The tower was still burning. Isobel stood before it, as she had the previous night, heat blistering her pale skin. Beneath the entryway, shrouded by shadows, stood the dark haired girl from the night before, her black hair hiding her face.
Does she have one? Isobel shivered at the disturbing thought, goose bumps of fear breaking out on her arms despite the heat.
Flames cascaded up the building’s concrete edifice, roaring over the brick. Black smoke plumed into the sky, great columns of it filling the air, obscuring the sun and cloaking the world in shadow. Sheets of ash drifted lazily down, grey flakes swirling in the wind. Stray flakes landed in Isobel’s hair, burning away her red locks and branding her flesh.
The end is coming.
A movement caught her eyes and she saw the girl slowly lift her hand. Isobel fixed on it, eyes widening in fear. The rotting digit filled her vision as she watched the pale white-blue fingers flex, one pointed directly at her. Scared beyond reason, Isobel reflexively lifted her chin in defiance. A roar sounded above her. Whipping her head up, sending red hair cascading behind her, Isobel saw fire dragons circling the building, the crackling flames of their bodies visible between the thick columns of acrid smoke. When she inhaled she breathed in ash. She hoped to God it wasn’t the remnants of people.
Corpse can’t be good for your lungs.
One of the fire dragons turned and started diving towards her, roaring as it approached. Isobel knew what was coming, knew she was to be consumed by flames. Desperately looking around she saw a twisted old beer can lying on the floor. Almost without thinking she dived for it, missing the dragons burst of fire, but scalding her bare arms on the hot tarmac.
The crushed beer can was searing hot when she grabbed it, but somehow, through grim determination, she held on. The fire dragon landed, sending shockwaves rippling through the ground. Isobel whipped round to face the flaming monstrosity, squinting against the heat of the too close flames. It was fucking enormous! Just its head was the height of Isobel and double her width. It was a terrible thing to behold. Heat leapt off the beast, little flames dancing up Isobel’s arms as it faced her. She was all too aware that her back was to the dark haired girl and prayed that the uneven, shuffling footsteps she could hear were only in her mind.
Remembering what Ramona had said about her blood, Isobel frantically twisted the crumpled can until it ripped down the middle. Before she could think too much about what she was doing she cut a gash in her palm with the jagged metal. Dark red blood rose, flowing out of the wound in a crimson stream, dripping from the edge of her hand. She held her trembling palm out toward the dragon.
Time froze, or at least it seemed to.
The dragon’s low, bass growl ceased as did the shuffling steps behind her. All Isobel could hear was the warm crackling of the fire as it consumed the high rise block and the world. Ash fell silently over the dark tableau. Risking a glance over her shoulder she saw the girl was a mere two feet away.
And there was another form. Was that... Jake she could just make out in the distance? She was trying to focus on too many things, her head spun as she watched her blood drip steadily onto the road, where the drops sizzled and evaporated...
She woke with a start, hot sweat running from every pore. Once again her bed sheets were soaked and she was glad she had slept nude. She gasped, sucking in big heaving gulps of air. There didn’t seem to be enough oxygen, it was all being consumed by the flames. No, she shut her eyes, forcing herself to take slower breaths before the rush of air made her dizzy. She was in her room. She was safe.
Beside her Jake bolted upright with a yell. He looked round wide eyed and panicked before realizing where he was. Isobel sighed, resigned to their fate. His eyes were black, as presumably were hers. She looked down at her lap and began to cry. That was when she saw it. Across the palm of her hand was a pale, healing wound. A wound she recognised.
“Oh God,” her voice was shaky and hollow.
“What?” Jake said beside her. She just shook her head in numb horror staring at her scarred hand. Jake’s eyes followed hers and he let out a small gasp of shock.
“What the hell is that?” He looked at her, “What happened? Are you okay?”
Wide eyed with terror she just shook her head.
He reached out to comfort her.
She jumped when his hand touched her, as if she’d been shocked. She blinked once and tried to smile at him. She would have succeeded if her jaw wasn’t trembling so badly.
Jake clearly didn’t believe this. “What happened?” he asked gently.
Sitting in bed, the pale blue light of dawn shining through her gauzy curtains, Isobel told Jake about her dream, how she’d cut her hand and subdued the fire dragon.
“You didn’t do that in your sleep?” he asked, shocked.
“With a beer can,” she said. “In my dream.”
“That’s not possible.”
“You see anything sharp in here?” she snapped.
“Well you definitely didn’t have that before going to bed,” he said. “I’d have noticed a cut that big.”
She smiled thinly, “It is kinda hard to miss.” She sighed and rubbed at her head. “She was right.” She didn’t look at Jake as she spoke. “She said we’d be able to control those...things.” Despite her dream Isobel was still reluctant to believe Ramona’s story. But even to her cynical mind the evidence was beginning to stack up.
“I tried to tell you.”
“Shut up.”A note of quiet, seething anger laced her voice. Without looking at him she continued, “I really wanted her to be bullshitting us.”
“Do you understand the implications Jake? If everything she said is true then we’re damned, damned without any hope of redemption. Ever.”
“I know,” he said quietly.
“I’m scared,” she whispered. “And not just of the dreams, not anymore. There’s got to be a way out of this Jake, there has to be.”
“Why?” he said, “Why does there have to be a way out? There isn’t always.”
“I can’t go on if they’re really isn’t any hope Jake, what would be the point? I have to believe in hope... but I can’t believe a lie.”
“All hope is a lie,” he said.
“No wonder you’re an alcoholic.”
“It’s true,” he shrugged. “We convince ourselves things will always somehow be okay. Usually it’s bullshit. Face it Izzy we’re fucked.”
“Don’t call me that Jake,” she sighed.
Just then a phone rang. Isobel didn’t recognise the ringtone. Jake, however, did. He leapt out of bed and rummaged through the pile of clothes on the floor until he found his jeans, shoving his hand roughly into one pocket he snatched out his mobile, flipped it open and put it to his ear. “Hey,” he said.
Isobel could faintly hear the voice on the other end. It sounded female.
The distinctive cadence of her voice was recognisable even from here and though she could hear the tone, Isobel couldn’t make out precisely what the other woman was saying.
“Uh huh,” Jake nodded. “Yeah we’ll be there.” Another pause while Ramona spoke. “Yeah, half an hour.” He hung up.
“Well?” Isobel couldn’t hide the annoyance in her voice. His eyes met hers, seeing the strange mix of sadness, sorrow and anger written on her face; she clearly knew who had called… and she wasn’t happy.
“That was Ramona.”
“So I gathered.” She was terse, “Are you going somewhere?”
“We are,” he said. “There’s been another summoning, a successful one this time.”
“Uh huh.” Isobel said slowly.
“She says she needs us to help track and hunt the demon.”
“Right.” Isobel ran her hands roughly over her face, through her long dark hair, massaging her curls. “And why does she have your number?”
“Because I gave it to her.”
“And you didn’t think it significant that you gave another, very attractive woman your phone number? You didn’t think that was important enough to tell me?”
“Not really,” he shrugged. “She has to be able to contact at least one of us.”
“And of course it automatically has to be you.”
“Well you’d stormed off,” he pointed out. “And besides you’re the one who said, quite emphatically, that you weren’t my girlfriend.”
She looked down, “I know,” she said quietly. “It’s just...” she sniffed and wiped at her eyes. Jake sat down gently on the edge of the bed, “You’re the only one I can share this with Jake, the only person who gets it. I can’t lose you.”
“Especially not to Ramona,” she practically spat the name.
“She’s alright,” he laughed a little. “She’s divine.”
Isobel just looked at him.
“You said half an hour?”
“Well, then we’d better get dressed.” She threw back the covers and swept across the room to her underwear drawer, without looking at Jake. She already just wanted to get today over with.
* * *
The place they ended up was under a disused railway bridge in the woods just outside of town. Secluded but not exactly remote. As she approached Isobel could see what looked like a small stream in the centre of the dirt track under the bridge, a glistening length that ran through the centre of the space.
Turned out it was congealed blood.
The closer she got the more gory details she could make out; huge splashes of blood decorated the dusty red brick walls and dark red pools lay on the ground. The plants growing out onto the path were flecked liberally with gore, some of it leaving red smears across Isobel’s bare arms as she brushed past. There were larger crimson chunks strewn in the vermilion pools all over the floor. She didn’t even want to try and identify them; she could tell that the hunks of bloody meat had once belonged to a person that was enough. Her stomach tied itself in a knot and she fought down nausea, glad she hadn’t had time for breakfast.
Standing under the bridge amid the gore and cool shadows, untouched by the glorious morning sunshine was Ramona. She looked immaculate in a slinky low necked, short black dress with an asymmetrical ripped hem, one side ended just below her knee, the other near the top of her thigh, loose threads dangled in the middle as if she had torn away part of the skirt herself. Her cleavage was emphasised by the low neckline and the long silver chain that bisected her breasts. Isobel was also pretty sure she was wearing a push up bra. She sighed. In haste she’d just grabbed the first thing that came to hand, yesterdays ripped jeans and a faded Nirvana t-shirt, and she felt horribly unsexy by comparison.
No wonder Jake fancies her, she mused. Ankle deep in carnage and she looks phenomenal.
The lady in question was looking down at something, Isobel saw it clearly as she and Jake walked into the open ground before the bridge. A small gasp of shock escaped her.
It was another pentagram.
A big one.
The sides of the circle took up the majority of the space under the bridge, leaving little room to stand around its perimeter. Again it was drawn in blood, this time Isobel didn’t need to ask. The smell made it obvious. There were shapes on the ground, Isobel hadn’t noticed them before because they were a similar colour to the soil. Now they stood out in sharp relief. One of the pale, dusty objects she recognised, but it took her sleepy mind a minute to fully realise what the mutilated chunk actually was.
“Is... is that a hand?” she asked, voice breathy.
“Yes,” Ramona said simply. “Good morning.”
Ramona smiled, “I bought you coffee.” She indicated the cardboard container holding two takeaway cups and took a sip from the one she was holding.
“Got any whiskey to go in it?” Isobel asked as Jake handed her a cup with her name written on the side. She took the cup with a warm affectionate smile that Jake returned.
Maybe there’s hope yet, she thought, although Jake was already distracted by Ramona, his eyes continually wandering to her bare legs, between her leather biker boots and short skirt.
“Sorry,” Ramona said. “Yours is two sugars, black if that helps.”
“Thanks,” Isobel frowned, wondering how Ramona knew how she took her coffee. Her eyes kept wandering over the gruesome scene, her mind trying not to fixate on specific details. Of course now that she’d noticed the hand, it was near impossible not to notice the multitude of other body parts. Most of a foot lay over the way, looking as if something had gnawed at the toes. Half a hand had fallen near the pentagram, one digit ripped off at the gory socket, showing bone and sinew. The first sips of coffee started churning in Isobel’s stomach and she hoped to God the caffeine had enough time to hit her blood stream before she threw it back up. “Why are there... parts?” she asked, yes flicking to Ramona. “The last one didn’t have parts.”
“This summoning was actually successful,” Ramona told her. “That means the idiots who did this managed to raise a demon, but not contain it. It slaughtered them as demons are wont to do.” She sounded irked, “It’s out here somewhere. I need to find it and destroy it.”
Isobel was listening, but her gaze had fixed on the pentagram, her mind trying to shield her from some of the horror and focus on something familiar. Even if the familiar was, in itself, bizarre. If she kept staring at severed body parts she was certain she’d go mad. Denying every instinct in her body, she took a step closer and looked at Ramona. “You’ve examined this right?”
She nodded, “Yes.”
“There’s no salt circle.”
“What does that mean?” Jake chipped in sipping his coffee. Outwardly he sounded calm, but from the look in his eyes, Isobel could tell he was spooked by the carnage too. She took a shallow breath, trying not to inhale the scent of offal and bloodshed.
“It means they didn’t protect themselves or restrain... whatever they conjured up.” She looked at Ramona, “They couldn’t control it, like you said.”
She nodded again, “Look at the runes.”
Isobel looked at the runic symbols, drawn in blood in the dirt. “Those two are familiar.”
She squatted and looked at the runes in question. They had been smeared across the dirt after being drawn making them harder to decipher. It took Isobel a minute to understand what she was reading. “Cycles of life and death,” she said at last, “Just like before.” She paused and looked at a series of runes closer to her. “This is new. I don’t recognise this.”
“It’s chaos,” Ramona said.
“Chaos?” Isobel asked. She squinted at the runes, “There’s no rune for C in the Futhrak system.” She paused. “They mixed their runic alphabets?”
“Yes.” Ramona looked around, eyes wandering over the blood drenched walls. “Chaos has no rules. Neither does a demon on the loose.” She looked back at Isobel, “We have to stop this thing. Now.”
“How?” Jake asked.
“Why?” Isobel snapped, standing up. “Why should we hunt this thing down? Why not you?” She looked Ramona up and down, “You not angel enough?”
Ramona smiled, a terrible smile, beauty and cruelty mixed together. “I can do it myself,” she said coolly, “but it’ll take time. It’s a lot easier to track a demon if you’ve got tainted souls with you.”
“Why?” Isobel demanded.
Ramona looked at Isobel’s hand and inclined her head.
Isobel looked down. The shock almost made her drop her coffee. Her forearm and hand were crawling with the same black veins she’d seen the previous day at the high rise building.
“Better than sat nav,” Ramona smiled.
Isobel just glared at her.
* * *
They set off through the undergrowth, following a loosely defined narrow dirt path between two vast patches of tall overgrown brambles. Thorns pricked their skin occasionally as they passed. Blood flecked the leaves a long way back, as if the demon had taken parts of the carcasses with it to snack on en route to wherever it was going. Isobel was afraid to ask Ramona about it though; she was certain she didn’t want to know the answer. In fact she was sure she already knew it. Isobel was leading the way, her tainted blood and veins guiding them.
As if the trail of gore wasn’t a dead giveaway.
Ramona was behind her, with Jake bringing up the rear. “So what are we looking for?” Isobel asked, irritably, sipping at her coffee. This wasn’t how she wanted to spend her morning. In bed with Jake, yeah, but not traipsing through bushes with her rival in tow.
“A demon,” Ramona said.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Isobel muttered and sipped her coffee. It wasn’t doing anything to soothe her irritation. “I mean how will we recognise it? Are we looking for a spiny creature with horns and a tail? Red devil skin? What?”
“It will look human,” Ramona told her. “As we take God’s image, so too do demons.”
“Camouflage,” Jake chipped in.
“Exactly,” Ramona smiled at him. Isobel glared at her, wishing the brunette wasn’t so damn sexy. “Demons need to blend in, same as angels.”
“So how will we recognise it?” Isobel asked again.
“Your blood should lead us right to it,” Ramona informed her. “Once in its general vicinity I should be able to sense it, distinguish it from the mass.”
“Mass?” Isobel asked, brushing a thorny branch from her path.
“Yes. It’s likely to seek cover in a populated area. You can’t kill someone with witnesses present. It’s counting on the crowd to protect it.”
“So what do we do when we find it?”
“Wait to catch it alone.”
“And then?” Isobel prompted.
“And then we kill it.”
Isobel sighed and drank her coffee.
“How many people do you think were involved in the ritual back there?” Jake asked.
“I don’t know,” Ramona told him. “At least one, plus the sacrifice. On average you need two at least to hold the sacrifice down during the ritual and one to perform the rites, so probably four, maybe five.”
“There weren’t a lot of... parts, for five people.”
“The demon probably ate some.” Ramona sidestepped a thorny branch that had just snagged Isobel. “It’s common for demons to partially devour those that summon them.” She held the branch aside for Jake to pass.
“You’re welcome,” she smiled. The path was widening out now so they began to walk side by side. A short distance away was a row of houses. “Of course,” Ramona continued, “Most demons are spirits and simply inhabit a human host temporarily.”
“Hang on,” Isobel said turning around. “That would make killing this demon thing murder, if it’s in a person’s body. I’m not murdering people, Ramona, you can fuck right off.”
“You don’t have to,” Ramona said. “I will.”
Isobel just looked at her aghast.
“Besides,” Ramona continued, “The host is usually the body of an already damned soul so they’re already dead. The demon just needs a physical form to manifest in. They can jump bodies though, so watch out.”
Isobel looked at her doubtfully. “If you say so.”
Isobel shook her head and faced forwards again, they were coming to the end of the underbrush, the branches on either side thinning, disappearing back and making way for the concrete path ahead. Isobel couldn’t help thinking of her blood sizzling on the hot tarmac in her dream. The dirt track transformed into a concrete footpath running between two rows of houses, wooden fences shored up the sides and at the end Isobel could see a residential street. She stopped, unsure how to proceed. The black veins in her arms were slithering towards the tips of her fingers, urging her to keep moving forwards, but Isobel was worried that someone might see her arm. Surely a woman with black veins running down her arm would stand out? If they were on a seek and destroy mission they didn’t want to be conspicuous. She stood undecided on the edge of the path.
“What’s wrong?” Ramona asked.
“My arm,” Isobel said. “Look at it. We’re heading into a residential neighbourhood, it’s a touch noticeable don’t you think? Hell, what about my eyes?”
“I doubt anyone will notice.”
Before Ramona could respond Jake said: “Here” and slipped out of the check shirt he was wearing over his t-shirt, “Wear this. The sleeves will make your veins less noticeable.”
“Yeah, it’ll also swamp me,” she said taking the shirt. Her face softened as she looked at him. “Thank you.”
“No worries.” He returned her smile. They looked into each other’s eyes for a moment, as if Ramona wasn’t even there. Slipping into the shirt, Isobel rolled the cuffs up past her hands. “This way,” she gestured dead ahead and started moving.
As she’d said the passage led to a quiet residential area. Semi-detached houses lined the streets, cars parked on driveways rather than the kerb. Given the time of day it was near silent, most of the residents either at work or the beach. In the quiet Isobel could hear birds chirping in the trees.
“Beautiful” Ramona said, appearing behind her and making her jump.
“What?” Isobel was still irritated with her. She had been pissed off with Ramona ever since Jake had answered the phone to her and the feeling wasn’t going anywhere.
“The birds.” Ramona smiled, cocked her head slightly and listened. After a moment she laughed. Isobel and Jake both looked at her strangely. “Sorry, bird humour,” she said still smiling. Jake reacted with a small, amused smile of his own. Isobel scowled at him in irritation, only succeeding in making him smile wider.
“Whatever.” Isobel shook her head and with an exasperated sigh, cast a glance down at her hand. The veins were crawling left so she followed, trusting them to lead her to their quarry. Town, she thought, they’re leading us back towards town.
* * *
Ten minutes later shops began to appear amongst the houses with greater frequency. Five minutes after that they came to the edge of the town centre. People were milling about even on the periphery of town, even for a summer day it was pretty crowded. Why the hell was everyone out so early? Was there something happening she didn’t know about? Isobel watched the hordes bustling to and fro with a weary heart; even the things she didn’t want to do weren’t going her way this morning.
“Shit.” She turned to Ramona. “We can’t hunt something in this!”
“We have to.” Ramona said, simply.
“How?” Isobel insisted, gesturing at the crowds. “Ramona, what the hell is so important about killing these demons?”
“They’re going to bring about the apocalypse.”
“So? I’d welcome it. I’ve always wanted to see how the world ends.”
Ramona just looked at her.
Isobel shook her head, “I can’t fucking believe I’m doing this.” She turned away and consulted her veins. “This way,” she said, crossing the road, watching the black threads in her arm change direction like some hideous compass. Deep down Isobel knew why she was here. Jake would have jumped to Ramona’s summons regardless, after all he believed her.
And Isobel didn’t want him alone with Ramona if she could help it.
A couple more twists and turns later the trio found themselves standing outside a very narrow, very expensive looking cocktail bar. “I thought you said it wanted a crowd,” Isobel said. “Not much call for pitchers of sangria at this time of the morning.”
Ramona sniffed the air, inhaling deeply. “They don’t just serve sangria.”
Isobel inhaled. The aroma of warm, ground coffee filled her nose, the caffeine already making her buzz. “Good,” she said and took a step forwards.
“Wait a minute,” Jake said. “Don’t we need some kind of plan.” He looked to Ramona, back to Isobel, Ramona again.
“We go in there, we flush it out, we kill it,” Ramona said. “That’s the plan.”
“Jake’s right, we need something a little bit more specific,” Isobel cautioned.
“The first thing we need to do is identify it,” Ramona told them. “Then we get it somewhere secluded and kill it.”
“With what?” Isobel asked. “It’s not like we’re packing shotguns and holy hand grenades.”
Ramona just smiled secretively and led them into the bar.
Isobel and Jake exchanged a glance before following, unsaid words weighing like stones between them.
Colourful neon signs glowed behind the bar, the daylight diminishing their power, robbing them of vitality, making something that would at night be vibrant and colourful seem faded and old. Black and chrome furnishings both attracted the heat and reflected the light, so when Isobel touched a chair it was hot, but still sent slivers of sunlight sparkling into her eyes. She blinked coloured spots from her vision and sat at the side table Ramona had picked for their stakeout. Ramona sat with her back to the door so she could see the whole room, Jake sat opposite and Isobel had her back to the wall so she could see the other patrons.
“Well?” Isobel asked Ramona, “Any ideas?”
Frowning, the angel slowly shook her head, “No. I can sense its presence, but I can’t identify who it is.”
Isobel shrugged, “Maybe we should just kill everyone.” Ramona gave her a deadpan look. Jake just laughed. “Joke” Isobel explained.
“It wasn’t funny.”
Isobel and Jake looked at each other and smiled.
A young man with short dark hair, wearing a white t-shirt and black apron arrived to take their order. Everyone asked for coffee, Jake and Isobel both requesting theirs Irish.
Then it happened.
The waiter had just finished jotting down the order when a slim brunette in a white floral print summer dress emerged from a corner at the back of the room. Ramona’s eyes flicked up, her face becoming serious and alert. Her body stiffened, ready for action. “That’s her,” she said.
“Our demon.” Ramona nodded imperceptibly at the girl sliding onto a stool at the counter, “Her.”
“The brunette in the dress?”
“Wow.” Isobel blinked. “You said it’d look normal.”
“What were you expecting? Cloven hooves?”
Jake smiled at that and Isobel shot him a dirty look. His smile became a grin.
Ramona’s face was serious, “Most evil wears an ordinary face.”
“Okay,” Isobel was starting to feel panicky now. She took a deep breath and blew it out slowly, willing her hands not to shake. “How do we do this?”
Ramona sat back, arms folded over her chest, drawing Jake’s attention to it. “We wait.”
“For her to leave.” She locked eyes with Isobel, “Then we get her alone.”
“Three against one.” Jake mused, looking at the table top. His eyes flicked up to Ramona’s, “Hardly seems fair.”
“You’ve never fought one of these things,” Ramona said flatly. She paused to thank the waiter who’d brought their drinks. When he’d gone she continued, “A demon put me through a building once.”
“Through a building?” Isobel raised her eyebrows, “What do you mean through a building?”
“I mean through the brick wall on one side,” she used her hands to demonstrate the walls and her own position, “through several internal walls and out the brick on the other side.”
“Ow,” Jake commented.
“Seriously?” Isobel was incredulous.
“Seriously,” Ramona assured her. “Would you like to see the scars?”
“Scars?” Jake sounded a little scared.
Ramona smiled, “It takes a lot to scar an angel, but being pitched through five solid brick walls at high velocity will do it.” Her grim smile grew, “I’m just glad the building didn’t collapse on me. That is unpleasant.” Her eyes returned to the demon at the counter. She was drinking her coffee, oblivious to them and their conversation. Ramona followed suit, taking a sip from her own steaming cup.
“What happened to the demon?” Jake asked.
“I killed it.” Ramona smiled, a predatory darkness filling her eyes, a cruel, vengeful smile curling her lips.
“You are an angel right?” Isobel asked.
“You just seem awfully sadistic for an agent of light. Aren’t you supposed to be all peaceful? Shouldn’t you have, like, a white dress and a halo? Maybe a harp?”
Ramona laughed, “A court angel you mean? Jesus no!” She laughed again and shook her head with mirth, “No, put me in the centre of the action any day. Much more fun.”
“You took the Lord’s name in vain again,” Jake observed. “Isn’t that blasphemy?”
“He’s not listening,” Ramona smiled. “Anyway he’s not bothered, in fact he’s been known to take his own name in vain,” her smile spread. “It’s really quite funny.”
Isobel and Jake looked at each other, taken aback by this strange information.
“Anyway,” Ramona continued, “he’s too busy to monitor everything. As long as you two have got someone watching you and the world doesn’t end, God and I are fine.”
“Oh. Okay.” Jake shrugged and glanced over at the demon lady.
Isobel sighed. He was looking at every woman except her. Did he really get bored that quickly? She knew she wouldn’t shake that pesky thought now it had gotten its hooks into her mind. Damn it!
“So how exactly does it work?” she asked Ramona, trying to distract herself from her insecurities. “The you and God thing?”
“Simple,” Ramona said. “He’s my boss. He gives me instructions, I carry them out and report back when the jobs done. Of course I’ve usually got multiple things happening so it’s more of an occasional progress update. I don’t have to check in with him all that often. I’ve got a lot of autonomy.”
“And he just trusts you?” Isobel wrapped both hands around her coffee mug, drawing comfort from the warmth. All this talk of God gave her chills, as if despite what Ramona said, he was watching.
Ramona smiled, “Well, I am an angel. We’re generally considered trustworthy.”
“Stereotypes are so unreliable,” Isobel commented and drank her coffee, wishing there was more whiskey in it. Ramona narrowed her eyes slightly at the jibe, but didn’t rise to the bait.
“So what exactly is your job?” Jake asked, wanting to redirect the tense conversation before Ramona could respond to Isobel’s antagonism.
“Right now? Apocalypse prevention.”
“Yes, perhaps an angel’s most sacred duty.” Her back straightened, her eyes fixed on the woman at the bar. “Drink up, she’s on the move.” Sure enough the lady at the bar was finishing her drink. Ramona downed the rest of her coffee, grateful it wasn’t served straight off the boil and slapped a tenner on the table. As the woman turned and slipped off her stool Isobel noticed the high heels on her sandals. “She’ll never be able to run in those,” she whispered to Ramona.
“She will,” the angel replied. As their quarry left Ramona indicated the money to the waiter and turned to the others. “Follow my lead and keep up. I’m going to need you.” With that she whipped round, her hair flicking in a dark curtain and headed out.
Outside the street was still bustling with morning traffic both pedestrian and automotive. If anything it was busier than before. Ramona spotted the demon halfway across the road, glanced over her shoulder to make sure Jake and Isobel were following and swept across after her. The demon appeared to be heading deeper into the town centre, toward the shops. “Where’s she going?” Ramona asked directly over her shoulder, dark eyes fixed on her target.
“Shopping centre, dead ahead,” Isobel pointed. Sure enough just across the next road a concrete and glass edifice loomed. Isobel had a quick flash of memory; the building on fire, flames pluming from the windows, billowing into a black sky filled with the agonised screams of the dying.
The demon stopped at the crossing, waiting for the light to change. A perfect opportunity to strike. The light went green just as Ramona caught up to their target. As the woman crossed she looked over her shoulder. Her eyes widened as she clocked Ramona staring after her. Her head flipped round and she moved faster, weaving effortlessly through the crowd, in a bid to escape. Ramona, followed, sweeping easily through the crowd, focussed only on her prey.
Jake and Isobel lacked Ramona’s dexterity and took longer to wade across the sea of oncoming bodies. They watched as Ramona glanced back at them, then dived into the shopping centre not wanting to lose ground in the chase.
Isobel swore as Ramona disappeared from sight. It took Jake and her another minute to reach the side entrance where Ramona had vanished.
The door opened directly into the women’s section of a department store. Up ahead Isobel saw Ramona briskly rounding a rail of black dresses. She wasn’t quite running, but looked ready to start. She tapped Jake’s arm and pointed. Jake moved quickly and Isobel couldn’t help a pang of despair, seeing how eager he was to catch up to Ramona. God help her, she was already falling for him.
As they caught up to Ramona, they saw the demon exiting the store and crossing the open foyer, towards a bank of escalators. They were so close; Isobel could hear the rapid staccato of the woman’s heels clicking against the tile floor. It hadn’t occurred to Isobel until that moment, but the woman was desperately trying to escape. Did she know who Ramona was? Isobel’s heart beat faster with trepidation. She was anxious about what was to come.
Ramona turned to them. “Act like we’ve lost her,” she commanded and looked around as if searching for something. She spotted the demon at the foot of the escalators, but turned back to Isobel before her quarry noticed. “You still got the blood flowing GPS girl?” she asked abruptly.
Isobel rolled up her shirt sleeve and showed her the thickening network of black veins crawling down her arm.
“Good. That’ll be useful. Come on.” Ramona led them quickly across the floor, the sun shining down on them, its heat amplified by the glass skylight. Isobel felt a trickle of sweat run down her neck in the growing heat.
Their prey had just disappeared over the lip of the escalators. A couple got on ahead of them, blocking their way. Ramona drummed her fingers impatiently on the banister all the way up. As soon as they hit the top she strode off the escalator, eyes scanning the area.
There was no sign of the demon.
Several girls wearing pale summer dresses were walking around the floor chatting and window shopping. None of them were the demon. “Shit,” she uttered and turned to Isobel. “Which way?”
Isobel examined the veins writhing along her arm and infesting her hand. With shaking, black tipped fingers she pointed unsteadily to a set of double doors. “That way,” she announced.
Ramona led the charge. She burst through the double doors, thrusting them both aside and startling an old lady on the other side. “Sorry,” she said. The old lady tsked at her as she stepped past, giving Ramona a stern look. On the wall to the right were two doors.
Ladies and gents.
“Guess whose behind door number two,” Ramona said, a cold edge creeping into her voice. She turned to Isobel, “Here.” She produced a small penknife. “Both of you cut your palms with this.”
“What? Why?” Jake protested.
“Isobel knows why.” Her eyes flicked to Isobel. “You tried it in your dream last night didn’t you? And it worked.”
“How did you…” Isobel began.
“I saw your hand earlier. You didn’t have a scar there yesterday.” She whipped her head round, “Come on, there’s not much time.” The old lady was long gone but it was only a matter of time before someone else came through those doors. On a day this busy they could be interrupted any second. “Now,” she hissed.
Isobel sighed and angled the point towards her open palm. She braced herself, pushed the tip against her flesh and pulled down in a steady line tracing the crooked path of her new scar. The knife was frighteningly sharp, parting her skin like warm butter. She hissed at the pain as dark crimson blood welled and trickled from her hand. The knife was sharper than Isobel had realised and she’d cut deeper than she’d intended. Wincing at the burning pain of her wound, she handed the knife to Jake. He hesitated in cutting his palm, looking to Ramona who gave him a reassuring nod and a tiny smile. Isobel glowered at Ramona, angry with her even as blood dripped from her stinging wound. She heard a familiar gasp of pain next to her as Jake sliced his own hand open. She gave Ramona a frosty look as he handed back the knife.
“Okay,” Ramona folded the knife away. “You two go first, hold the demon in place like this,” she held her hand out, palm facing forward to illustrate. “It’ll take some concentration but between you, you can do it. I’m right behind you.”
Isobel took a deep breath. “We’re all fucking insane,” she said and pushed into the ladies, bloody palm outstretched.
Jake was hot on her heels.
The woman was against the far wall. Alone. She was searching the wall with hands and eyes, frantically seeking a way out. Clearly she had expected there to be a window. Instead she was trapped. She froze in place as Isobel and Jake held out their hands.
“Turn around,” Isobel told her.
The woman, slowly, turned to face them, terror writ large across her delicate features. Her eyes were wide, showing white round the edges, her face a pale, colourless visage. Isobel had just a second to appreciate how scared the woman was.
“Close in and spread out,” Ramona said, coming in behind them.
Jake moved round to stand closer to the wall, his hand dripping blood on the linoleum tiled floor. He and Isobel both moved closer to the panicked woman, creating an invisible net between them.
A smile quirked one side of Ramona’s lips as she stood between her comrades. “Caught you,” she said with terrifying finality.
“W… What’s happening?” The woman’s voice trembled with fright, “What are you doing?” Tears fell down her face, leaving mascara trails. “Who are you?”
Isobel glanced doubtfully at Ramona. “You sure about this?”
Ramona’s savage smile widened. “Oh yeah. She’s the one. Can’t you feel it?”
Isobel could feel something. Energy held in check, pushing against the force emanating from her hand, trying to break free. It was a peculiar sensation, feeling another presence pushing against her hand. Only it wasn’t really against her hand, rather the energy flowing from it. From her blood. The force pressing against her hand felt weird, it felt…
“Evil,” she whispered.
“Evil,” Ramona nodded.
“What? I’m not evil!” The woman shrieked, a pleading note in her voice.
Isobel winced at the sound, uncertain. In her flowery dress and cute sandals, she didn’t look evil.
“Is it really that black and white?” Isobel asked, glancing at Ramona. “I mean you’re pretty evil.”
Ramona looked at her. “I’m not evil. Bad, maybe, but not evil.” Her gaze returned to the demon before them, “She is.”
Isobel’s attention, too, returned to the terrified, weeping woman she and Jake were holding captive. “So what do we do now?” she asked anxiously.
“No!” The woman cried, “Please no! I’m not who you think I am, I haven’t done anything!”
Isobel glanced at Jake, silently asking him what he thought. He just looked at her and shrugged. Something surged against her palm, Isobel’s head snapped round, dark hair momentarily clouding her view. The woman had moved away from the wall where they held her. Isobel refocused her efforts and the woman’s forward motion stopped.
“Jesus, that’s creepy,” she said aloud. Confusion clouded Isobel’s mind, the woman didn’t look like a demon, but then how was her blood holding her in place? Was Ramona actually right? Her mind was in turmoil and everything seemed uncertain. Anxiety broke her concentration and she felt the woman’s energy surge against her palm again.
“Hold her still!” Ramona commanded.
The woman was begging for her life now, tears streaming down her face, body quaking in fear. Isobel’s doubt turned to outright confusion. “Ramona, I really don’t know about this,” she said. “I mean, she’s crying, she’s terrified.”
“Parlour tricks,” Ramona’s voice was cold. “Don’t listen to it.”
“Easy for you to say.”
She shrugged and reached behind her shoulder. In one smooth, swift motion she drew a long sword, glowing steel tapered to a fine, sharp point.
“What the fuck!?” Isobel cried. “Where the fuck did that come from?”
Ramona just looked at her and smiled.
“Jesus!” Isobel shook her head. “This is so fucked up!”
Ramona’s smile widened. Her eyes returned to the demon. She pointed the gleaming, razor edged blade at her. A pale blue light seemed to glow from within it, but surely, Isobel thought, that couldn’t be right. It simply wasn’t possible.
Isobel blinked, her attention wavering. The demon lurched forward slightly, taking advantage of Isobel’s lapse.
“Hold her still!” Ramona snapped. She returned her attention to the pleading, weeping woman, standing shaking with fear in front of her.
“Wait!” Isobel said.
“We can’t. We need to do this now! Before someone comes in.”
“Fuck!” she yelled, her frustration and anxiety boiling over. “Please Ramona, don’t do this! It doesn’t feel right! Nothing you’ve said makes sense!”
“You’re sympathising because you’re tainted.”
“I’m sympathising because I’m human!” she cried. “You can’t just run her through!”
“Wrong.” Ramona drew her arm back ready to thrust with the sword.
“No.” Isobel dropped her hand and straightened up. “No. I’m not going to help you murder this woman. I don’t care. This is wrong.”
“What the fuck?” Ramona’s eyes were locked on the demon, “Isobel put your hand back up now!”
“Isobel,” Jake said, voice strained, “I can’t hold her by myself.”
A tremendous weight seemed to have disappeared when Isobel dropped her hand. Of course, Jake was now shouldering all the weight of holding back the demon. And it was more than he could do alone.
“Good.” She looked at him, a little sadly. “Jake, we can’t just help her kill someone.”
“Fuck this.” Ramona lunged with the sword. At the same time the demon, sensing weakness in the ranks, took advantage of their division and sprang forward with tremendous strength and speed. She slammed into Ramona, sending her crashing into the wall, hard enough to smash tile and partially embedding the angel in the wall. The breaking of the restraints flung Jake hard into the wall as well. He hit with a loud smack, denting the tile and crashed to the ground. The woman wrenched the door open, Isobel saw the hinges pull slightly out of the wall, and ran.
Ramona pulled herself from the dent in the wall and shook dust and plaster out of her hair. There was a long thin cut on her forehead. She shot Isobel a heated look, so hostile it actually scared her and dashed off after the demon.
Isobel went to Jake where he lay on the floor.
“Jake!” she cried panicked. “Jake are you okay?”
“Yeah.” He winced as he sat up and rubbed his shoulder. “Bit bruised, she threw me pretty hard.”
“She didn’t touch you,” Isobel said quietly.
“Shit.” She watched his eyes widen just a fraction, “Really?”
“God.” He blinked, “What the hell were you thinking Isobel?”
“Jake stop thinking with your dick and use your brain! We can’t just help her kill people. We can’t.”
“Demons,” he reminded her. “Not people. Demons. Monsters.”
“It can’t be real,” she said. “Jake, it can’t! It’s insane!”
“Welcome to life,” he said coldly. “It isn’t sane but it is real, Isobel. You just don’t want to believe it.”
Before she could respond Ramona came crashing back into the room, slamming the door back with such force that it cracked the tile on the wall. “You stupid little bitch!” she snarled, stalking towards Isobel. “Do you have any idea what you’ve just done?”
Isobel rose and stared Ramona in the eyes, face to face with the angry angel. She was scared, but the hell was she backing down; she’d never backed down before and she damn well wasn’t going to start now. Cooly she replied, “Saved a woman’s life.”
“And killed a dozen others probably!” Ramona spun and stalked away. As she turned to start back towards her, Isobel realised Ramona was still grasping her sword, her hand clenching and unclenching around the hilt.
Fuck, she thought.
Ramona sneered contemptuously at her, “You have no fucking idea what just happened do you?”
“That woman!” Ramona jabbed toward the door with the eerily glowing sword. “That woman is a demon. A demon who this morning slaughtered at least two people and will now kill a whole lot more!” She shouted the last. Isobel stared at her defiantly as she stalked closer, coming face to face with her once more before quietly continuing, “All because you let her go.”
“Fuck you,” Isobel spat.
Like lightning, Ramona’s hand shot out, grabbing Isobel by the throat and slamming her into the steel corner of the nearest stall, sending vibrations through the metal. Pain rocketed up Isobel’s spine as her vertebrae hit the thin steel, but she could barely cry out; she was struggling to breathe round Ramona’s crushing fist. She’d underestimated how strong the angel was. Isobel could feel her windpipe beginning to give way and knew she’d be bruised later. Ramona leaned in, so close their noses all but touched, her sword still tightly gripped in her other hand.
“You think my mother hasn’t done this already?” Isobel choked round the constricting grip.
Ramona squeezed a tiny bit harder, almost cutting off her oxygen completely. “Anyone who dies because of this is your fault,” she said softly, then with more aggression: “Their deaths will be on your head.” She let go, slamming Isobel hard into the partition again for good measure. Isobel felt the cool metal dig savagely into her as she collided with it. Hurting and gasping for air she fell to her knees.
“That was a bit over the top.” Jake observed, still massaging his injured shoulder. Like Ramona he was covered in brick dust from his collision with the wall.
“You okay?” Ramona asked him. Jake just nodded. She gave a single nod in response and turned back to Isobel. “I’ve got a demon to re-hunt,” she held her hand out to Isobel, “You coming?”
Isobel stared at her outstretched hand disbelievingly for a moment before responding. “Go fuck yourself,” she rasped, massaging her throat. “Bitch.”
Ramona sighed and looked to Jake, “What about you?”
He stood. “You didn’t need to be so extreme with Isobel,” he said angrily. “That wasn’t called for.”
“Yes. It was.”
He gaped at her, “You went too far Ramona, way too far.” With a final dark look at her, he knelt down in front of Isobel and put a hand on her arm. “You okay?”
She smiled thinly, “Peachy.” Unsteadily she rose to her feet. Jake left a hand near her arm as she rose, ready to help if she stumbled or fell. She didn’t. Although sweet, Isobel couldn’t help getting irritated by his chivalry. She hated to be vulnerable, especially since Jake had feelings for the woman who had just assaulted her. Her anger bristled, finding a target in Ramona. She faced the angel.
Ramona lifted her chin, meeting her challenge.
“You sure you’re okay?” Jake asked again.
“I’m fine,” she winced. “Will you stop fussing?”
“Your neck,” He indicated his own.
Isobel looked in a mirror over one of the sinks. “God” she said seeing the purple bruises already forming there. She turned to Ramona, “You bitch.”
“You let her escape,” Ramona was still angry.
“She was begging for her life Ramona. What, have you no pity?”
“Not for her.”
Isobel made a derivative snort and shook her head. “I’ve got work later,” she said looking in the mirror. “How am I going to explain this?” She looked at Jake, “Dave will think you did it.”
“Tell him you got in a fight,” Ramona shrugged. “It’s the truth at least.”
Isobel smiled. “And you’d know all about the truth.”
“Integrity is part of the angelic code.”
Isobel laughed, a bleak, desperate sound; the laugh of one heading towards lunacy rather than joy. That laugh worried Jake. Isobel was close to the edge.
“We need to get out there and find this thing,” Ramona said.
“No,” Isobel said firmly.
“No?” Ramona repeated.
“No.” Isobel kept her eyes on the reflection in the mirror. “I’m not coming. I can’t.”
“You’re our best chance of finding her again. Your blood…”
“I can’t do this Ramona.” She gripped the edges of the sink. Softly she repeated, “I can’t do this.” She closed her eyes tight, not wanting to look at her reflection or the rivulets of blood running down the chipped porcelain from her hand.
“Fine,” Ramona was cold. “Stay here. Be emo.” She turned to Jake, “You coming Jake? You can still help me without her.”
“I should stay with Isobel.”
Isobel’s downcast eyes opened at that. A jumbled mix of horror and elation rolled through her. She desperately wanted Jake to stay. To stay and hold her. Her heart leapt wildly at the idea, a bolt of heat running through her.
“That’ll help save the world,” Ramona said.
“You can do this… holy mission or whatever by yourself can’t you?”
She shrugged, “I’m good, Jake, but I’ve never held back an apocalypse without help before.”
She smiled, “The world’s almost ended a few times. We talked about this remember?”
“I had had a few,” he reminded her.
Isobel watched Ramona’s smile widen in the mirror. A long familiar feeling of being an outsider, of being essentially alone fell over her as she saw the connection already forming between them; a bond that she was not a part of.
“I remember,” Ramona said warmly, a coy smile on her face.
In that moment Isobel hated her.
Jake looked down at the floor, torn. He watched his own blood drip onto the linoleum and his mouth twitched into a gallows smile. “Forensics is gonna have a lot of fun in here.”
“You believe her bullshit go with her,” Isobel rasped. She coughed briefly, “You’ll be ‘saving the world’” she said the last in an acidic sing-song voice.
“If you’re going to come then come.” Ramona sheathed her sword behind her. It disappeared from sight. “We can’t hang around here all day.” She spun and pulled open the door.
She didn’t even spoil the line of her dress, Isobel thought. She looked at Jake, turning and placing her bloody hand absently on her hip.
“You talked about it?” She said, raising an eyebrow. “What does that mean?”
He opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off by a shout of “Jake, come on,” from the hallway.
“We talked after you left yesterday, that’s all,” he said. “I’ll find you at work later.” With that and a sheepish smile he left.
Isobel went back to staring at her reflection over the sink, her blood running down the side, dripping steadily onto her shoes… blood that was soon joined by her tears.