Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon – Chapter 1.

A dark shape flew through heavy clouds above Abernethy Forest. In a land of ancient myths such as Scotland, where mountains vie with dark forests and cold winds cut across the rugged landscape, it was all too easy to see contorted faces staring down from the icy heavens. The shape disappeared into the churning clouds before erupting out again to swoop down low above the treetops. Leathery wings glided serenely for several seconds then lunged into the greenery to vanish from sight completely. 

There were few signs of civilisation here, a single structure standing alone in the forest’s embrace being the only mark of humanity for miles. It was a large wooden building known as Aife’s Lodge. Once it had been a private manor house but had since been converted into a hotel. Fitting with its remote location, it was the kind of place where people went to escape society completely. 

The clouds parted just enough to reveal the moon through the black veiled sky. A warped howl echoed through the snowy night. No one heard it over the night’s festivities. It was just before midnight on New Year’s Eve and the few guests of Aife’s Lodge had forgone seclusion and gathered together in the main hall to celebrate. A stone fireplace dominated one wall while numerous mounted animals showcased the local fauna. Long dead deer and wildcats seemed almost alive in the flickering light. The guests mingled awkwardly in groups of two or three, the conversations gradually becoming less passive as the alcohol flowed.

“Tell me again why the hell we’re stuck here?” muttered a black clad teen who lounged on the broad staircase. He wore a hoodie bearing the name of an obscure rock band, The Sightless Protectors, who hadn’t been famous since before he had been born, and toyed idly with an array of silver rings that adorned each of his fingers. Poorly drawn skulls marked the back of his hands, poking out from the edge of low-cut fingerless gloves. 

“I should be back home, partying it up with friends and hot girls, not sitting here in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of anti-social old people and weirdoes.” As he spoke he brushed dark hair from his eyes and tried to suppress a yawn. Crimson highlights ran through the carefully constructed mess of black. He was the picture of a rebel without a cause.

“Stop whining already, Kai,” said the girl on the opposite side of the step. She was dressed similarly to the male. Her hair was long and straight, ending at the small of her back. Vivid blue streaked through it in contrast to the red of her brother. Her jewellery was kept to a minimum and a few splashes of colour from a multitude of wristbands broke the monotony of black jeans, shirt and hair. She had an athletic figure, as did Kai.

“Look, I don’t like it either but it’s one week. Aunt Susan hasn’t asked us to come up here in years.”

Kai sipped glumly from a glass of cheap cider as he surveyed the room. “She can’t imagine the amount of parties I’m missing out on because of her. ‘Tis the season to be blackout drunk while surrounded by pretty girls.”

“Every season is party season for you.” She took a sip of her own drink, which was also cider but with enough blackcurrant cordial to drown out the bitter taste, then continued. “After all the money she’s given us over the years, we owe her a few weeks of our time every now and then.” Despite her words, she didn’t sound too happy about it either.

“Still doesn’t justify her timing. She’s rich though so she must have a pretty good inheritance for us. Maybe we should be kind to her. KT, use your female bond to get in her good books or something.”

“You’re a terrible person,” she said. She sighed then stared glumly into her drink.

Kai noticed her expression and frowned. “You still beating yourself up about uni? It’s been months now. Forget about it.”

“Yeah, I know. There’s just nothing to distract me from it here. This should have been my first Christmas as a student in the big city and instead I’m sat here. I worked so damn hard for years to try and get into that veterinary degree and one bad day screwed me. One bad test and suddenly everything else I’ve ever done is now worthless.” She made a frustrated sound then downed her drink.

“That’s where you went wrong. You tried. You had hopes and dreams. Expect the worst and you can only ever be pleasantly surprised.”

KT shook her head. “That doesn’t work and you know it.” Her eyes glanced around to a large picture that had pride of place at the top of the staircase. Blue eyes stared down at them from a young face. If they didn’t know better, it could easily have been an image of KT herself. “Being here doesn’t help. Seeing her face everywhere is kinda unsettling.”

“Yeah, no kidding. For someone who died two decades ago, she could be your identical twin. Christ. Imagine there being two of you.” Kai frowned and looked away. “I never did like photos anyway. Not hung up like that. It always feels like they’re watching you. Judging you. Knowing they’re dead just makes it weirder.”

“You can’t imagine how awkward it is talking to Aunt Susan. It’s clear that she only sees her when she looks at me. It’s so sad.” KT muttered. Kai wasn’t listening to her though. His eyes were locked on one of the guests below.

It was a young female guest. She had blonde hair, blue eyes, red lips and two very defining features that instantly drew attention. Her low cut top allowed a fair view of these features while long legs led up to a very short denim skirt. A small love heart tattoo adorned her chest, rising up from the gap of her cleavage. Kai stared at her with a dumb grin on his face.

“Scratch my previous comments, this place just got good. Time to work my charm,” he smirked, rising up from his perch.

His sister shook her head. “You’re hopeless. A damn hopeless pervert. Women will be the death of you.”

“And a good death it’ll be,” he joked as he made his way down the stairs. Still shaking her head, she put on the headphones that rested across her neck. Heavy guitar cut off the world around her.

Kai wove through the hall and stopped beside the girl, confidence radiating from his every feature.

“Hey,” he greeted with a friendly smile and a sparkle in his eyes. “I’ve not seen you around here. You just arrive?”

The girl nodded, locking eyes with him. She bit her lip slightly and played with her skirt.

“You in need of some company? I’ve been here a few days now so can show you the surroundings if you want.”

“Ya. I would like that,” answered the girl with a thick accent. Her eyes never strayed from Kai’s. They seemed to tug at him, pulling him closer.

Kai’s grin widened yet further. “Is that a Swedish accent?” The blonde nodded. “You’re a long way from home. You here all on your lonesome?”

“Ya. I am exploring the world. See new sights, meet new people, find new experiences,” she purred.

Kai coughed and fought to calm himself. He looked again and noticed that her eyes seemed more green now. It must have been a trick of the light, or maybe the alcohol was starting to kick in. He downed the rest of his drink and set the glass down on a table beside a basket of grapes. The woman skewed one with an overly long nail and held it up to Kai’s mouth. A heavy scent rose from her skin that seemed to muddle his thoughts. He took it in his teeth.

“It is getting hot in here,” the woman stated. “Come. Let us go outside.”

She smiled at him and took his hand in hers. She had the most beautiful hazelnut eyes. Or were they red? Kai couldn’t tell any longer. She led him to the door as he staggered clumsily after her. He couldn’t believe his luck. 

They quickly eased open the door and slipped outside. The cold hit Kai like a physical blow despite his thick clothes. He suddenly realised how ill equipped the girl was for the Scottish winter, though she showed no sign of discomfort. Her hands were cold against his skin but they looked warm.

“Aren’t you cold?” he tried to ask but his words came out slurred. He didn’t think that he’d drank that much.

“No.” Her voice echoed hollowly and her accent seemed less pronounced.

Kai tried to pull away from her but the woman spun him around and planted a hard kiss on his lips. The feeling was nice but sent cold shivers down his spine. Her lips were as cold as her hands. He vaguely noticed that her breath didn’t mist in the air like his own.

The girl pushed him against a tree with a strength that contrasted with her slender frame. Her hands were all over his body. Each touch burned even though her skin was like ice. Kai was struggling to breath. He tried to move her back slightly but she slapped his hand away.

In the heat of activity she lifted her shirt until it hung around her neck like a scarf. Her hands slid under his shirt, her nails raking sharply across his back. Kai felt the skin break and welt, small trails of blood forming in the nails’ wake. He tried to move aside but was locked firmly in place.

He looked down at her face and suddenly tensed up. Her eyes were changing, growing darker, their colour indistinct. He’d known people’s eyes to dilate through bliss but never anything like this. Her pupils spread out like a drop of ink until her entire eyes were consumed with darkness.

Things were moving faster than his muddled mind could manage. Her hands moved lower down his body. In their transition from his shirt to his belt he saw that her nails had grown to resemble claws. He knew that this wasn’t right but his body wouldn’t obey his commands. He watched in horror as her lips parted and a snake’s forked tongue slid out.

He tried to scream, to fight, but his limbs felt numb. He should have been wide awake and roaring with energy, lust and fear flooding his body with adrenaline, but instead he could feel his strength seeping from him with every passing second. Every touch the girl made sucked the life from him. He could feel the energy bleeding out of him, draining him and leaving behind only a sour sensation.

In an instant she had sliced through his belt with one knife-like claw. She reached inside his trousers. Kai shuddered, his brain flickering in and out of consciousness.

There was a snap of a branch behind them. “Damn it Kai! You can’t just take a girl you’ve only just met into the forest to have your way with.”

He saw KT enter the clearing and freeze. The other girl whipped around at the intrusion, hissing like an animal. Without the woman’s attention on him, Kai could feel his thoughts drifting back into place.

“What the hell?” KT began, but the monstrous woman bounded at her and slammed a fist into her gut. The force of the blow threw her back into a tree several feet behind her. She hit it hard then slumped to the ground, coughing up a mouthful of blood. Faint music still played from her headphones. The sounds drifted hauntingly in the quiet of the night.

As though nothing had happened, the beast turned her attention back to Kai. He had tried to escape, dragging himself forward through the snow, but his strength was dangerously low and he had only made it a short distance. She pulled him around to face her then shoved him to the ground, climbing onto him to straddle his waist. The weight was like lead on his soul, contracting it and pulling it down into the abyss. He was struggling to even keep his eyes open regardless of the immediate danger. Everything grew dark. She grew more beautiful…

A bang roared through the forest, shattering the quiet like a hammer on ice. The woman screamed a monstrous scream that sounded more like a crazed bat than a human. Kai was vaguely aware of being showered in dark blood as his assailant’s right shoulder and breast blew away in an explosion of gore and bone. A white shard sliced across his cheek. Blood drenched him, running down his face to drip into his gasping mouth. Enough of his mind remained to make him gag at the burning taste.

The woman jumped away from Kai with astounding speed. He watched vacantly as the grievous wound knitted itself back together like a spider weaving a web at high speed. Then his eyes closed and his body became still as his consciousness finally surrendered…

***

“Kai!” KT shouted as she tried to pull herself to her feet using the tree as support. Her stomach was in agony but she forced it to the back of her mind as she took a determined step towards her brother.

The monster screeched again, this time in rage. It charged forward, sprinting on all fours like an animal. Another bang echoed out into the night as a cloud of blood erupted from the woman’s body. A new figure entered KT’s line of sight, his right arm held straight out, a pistol in his hand. More jarring cracks assaulted her ears as tainted blood cut crimson streaks through the snow.

The ensuing sound was almost more than KT’s ears could handle. She saw the man step into the clearing beside the tree she had hit. The monster screeched but he ignored it, instead bending down to pick up the discarded headphones. They were broken in half but KT’s phone still hung from the wire. The woman’s screech became a howl as it burst into a sprint, razored claws flashing in the moonlight. 

“Watch out!” KT yelled. The man made no effort to raise his gun.

The hellish woman had closed the gap almost instantly. Without looking up, the man grabbed the phone and pulled the wire out. The background crackle of sound became a blaring guitar solo that seemed to fill the forest.

Claws lunged and the man grinned. He flowed around the attack with inhuman speed, slamming his head into the creature’s skull, using its own momentum against it. She staggered back then tried to slice at the man’s throat only to be blocked by the pistol. He span in time with the music, stamping a booted foot into the woman’s knee with a sickening crunch then firing a point blank shot at her face. Blood-slick teeth exploded out like a nailbomb. She screamed gutturally and hopped back with increasing panic.

KT watched wide eyed as leathery black wings ripped through the skin on the woman’s back and spread out around her like liquid shadows. The monster flexed its beautiful body as the wings shuddered then started to rise and fall. She shot into the sky and attempted to make her escape. Gouts of blood marked the passage of another volley of bullets. The winged creature faltered and crashed into a tree which she used it as a springboard, launching back into the air and out of sight. The man shrugged then tapped KT’s phone screen, killing the music. Silence flooded in like a tide.

KT tried to move to her brother but pain shot through her again. She fell face first to the ground. She lay there panting through the snow, tears in her eyes. Her hand reached out towards Kai. There was the sound footsteps and the crunch of snow.

“He’s fine,” came a deep, rough sounding voice. She turned her head slightly to see the gun wielding figure bent over Kai’s prone body. “Just sleeping,” the voice explained.

“Sleeping? But she… but he…Y-you shot her! What the hell is happening?” KT stammered, unable to get a single clear thought into her brain. Everything hurt.

“Would you believe this was all a dream? It would certainly make my job a lot easier,” continued the man, his voice taking on a lighter tone.

The girl stared blankly at the shadowy figure. He shrugged. “Didn’t think that would work. Right, let me think how to put this. This guy is asleep because he had his life-force drained by that creature. You might know it as a succubus. That means he just needs to sleep and he’ll be fine. She didn’t go far enough to do any real damage, if you catch my drift.”

KT stared at him in disbelief as a thousand thoughts fought for control of her mouth. Pain underpinned them all. “You want me to believe we were almost killed by a sex demon? That’s impossible! My drink has been spiked and all of this is a bad drug trip.”

“Of course. This was all a figment of your imagination. Problem solved. My work here is done.”

KT tried to focus on the man as he spoke. He was tall and well-built from what she could see of his body. He wore a hardened leather jacket and dark trousers, both of which were covered in straps and pockets. A dark green cloak draped him from his shoulders to his knees and sturdy leather boots covered his feet. Black fingerless gloves and long sleeves hid his arms. His face was angular and weatherworn, handsome in a rugged kind of way. His golden blond hair was tied into a loose ponytail. Over his shoulder she could see what looked like a guitar case hung across his back.

It was too dark to make out any extra detail. What she could make out was becoming harder to focus on as her vision blurred. Anything further than the man’s face was an unintelligible smear.

KT coughed up more blood as a sudden spasm wracked her body. She heard the man rush to her side. He rolled her onto her back then she felt his hands on her stomach. She struggled to open her eyes through the pain but managed on her second attempt.

A look of surprise flitted across his face as he stared down at KT. It almost seemed like he was frozen in time for a moment until he blinked and visibly shook himself. His face became a blank mask and concentration filled his eyes.

“Lie still,” he commanded. He sounded shaken but he quickly composed himself. Whether it was his voice or her own pain, she felt impelled to obey. He moved her limbs gently and straightened her body out. “It’s just severe bruising, some internal ruptures. Nothing too bad.” She gave him an incredulous look through the pain. Internal rupture was not good in anyone’s book.

He dug through one of his many pockets until he pulled out a small blue pill. “Here, swallow this. It’ll ease the pain.”

Warnings of not accepting tablets from strangers swam through her mind. She had no idea who he was, what his motives were or what the hell was happening. She tried to turn her head away to refuse the pill but a sudden jolt of pain made her cry out. The man sighed then grabbed her head, forced open her mouth and slid the pill between her lips. KT tried to fight but the man kept her firmly pinned down. A few seconds passed. Numbness began to spread across her stomach. 

“You’ll start to feel drowsy now,” he informed her. “I’m going to try and sort you out but I need you to stay awake. Always remember, it’s when we don’t feel pain that we’re most vulnerable to death. Do you understand?”

She nodded, unable to prevent a shiver running through her.

“What’s your name?” he asked calmly, his tone becoming casual, friendly.

KT stared up at him. His relaxed posture and soft voice couldn’t disguise his threatening presence. She felt short of breath and afraid but almost against her will the words started to spill out clumsily. “Catherine Redthorn. Katie for short. Just the two letters, K and T. Why use nine letters when two works just fine,” she babbled. She was becoming delirious.

“That’s good,” he soothed. He pulled her shirt up slightly and placed his palms against her now purple skin. They began to glow faintly with a pale blue light. She watched blearily as the bruised skin seemed to soothe itself, the dark colours fading, becoming paler. The tension inside her gut grew looser, more natural.

KT’s mind felt clearer by the second. “Who’re you?” she asked. “What happened?”

The man hesitated for a moment. “Like I said, your brother was drawn in by a succubus. She gave you a good beating and took all of his energy before fleeing. Strange but true.” He spoke matter-of-factly, as though this kind of thing happened every day.

“That’s not right. I’ve read about them. If succubi are real then they’re supposed to target people who’re asleep.”

“Try telling her that,” commented the man with a slight grin. KT didn’t look in a joking mood so he returned to a stern look. “Think of it this way: times have changed. When the prey changes, so must the predator. Society is more…open with sexuality now so there is less need for stealth. Hmm, an example of this change is the way she looked. That appearance a few hundred years ago would have been a no go. Men back then preferred the more petite figure while men now like more…exaggerated features. In reality they look more like giant bats than humans. It’s an individual’s perception that gives them a more pleasing form. Are you following?”

“I-I think so,” KT replied shakily. Her shattered thoughts were quickly rebuilding themselves. “What about my first question?” she pressed, her confidence and strength returning to her.

He sighed. “The name’s Déaþscúa.”

“Death-shoo-a?” KT repeated, rolling the strange word across her tongue.

“Yeah. Lots of funny letters and accents. It’s a long story.” He offered her his hand and she took it.

With his help KT struggled to her feet. She lifted her shirt to examine the wound but nothing remained other than a large red mark as though she had been slapped. Tentatively she prodded the skin and winced slightly after realising it still felt tender. Her legs shook but she willed herself to stand tall. Subconsciously she took on a fighting stance.

“How did you do that?”

“Questions, questions,” the man said agitatedly. “Make yourself useful and help me get your brother back inside. Exposure to this cold won’t help him recover.”

Each grabbed one of Kai’s arms and hoisted him up. The man took most of his weight as they made their way back toward the lodge. KT checked her watch. 12:15. Lights were still visible within and sounds seeped dully through the walls.

“You’ll have to take him from here,” Déaþscúa told her. “If anyone sees you just say he drank too much. He’ll wake up sometime late in the day feeling groggy but will otherwise be fine.” He positioned Kai fully onto KT then turned to leave. Without looking back he spoke again. “Some parting advice. Don’t go out again at night. Don’t go out in the day alone. It’s a dangerous world for the unwary, especially at the moment. Stick to that and you’ll be fine.”

Then he was gone, his shadowy form melding into the darkness between the trees. She stared after him but all evidence of his presence had vanished with him. Stood there beside the lodge, bathed in light and surrounded by the sound of merriment, KT could almost believe it had all been just a strange dream.

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