.

She closed her eyes, throat clenching at the terrifying thought of her inevitable damnation. She’d picked up a sword of Heaven though. What did that mean? The weapon should have burned her, but it hadn’t. Ramona had said there were implications to that. What did she mean? Was Isobel saved?

That would be too much to fucking hope for.

She sighed wearily and leaned her head back against the hard wood of the closed door. God, she was tired. Isobel honestly thought she could sleep for a week she was so exhausted. Except her busy, anxious mind, still running on adrenaline and fear would keep her awake for a while yet. She stayed where she was for a moment, inhaling the scent of her musty flat. Underneath the stale air was the scent of wine.

It smells like an alcoholic lives here.

Isobel chuckled darkly at the thought. Maybe she really was her mother’s daughter after all.

Mum.

Oh fuck, Mum.

The weight of loss suddenly came crashing down on her. For the first time since this chaos started Isobel felt the terrible grief, threatening to overwhelm her, to consume her whole. She blinked, shook her head and pushed away from the door, squashing the sense of loss down, burying it for later examination. She still had to find Jake. She sniffed the stagnant air and wrinkled her nose in distaste. It stank in here.

Isobel crossed purposely to the other side of the small living room and thrust open the window. A warm summer breeze blew gently in, fluttering the gauzy curtains and chasing away the stagnant air. When she retracted her hands, Isobel noticed she’d left black smears of blood and grime on the white wooden frame of the windows. Tears threatened to come as she stared bleakly at the dirt, but again she pressed them back. Not yet. She wasn’t ready to grieve just yet. She caught a glimpse of herself, superimposed on the sunny afternoon backdrop outside. Her face and hair were covered with thick streaks of dirt and other people’s blood. She reached up, touching her thick red waves. They were sticky and glued together with gore. She needed a shower. Sighing she turned to face the empty room her eyes automatically drawn to the faint pink stain on the carpet that was all that remained of the demon she’d so brutally decapitated. She shut her eyes against the violent image that flashed across her mind, against the memory of the feel of her serrated knife digging into his flesh... of the screams. Isobel shook her head, attempting to dislodge the memory, knowing that it would stay with her forever.

That was when she saw it.

On the coffee table, the absurdly tidy coffee table, was a bottle of red wine. Isobel couldn’t believe she hadn’t noticed it sooner; the room wasn’t exactly large. There was a dark red ribbon that matched the colour of the wine, tied around the neck of the bottle. A pale yellow post it note was stuck to the glass. The message was simple: ‘Thanks. X’ it read. There was no signature but Isobel knew who had bought it and who had cleaned her table to create the centrepiece. A half smile twitched the corner of her bloodstained mouth.

Ramona.

Smiling to herself, bone weary and in dire need of a wash, Isobel went to find a corkscrew and a clean glass. She had the idea to pour herself a glass, have a long luxurious shower and get some rest. Jake would have to wait for now. Isobel was beyond knackered; she was broken.

* * *

The wine and the shower were both brilliant ideas. Isobel felt a lot better as soon as she was clean. She stood under the scalding hot water for ages, watching as red turned to pink, the water finally running clear as the last of the blood washed away. An extensive soap and shampoo later and Isobel was wrapped in her favourite dressing gown and smelling of lemon balm and wild herbs. She closed her eyes and smiled, inhaling the pleasant aroma. She felt vaguely human again. Wiping the condensation from the steamy mirror, Isobel peered at her reflection. She couldn’t believe she’d dyed her hair black for so long, her natural deep red suited her so well. She loved the way it looked against her pale skin, the way it emphasised her sea green eyes. Striking was the word that leapt into her mind. She was striking. There were bags under her eyes though. She pulled briefly on the creased flesh; it was going grey and purple, fatigue lines beginning to appear. It occurred to her that she’d hardly slept at all the previous night and she’d been constantly on the go, hurtling from one nightmare to the next for days. No wonder she was tired. It all appeared to be over now though. Ramona’s taciturn note seemed to confirm that.

Maybe now I can keep blood out of my hair, she thought, a wry half smile on her lips. Isobel picked up her wine glass, now slick with condensation and headed for her bedroom. She was going to sleep for a week.

* * *

It was dark when Isobel woke. Instead of bolting up screaming, she came to slowly, stretching languorously on the bed. For the first time in ages she had slept without the nightmares plaguing her. At least for today she was free from visions of fire and brimstone.

For today, her cynical mind told her.

Despite the fatigue still nestled deep in her bones, Isobel felt the need to get out, to see the world she had saved. She swung her legs out of bed and dressed, slinging Jake’s checked shirt over her own low necked t-shirt against the probable chill on the seafront.

As it turned out there was only the faintest chill on the pier, it had been a particularly hot summer and the nights were warm. The warm summer air was cooled only slightly by the sea breeze. After all the fire, Isobel reflected, it was nice to be surrounded by water. She had checked her eyes in the mirror before she’d dressed and they had been her own. No black demonic taint darkening them. Relief had flooded through her at that, premature as it may be. No more black eyes! The thought made Isobel smile, although she knew her demonic taint was still there, hidden within her blood.

It was peaceful out here. Calm. A group of teenagers laughed as they warmed their hands and drank beer round a fire burning in an old steel barrel, but they were a far away on the shore. Isobel smiled, recalling several such events she had attended and took a sip from the wine bottle she clasped, dangling over the railing in her scarred hands. She could see her flat from here, the windows of her top floor dwelling peeking out from the hills overlooking the beach. It was just visible above the other, more desirable, buildings further down the hill. Isobel sipped again. She still needed to contact Jake, to make sure he was okay and to sort things out between them. His attraction to Ramona had put a strain on their relationship. Still, she did love him.

But he killed Dave. He killed my mother.

None of this was strictly true of course; he had been possessed at the time. The demon inhabiting his body had perpetrated the carnage she had seen, not Jake. Still it had been his cruelly twisted face that had gleefully told her of her mother’s fate. His body in her childhood home standing over the pentagram as her screaming mother’s blood soaked the floor.

She sighed and drank again, uncertain what to do. Her feelings about Jake were mixed to say the least. Her love for him now jumbled up with the horror his hands had wrought.

“Fuck,” she said softly to herself. She was about to take another sip when a footstep crunched on the sea-worn wood behind her. She turned quickly, pulse jumping into her throat, adrenaline caused by the terrors she had so recently faced.

It was Jake.

She relaxed a little seeing him there. Only for the previous tension about her feelings for him to quickly return.

“Isobel,” he said warmly, taking a step forward.

Isobel instinctively stepped back, away from him, her back brushing the cold metal railing. She wrapped her arms around herself, not just against the chill. Her arms were a barrier protecting her from the monster her beloved had become.

Nowhere to run, she thought then realised she was being ridiculous. This was Jake. The real Jake. The one she’d helped exorcise.

The one who’s no longer tainted.

A pang of regret slid through her as she realised anew that the common thing that had brought them together was gone. It was gone and she had taken it. She sighed and stepped forward. “Hey,” she said, looking up into his earnest brown eyes. His soft smile warmed her down to her toes. It also made her sad; sad and full of regret. The days had taken their toll and she was struggling to feel the same way she had before.

About Jake.

About everything.

Her life had changed irrevocably as had her worldview. She had been forced into accepting the reality of things she had never really believed in and she was no longer the same as she had been a week ago. She still hadn’t had time to fully process it all, to figure out how the events of the past week had changed her but she knew they had. She looked different. She felt different.

I did save the world.

She smiled cynically at that. It was cold fucking comfort.

“What’s funny?” Jake asked.

“I saved the world, Jake,” she said, looking him in the eyes. It was the first time she had said it out loud. Perversely, she realised she was pleased, even a little proud of her feat. Her smile broadened. “I saved the world.”

“Yeah,” Jake looked around as if to verify this, “So I see.” His smile faltered, “The not being on fire’s a plus.”

Isobel’s own smile fell at the mention of his torment. “How much of what I saw was real?”

His cheeks twitched in upset, “Enough.” Silence fell between them as the implications of Jake’s comment sank in. Finally Isobel broke it.

“How much of it do you remember?” she asked. “I mean were you there, in your own head? With the demon?”

“Yeah,” Jake sighed regretfully. “Yeah I was there. I remember all of it.” He shuddered, a shiver running through him, “Stuff I don’t want to remember.” He brushed a tear away from his eyes, but couldn’t stop the next one from falling. “God, it was horrible!” His voice cracked a little, “I remember everything I did, everything I was…” His haunted voice trailed off, his hands shaking. Quiet descended again as Jake wept silently, trying to quell the tears.

Isobel didn’t go to him, didn’t hug him. She wanted to, God knew she wanted to. She wanted to run to him, to comfort him, to hold him, wrap her arms around his body and pull him close... but another part of her wanted to stay as far away as she could from this... murderer.

She knew then that their relationship, was doomed. Despite her passionate defence of him, she was having difficulty coming to terms with his actions. She knew it wasn’t his fault but even the tiny smile on his face reminded her of the cruelty written across the demon’s visage; the almost smug satisfaction she’d seen as he’d taunted her. It was still there, in Jake’s features even though the demon was gone. Instead of facing this head on she changed conversational tack.

“I still have your shirt,” she told him, starting to remove the garment.

“Keep it,” Jake said as Isobel slipped her second arm out of the sleeve.

“I don’t want it.” She held it out to him and smiled to soften the blow. “Too big.”

“Oh.” He took the shirt without smiling, recognising that its size wasn’t the whole reason. “Thanks.”

Isobel smiled nervously, and wrapped her arms round herself again. This time the chill was more of an issue.

“I looked for you at my mum’s flat,” Isobel said rubbing her cold, bare arms, “Where’d you go?”

“Home,” Jake said. He frowned, “There was blood all over Neil’s room. Any idea what happened?”

“Demons,” she told him.

“Really?” Jake sounded stunned.

“Yeah.”

“Jesus!” Jake blinked, absorbing the shock. “God, what did they do to him?”

“Ask Ramona.” She tipped back her bottle, taking familiar comfort from the wine, “She channelled his soul… or something.”

Another minute’s silence stretched out before either of them spoke again.

“Where is Ramona?” Jake asked. “What happened to her?”

Isobel shrugged, “I don’t know. Back in Heaven I guess. She left me a post-apocalypse gift so I know she survived.”

“A gift?”

“Yeah,” Isobel smiled a little, raising her bottle.

Jake returned the smile, dimpling his cheeks in a very cute way, “She did get to know you.”

“I guess.” Isobel sipped her wine.

“She said she wanted to.”

“And you wanted to get to know her,” Isobel said coldly.

Jake had the grace to look embarrassed, ashamed even as he glanced guiltily away.

“Sorry,” he shrugged.

“Yeah.” Isobel sipped her wine again, mentally thanking Ramona. Right now she needed a drink. The awkward silence between them returned. At last Jake spoke.

“Did you mean what you said?” he asked, “After the exorcism?”

“What?” The question startled Isobel and she looked up, blinking in surprise.

“That you love me?” Jake said, “Did you mean it?”

“I...” Isobel blinked again stunned. “I did,” she said, struggling to articulate her conflicted thoughts, the swirling mess her feelings had become. “I do... I...” she sighed turning away from his penetrating gaze. When she looked back she stared him straight in the eyes. “You killed my mother, Jake.”

He looked away at that, guilt rendering him unable to meet her gaze.

“You killed Dave. You murdered everyone I care about!”

“It was a short list,” he said quietly.

“Well thank fuck!” A tear fell down her cheek. “And the tarot card? The lovers?” she shook her head with contempt and glared at him. Another tear fell. She wiped it away, sniffing. “I know you were possessed and everything, but... when I look at you I see her face, human and possessed. I see what she went through.” She pointed at his hands, wine sloshing in her bottle, “What those hands did.” She shivered. “I don’t want those hands touching me. Ever again.” She shook her head, crying. “Never.” She gave a loud sniff, tears falling quicker. “I couldn’t stand it.” She clasped a hand over her mouth, closing her eyes a moment as she sobbed, the loss of their love eating at her inside.

“What does that mean for us?”

Isobel barked a short harsh laugh, “It means we’re fucked!” She wiped savagely at her streaming eyes. “God, Jake, did you really think we could go back to the way things were before? After everything we’ve been through?” She shook her head and drank her wine, letting the tense silence stretch between them. Her eyes wandered out over the dark waves of the sea, looking for... something, an answer maybe. A solution to the unbridgeable gulf widening between her and Jake. It was peaceful out there, dark but peaceful. More peaceful than Isobel’s head that was for sure.

“I’m sorry,” Jake said finally.

Isobel looked back at him, “So am I.” She sighed and shook her head. She took another sip of wine.

“This is it then, huh?” He said, cheeks pinching as he said it.

“Yeah,” Isobel felt her own tears returning and blinked them back, wanting to stay strong, defiant to the last. “Yeah, this is it.”

“I’m sorry,” he said again.

Isobel sighed heavily. “Go home Jake,” she told him. “Leave me alone.”

“Out here?” he asked. “You don’t want me to walk you home?”

“No, thanks.” She gave him a last soft smile. “I just want to be alone.” With that she turned back to watching the sea, tears sliding down her cheeks, barely repressing her sobs as she listened to Jake’s footsteps fade away.


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