Authors: Jess Raven,Paula Black
I was never much for prayers or church-going. My teenage-self had exhausted any faith I’d had, on my knees, begging a lifeline for my mother that never came. But that night I was convinced. If a demon of vengeance could rise from the grave to drink the blood of men, then there was more mystery to the world than the mundane human mind could ever possibly comprehend. Some higher being, call it God, call it Fate, call it what you will, something in the universe conspired to put Jack Pembroke on that cliff at the very moment my brother’s life hung in the balance, and it was Jack Pembroke’s courage in the face of certain death that tipped that balance in Liam’s favour. For that reprieve, I would be eternally grateful, but we were far from out of danger.
Satisfied my brother was alive for now at least, I dared to lift my eyes to the scene unfolding on the cliff top. The Dearg-Due had Jack in her thrall. As though reeled in on some invisible wire, eyes glazed, he walked towards her and dropped to his knees at her feet. I watched in horror as she gripped his face in her clawed hands, drawing blood where her nails cut into his flesh. Seeing the family resemblance she sought, she opened that fanged maw and screeched in his face. One word, over and over, “Pembroke,” she roared, slashing viciously at his chest. Head thrown back, arms hanging limp at his sides, Jack was powerless to defend himself, but his face was etched with pain.
This would not be the seductive death she’d granted Liam. This was vengeance incarnate, and it wanted to savour its victim’s agony as it carved its pound of flesh. Vengeance for a wrong committed against an innocent girl by some distant ancestor of Jack’s. To the Dearg-Due, I could tell they were one in the same, this man and the sadistic husband who tortured her to the point of suicide, to the point of bargaining with the demons of Hell, all those centuries before.
I was never a particularly brave person, and God knew, not an hour before, I’d been craving some sweet vengeance of my own, but I knew in that moment, I could not stand by and watch Jack Pembroke martyr himself for the sake of my family. I had to do something, but what? Something told me pepper spray wasn’t going to cut it with this hell-spawn, and being non-religious, I hadn’t even a crucifix to my name. I suddenly found myself with a newfound respect for Lady Kathleen Pembroke and her knowledge of the occult. If only I knew what to do … then it struck me: the legend of the cairn, and the ancient Celtic tradition of piling stones upon a grave to prevent its occupant rising after death. The cairn on the hill had been disturbed.
It was a long shot, but it was all I had and I was willing to believe in anything to get that thing away from Jack.
Quietly as I could, desperate not to draw the Dearg-Due’s attention, I left Liam and scurried up the last of the steps to the grassy headland. As I made my stealthy run for the cairn, I saw her wrench Jack’s neck to one side, exposing his jugular, just as she had with Liam. She was going in for the kill, and my time was running out. Dropping to my hands and knees, I frantically gathered up the scattered stones from the grass, piling them back onto the cairn where they belonged. I didn’t care that they were tainted by John-Joe’s blood, or that they stained my hands a rusty brown.
Jack cried out and my whole body jolted with adrenaline and rushing terror.
I stole a glance, but instantly regretted it. The Dearg-Due was at his throat like a rabid animal.
Despair crashed over me in a wave. Surely this was pointless, piling stones on her grave when she was already risen from it? But what else could I do? I searched the ground for the few remaining stones and tossed them on the cairn until there were no more to find.
Crap. Maybe the kids who’d pulled the cairn apart had tossed some stones in the sea? Maybe I was an unmitigated fool for ever thinking this could work.
I could hear the horrible sucking noises as she fed from his neck, and they turned my stomach over in a churn to rival the tempestuous waters below.
I sat back on my heels, dropped my head in my hands and let out a low whine. That’s when I saw it. A single stray stone lying in the grass between my legs. What the hell, I thought. Here goes nothing. I snatched it up and threw it on the pile.
An ear-splitting screech rent the air, and a sudden wind whipped up around me, a hair tangling rush that knocked me flat on my back. The air above the cairn swirled into a mini tornado of crackling electricity, lit up like a plasma globe. I could feel the intense draw of the vacuum within, had to grip onto the grass to hold myself back. I watched in disbelief as a dark grey shadow dissolved into smoke and was sucked into the eye of the supernatural storm.
It stopped as suddenly as it had started, with a pop like a break in the sound barrier, then nothing. Stillness. No wind. No rain. Gradually the world came back into focus: the sound of breakers striking the rocks below, gulls crying out in the bay, the first hint of dawn breaking on the horizon.
Stunned, I clambered to my feet and looked around.
Jack was lying in the grass, motionless.
The world tipped on its axis.
I staggered over to where he lay and dropped to my knees. So much blood. So pale, even as I watched, his lips took on a
bluish tinge. So still.
“No. Please. No.”
I pressed my fingers beneath his jaw and waited for the thud of life.
It didn’t come. I dropped my ear to his mouth, listening and feeling for the merest whiffle of a breath.
“You don’t die on me, you son of a bitch”, I cried. “Not now, not like this.”
Desperate, I locked my hands and pressed them to his sternum, pumping, hard and fast, as I’d been taught. It was the longest, most desperate count to thirty of my entire life.
My vision swam with tears that fell on his cheeks as I pinched his nose and sealed my mouth on his, pushing my breath into his lungs. Once. Twice.
God, could this really all be happening? Just hours ago I’d kissed this mouth with the kind of passion I’d thought would burn me alive. Now, those lips were cold as ice.
I squeezed my lids and the tears came freely, jagged sobs wracking my chest.
Then a cough. Not mine, his. A rattling wheeze, a sharp intake of breath.
“You’re alive!” I cried. “You’re fucking alive.”
His lids cracked open. He looked right at me with those sea-green eyes. I could have sworn his mouth tipped up in a grin. A swell of raw emotion rose up in my chest like a wave and I beamed back at him with a smile that rivalled the dawn breaking out at sea.
“His body needs rest, Miss McShane, and if you don’t mind me saying, you look pretty dead on your feet yourself. Go home, get some sleep. I’ll call if there’s any change in his condition.” The nurse gave my upper arm a reassuring squeeze and smiled. Her version of a gentle dismissal.
I picked up my bag from the floor and glanced at Liam as I rose stiffly from the chair beside his hospital bed. Tucked beneath starched white sheets, the colour was already returning to his face, thanks to the bags of O-positive being drip-fed into his arms. His neck was stitched and bandaged, and he’d suffered severe blood loss, but the doctors were confident he was going to make it just fine.
In the aftermath of the storm and all that had happened, I’d wandered the cliffs aimlessly for a time, in shock most likely, until finally some practical part of my brain kicked in with a plan. I went back to the house and retrieved my bag from the front driveway where Adriana had attacked me. The hall door was wide open, and I spotted her inside, sitting on the floor, staring into space with her arms wrapped around her knees, rocking back and forth. Her face was a mess, red and horribly swollen from the pepper spray, her make-up streaked like coloured molten wax, but what I could see of her eyes looked normal. I had no explanations for what had happened to her, or how much of her behaviour had been down to her apparent possession by the spirit of the Dearg-Due, but I was keeping a cautious distance between us, nonetheless.
I pulled my phone from the bag and squeezed it, offering up a silent prayer before flipping open the case. My prayer was answered. By some miracle, or perhaps just on account of the storm having run its course, three healthy bars of signal popped up. I dialled emergency services, not having the first clue how I was going to explain the dead body and the three casualties of the night. A terrible accident, I said.
A short time later, the helicopter touched down in the grass. The roads into Bronach remained impassable due to the fallen trees, and the rocky shallows of the cove were deemed too dangerous for the coastguard.
They bundled up Jack and Liam onto stretchers, threw a blanket over Adriana’s shoulders and airlifted them to the regional hospital. Poor John-Joe went home in a body-bag. The paramedics came to the same conclusion Liam had, that some wild animal, a feral dog perhaps, had attacked the victims. There was no other plausible explanation for the bite marks on their necks, and I wasn’t about to set them straight and earn myself a prolonged stay in the regional psychiatric unit. Adriana didn’t speak for the entire journey, other than to say she was ‘fine’ and to tell them to keep their hands off her.
That was the last I’d seen of either her or Jack. The hospital had been a whirlwind of consent forms and emergency surgery to patch Liam back together. As they’d wheeled him into the operating theatre, I thought I spotted Jack, on a bed, being pushed through a set of double doors, but I couldn’t be sure.
The last twenty-four hours I’d spent folded into that uncomfortable chair at Liam’s side, surviving on watery coffee and vending machine sandwiches. He’d woken eventually, as though from a nightmare, but seeing me, the relief washing over him was a visible thing. We talked about what happened in hushed whispers, setting our stories straight for the inevitable questions the police would have. I only hoped that Jack and Adriana would have the sense to keep their mouths shut. So far as I knew, Jack’s wife hadn’t seen any of the supernatural goings on at the
cliff top. She could have me prosecuted for the pepper-spray, but then she'd have some serious explaining to do about her unprovoked assault on me. Something told me she’d be claiming the whole thing had been an unfortunate accident.
Wearing my borrowed hospital scrubs, and carrying my few tattered possessions in a yellow plastic bag, I left Liam’s room, determined to head home for a long hot shower and a change of clothes. My hair was matted with blood and the scratches on my face had scabbed over and were itching like a mother. Safe to say I was avoiding mirrors like a Bram Stoker vampire.
Feeling a little woozy on my feet, I stepped out into the brightly lit corridor, cast my eyes to the nurse’s station just up the way, and paused. Adriana was standing at the desk, seemingly arguing with a nurse. Her blonde hair was scraped back in a ponytail. Her face, makeup free, still looked a little red and puffy, but it was obvious there was natural beauty underneath all the slap she normally wore. Probably one of the reasons Jack had married her. I’d told myself a hundred times while I sat waiting in that chair that her insults hadn’t gotten to me, but there was no denying the sting, or the guilt I felt for having been with her man. It was one of my few hard limits: taken men were totally out of bounds, even if they were as delectably seductive as the likes of the heroically flawed Jack Pembroke. I’d been on the receiving end once, and it wasn’t a place I ever wanted to be again. In truth, I felt kind of sorry for Adriana, clinging on for dear life to a cheating husband, desperate to lay the blame at the feet of the women he seduced, rather than the man she clearly still loved, in spite of his failings. There but for the grace of God I might have gone. What would have happened had I not walked in on Alec and Sally that day, if my father’s appointment with the dementia specialist hadn’t finished early because the therapist’s kid broke his arm in the school yard? I might have wound up just like Adriana, chasing the ghost of a soulless marriage. It really didn’t matter how beautiful the man was, or how good a lover. If he didn’t respect you, then he wasn’t worthy of your heart. I’d had a lucky escape with Alec, and with Jack Pembroke too. Both times, I’d gotten away before the damage was fatal. I saw that now. Sometimes, when I thought life was dealing me a bum hand, really it was working behind the scenes to save me from a world of heartache. My near-death experiences up at Bronach house had me thinking a lot about fate and destiny, and how things happened at a certain time for a specific reason, and it was about to happen again.