(Book two of Thorns of the Shadow. Contains spoilers of book one.)
Heat rolled in shimmering waves across every surface. The sun hung proudly in a cloudless sky above. It was the kind of day that seemed to drag on and seep the energy from the world.
On a suburban street, in a house like every other upon it, a young woman sat slouched across a sofa where she had been for the past few hours without moving. She was called Catherine Redthorn, but preferred to go by KT. Her black hair ended half way down her back and she had an athletic build that was currently clad in black jeans and a simple white vest. A few scars marked her arms but many more lay hidden in a chaotic pattern across her torso.
On the other end of the sofa was the sprawled out shape of her twin brother, Mordekai, known better as Kai. He was taller and broader than his sister but shared her green eyes and love of dark clothing. He too bore scars, as did their mother and father, but nothing near to the level that punctuated KT’s skin.
To the best of the Redthorn family’s memories, they had been visiting the twin’s Aunt Susan up in Scotland when her guest lodge had suffered a gas leak which resulted in a terrible explosion. It had killed several of the guests, including Susan, and left the survivors with varying degrees of injuries.
Only, that was not what had happened. The truth was darker and near unbelievable. KT remembered it all too well. She remembered being attacked by a succubus, meeting the mysterious hunter Déaþscúa, and returning to find the lodge in flames, her mother crucified, and the other guests gone without a trace. She remembered herself and Kai fighting alongside Déaþscúa and meeting vampires, werewolves and witches. She remembered coming so close to ending the life of the infamous Black Annis when the Grand Moot, the magical equivalent to the government, arrived and stopped them. Déaþscúa had been arrested and KT, Kai, and the surviving lodge guests had had their memories altered.
Unfortunately for the Grand Moot though, nobody had informed them that KT was a Resistant, someone with a strong resistance to the effects of magic. Her real memories had returned after only a few hours. Not that anybody would have believed her if she had spoken out.
The television droned on about politics in the corner of the room. Nobody was really watching it but the remote had been left in the kitchen and nobody could muster the energy to go and get it. The sound passed KT by without notice until a single word snagged at her attention.
“That’s right, Clair. We are currently live here in Scotland where local businessman and entrepreneur, Roger Golman has announced his intention to stand in the Parliamentary elections. Golman had begun to make a name for himself in the international business world until a suspected terrorist attack on one of his compounds left him in hospital for much of this last year. Now he has returned to the public view and is already gaining considerable support.”
The screen was showing footage of a tall man in his late twenties with short black hair and an expensive suit addressing a crowd. His features were slightly on the pudgy side but he wore confidence like a second skin. His voice took over where the reporter’s had left.
“I have seen the best of humanity, and the worst. It is my dream te change the world and te help create a society that is not weighed down by crime, greed and corruption. This is but a first step on my mission to forge a better future for us all.”
KT couldn’t help but to snort at the words. Everything that the man said was bullshit. He was nothing more than an overambitious criminal. After a moment she amended this since all politicians were nothing more than overambitious criminals. Golman had sided with Black Annis for personal gain and had captured and abused the vampire, Ailia. The ‘terrorist attack’ in the report had been none other than KT and Kai breaking in to free Ailia. His hospitalisation had been Ailia’s parting gift to him. KT still shivered to remember that moment.
“I didn’t realise that you were so invested in politics that you could look so disgusted when one speaks,” her father said with a smile. Bob Redthorn was an easy going man who was quick to smile and slow to anger. He had dark hair, wore glasses and had a slender build.
“Bah! They’re all the same,” interjected Kai. “Politics, made up of the word ‘poly’ meaning multiple and the word ‘tics’ meaning blood-sucking parasites. Still, there’s something about that guy’s face that just pisses me off. He’s a businessman so you know he’d slit his own granny’s throat for a quick fiver.”
“Disgusting,” their father agreed. “You can’t buy anything with a fiver anymore. I’d struggle getting a Freddo and a bottle of Coke in this economy. Greedy green bastard. If you raised it up to a tenner we might have a deal though.”
It was nice to see him return to his usual self again. After the events of the new year that lead to his sister’s death, Bob had sunk into a darkness that KT had never seen before. The physical recovery had been hard for all of them, but the mental healing had taken much longer. Luckily the arrival of summer had done wonders for everybody’s mood.
“Stop casualising moral corruption. Kai doesn’t need the encouragement,” added their mother, Tara. Unlike Bob, she was a strong, stern woman with little time for nonsense. She had blonde hair and always wore smart clothes. Unlike the other members of the Redthorn family though, her injuries still affected her day to day life, leaving her weaker than she would have liked. The holes in her palms where she had been nailed to a cross rendered her hands near useless and her new reliance on others hurt her far more than any of the wounds to her flesh had managed.
“Your words cut me deep,” Kai said with mock hurt. “I’ll have you know that I am a pillar of this community and a paragon of virtue.”
Tara raised her eyebrow. “Oh. You mean how you help all those poor young women with their studies? It is all for the good of their education and not for anything more selfish.”
“Those are some bold allegations there. If my irresistible charm clouds their concentration then I cannot be held responsible for that.”
KT couldn’t help but smile at the friendly banter. It felt good to hear everyone happy and carefree. The problem was that she felt like she was in a bubble that separated her from her family and friends now. He memories prevented her from relaxing. While she sought the peace and happiness of normality, a greater determination pulled at her. How could she go back to regular life after killing men and monsters, meeting immortals and fighting at the centre of bloody battles that nobody else even knew had happened?
‘Such connections are worthless. Do not concern yourself with fitting in but with rising above your surroundings.’
The internal voice cut through her own thoughts roughly. She smothered it out with a practiced ease. The voice belonged to Ghodot, the former king of the fairies. He had tried to possess KT’s body in exchange for passage through a faegate but KT’s resistance to magic had meant that he had been the one to fade instead. Now he was little more than an annoying voice in her head. The intrusion upon her thoughts was frustrating enough but the fact that he could see and feel everything that she could, as well as being privy to her own thoughts, made him insufferable.
The trouble was that everything had begun and ended so suddenly that she could almost mistake it all for a vivid dream. Only her scars and memories told her different. She had not wanted it to end. She had had no choice in the matter though. No matter how hard she tried, she could not shake the feeling that she belonged in that world more than her own.
Kai and her parents were still bickering good-naturedly so she decided to get up and try to clear her head. She wandered upstairs into her room and just stood staring at the space that had once been the core of her life. It seemed so hollow now.
Her shelves filled with fantasy books no longer held an escape from reality but as a reminder of what she had left behind. The same applied to her DVD and video game collection too. Only music helped her to lose herself now.
She wandered into the bathroom, connecting her phone to the speakers on the shelf, then scrolled through the vast library of music without anything particular in mind. Tapping the screen at random, a heavy drumbeat echoed through the small room.
Showering had become much more difficult with the fairy making lecherous comments in her head, but she had grown accustomed to washing with her eyes closed. Efficiency was the aim of the game. Almost everything in her life followed that principle now.
‘When will you accept that I am a part of you, girl? We are one. Why hide from me?’
‘I’ll accept it when I can finally block you out of my mind.’
‘Ah, so cold. But we work so well together. The unmolded clay of your body combined with my unparalleled intellect. Just let me take over and all of your problems will fade away like mist.’
‘The last time you spoke of things fading away it didn’t quite go to plan, did it?’
Ghodot became silent. For all his talk of grandeur and power he tended to pout like a child. Enjoying the brief respite from his incessant comments, KT washed then dressed herself in jogging trousers and a t-shirt. She already felt sticky again from the humid air.
“Since when did England get this kind of heat? A bit of rain would be wonderful.”
‘The air feels… constrained. Something is building.’
Ghodot would say no more. Months of knowing him had taught KT that he was only reserved when he didn’t have the answers, even if he didn’t like to admit it. Magic was building and the king of fairies didn’t know why. Or wasn’t certain at the least. It scared him.
She headed downstairs and back through the living room. Nobody else had moved since she had gone.
“I’m heading out for a bit. Need anything picking up while I’m out?”
“A winning lottery ticket would be nice,” her father muttered wistfully.
“Milk and bread would be more practical,” her mother added. “Just don’t push yourself too hard.”
“Stop worrying, Mum. Most of my injuries were superficial. I feel fine.” Superficial might have been an understatement. Really, KT should have been dead after being impaled multiple times. Those were small details though that her mother didn’t need to worry about.
Tara sighed. “Why am I cursed with such stubborn family?”
KT didn’t bother answering, instead just waving cheerfully and making her way to the door. She stepped out into the street and immediately felt the full force of the sun on her skin. Kai appeared at her side, cursing the heat. The thought of dressing in lighter colours had never crossed his mind.
“You planning to join me for a jog?” she asked him playfully. “That’s not like you.”
“I’ll pass. You can run through this humidity and come back looking and smelling like a drowned rat. I have other places to be. Better places. I just wanted to… well, I wanted to ask you something.”
KT slowed her walking slightly. It was almost as though Kai was being shy. A devilish smile tugged at her lips.
“Now then, little brother, what could you possibly be so sheepish about?”
“Shut up!” he snapped. He wrapped himself in what bravado he could muster. “We are the same age and I don’t care what you say to the contrary. I was just being a gentleman and let you out first. Ladies first and all that bollocks.” He fidgeted with one of his rings for a moment before continuing. “What I wanted to ask was, I, err… I’m kinda seeing someone and I, well, I wanted to introduce you to her sometime.”
KT burst out laughing. “Since when did you introduce anyone to the family.”
“Haha, laugh it up. This is different to usual. I met her at the hospital and we just talked for a few months. Maybe my near-death experience changed the way I see the world but I just kinda wanted to get to know her, you know? Do you think something is wrong with me?”
“It’s called being an empathetic adult.
“Implying that sluts are unempathetic and immature is stereotyping and is harmful for society.”
“I’m making no judgement on the poor souls you’ve led astray.”
“Ha! Assuming any reference to sluts is referring to women is sexist!”
“So you are calling yourself a slut?”
“I’m calling myself a coitus connoisseur.”
“That phrase makes me deeply uncomfortable. Please never repeat it.”
“Yeah, that was pretty bad. So, do you agree to meet her? I just want your approval to make sure I’ve not gone crazy, okay. This means a lot to me.”
“You know I hate awkward social encounters, but if it’s important to you then of course I will. Is that where you’re going now?”
Kai nodded. “There’s a market on in town. Handcrafted junk and lots of food stalls. We’re going to head there for a while then grab some drinks. You can join us at the Silver Spoon after you’ve tortured yourself.”
“Fine. I’ll go for my jog then get ready. Hmm. What do you even wear for meeting potential sister-in-laws?”
“Whoa there! Let’s not get carried away with allusions to the ‘M’ word. It’s just casual drinks, okay. Be yourself and the two of you will get along great. I mean, she does like me, and you’re just a watered down, slightly less charming version of that.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, kiddo. Your personality only seems stronger because it’s been left to rot. Think of it like a smell. Stronger isn’t better.”
“You know which cheeses cost the most? The foul smelling ones that are absolutely crusted with mold. That’s me.”
“Whatever you say, cheese boy. Don’t leave this girl waiting now. Go on. I’ll speak to you later.”
Kai grinned and turned, heading back towards the house. Shaking her head as she chuckled, KT picked up her pace and started her jog.
It was strange just how seamlessly life had picked up after been completely shattered. Nobody remembered those events but they had left such an impact on each of their lives, mostly for the better. Their mother had needed to open herself up to cope with her injuries and now had a better bond with everyone because of it, while Kai had met someone that he finally connected with while at the hospital, a hospital they were only in because of the injuries they had all received in Scotland.
And then there was KT, as disjointed as ever. Possibly moreso. So she trained and trained, pushing herself to her limits in the hope that her life didn’t return to the mundane grind of reality. She hadn’t liked that back when it was all she had known. Now it profoundly unsettled her.
Her feet pounded down the all too familiar pavement. The air was so heavy that she was already struggling to breathe. She lifted her headphones over her ears and pawed at her phone’s screen until sudden music blasted into her ears. She swore then quickly turned it down before increasing her pace.
Minutes dragged by until her sanctuary of sound was interrupted by a commotion ahead of her. Her eyes drifted over to a street corner a short distance away. Three men stood facing down a fearful looking girl a few years younger than KT. They laughed and jeered at her obvious discomfort, one of them holding her arms so she couldn’t escape. KT slowed in front of them, stopping at the girl’s side. She bend down, resting her hands on her knees as she took heavy breaths.
“Whats up, luv? We take your breath away?” one asked her with a smirk.
KT held up a finger for him to wait a moment. She’d only been jogging for a short time but was already completely drenched. She straightened herself then steadied her breathing.
“Afraid not. It’s this thing called exercise. You should try it sometime. It might help you bulk up those twiggs you call arms.”
The young man’s friends laughed. The man muttered something under his breath then let go of the girl, turning his full attention to KT.
“What’s it to you anyway?”
“Your friend here doesn’t look like she wants your company. Figured I’d have a look since you already threw off my concentration.”
“We’re just having fun, right. We aren’t goin’ to hurt her or anything. Bloody ‘ell, you can’t even talk to girls anymore without being the bad guy.”
KT sighed. “I don’t think you could comprehend what it means to be the bad guy. Being bad and being a bit of a dick aren’t mutually inclusive you know.”
“I think she called you a dick.”
KT ignored the men and turned to the girl. “You okay?”
The girl nodded. KT placed a hand on her shoulder and prompted her to start walking. She called over her shoulder to the men as she left. “See you around. Maybe work on those people skills in the meantime, okay?”
“Thanks for helping,” the younger girl said when they were out of sight of the men. “They regularly do that. They think they’re just playing around but it’s scary, you know?”
“No worries. Glad to help. They seemed alright, if a bit obnoxious. Most people like that just need a firm word.” She offered the girl a reassuring smile. “And if that fails you just gotta kick their ass.”
“I don’t think that’s very realistic,” the girl pointed out.
“Yeah, maybe not,” KT reflected. “The world’s a scary place filled with things stronger than us.” Her thoughts found themselves drawn back to the tunnels beneath Glasgow, to the fear she had felt while hunted by the cannibal, Christie. No amount of ‘can do’ attitude would have worked there. It didn’t even take a supernatural being like that to be dominating for the average woman. She suddenly didn’t know what to say to the girl.
“Err, just remember to punch their nose with the base of your palm in an upwards strike. Sends the cartilage straight into their brain.”
This information only seemed to make the girl unsettled. She quickly gave her thanks once again then took off down a side street.
“Dammit,” KT muttered. Her mood only soured further when she realised that she would have to hold up a polite conversation with a stranger as soon as she got back. What the Hell did normal people even talk about? It had been hard to interact with people before, but now it seemed impossible.
She set off at a full sprint to drown her negativity beneath a wave of exhaustion. It didn’t work. Gasping for air, she slowed to a walk again, her mood sinking further. Back then, after seeing what Christie had done, she had felt a great drive to protect others who were vulnerable. As that adrenaline had faded though, the reality of the world had set in. She wasn’t some kind of superhero. She couldn’t solve the world’s problems with her fists. But then she could inspire people either. Where did that leave her?
Her hands fumbled with the door handle and she nearly collapsed over the threshold. She took a step forward then fell onto the carpet. Her mother poked her head around the corner to investigate the noise.
“You have a fun run?”
KT raised a feeble thumbs up and made some vague sounds that could be interpreted loosely as words.
“You’re pushing yourself too hard you know? Why the sudden need to get fit?”
Why? KT mulled the word over. She dragged herself into a sitting position with her back leant against the wall.
“I guess that… the future scares me. I don’t know what the Hell I’m doing with my life, but getting stronger is the one thing I can control. I can’t walk into my dream career and tell them to hire me. I can’t just go out there and know what to say to people. I can run though, and I can lift. I can get stronger, and then maybe that strength will come in handy.”
Her mother didn’t say anything, instead awkwardly sliding down the wall to sit beside her. It was a sentimental gesture she never would have engaged in previously.
“I don’t envy you kids. Ha, kids, just the word is belittling. We were adults at your age. Everything was simpler. Your generation are the driftwood in the tidal twilight of the times.”
“That was very poetic, coming from you.”
“You’d probably not believe that I used to write poetry as a girl. That’s what I wanted to do back in school. But then there was a pressure on girls to step up and cast down the shackles of femininity in order to work respectable jobs for good money. So I turned my imagination towards business and never looked back.”
“Huh, I never knew that.”
“I don’t really speak about it. What I’m trying to say is, the world is changing faster than at any other point in history. It’s okay to be scared. It terrifies me to see you and Kai feeling so lost because I know there’s nothing I can do to help you. I can’t imagine living through it first hand. Just… go easy on yourself and know that me and your dad are here for you. It isn’t your fault that the world hasn’t left you a seat.”
KT felt tears sting her eyes. “Thanks, Mum,” she sniffed, turning to embrace the older woman. Her mum held her back.
“Maybe grab another shower before the hugs, okay.”
KT glanced down at her dripping clothes and dank hair. “Yeah, you’re probably right.” She stood up, noticing a wet blotch on the wall where she had been leant. Then to drive home the fact, she remembered she had to meet up with Kai.
An hour later she stepped back out of the house in a simple pair of jeans and a long-sleeved white t-shirt with a cat on it. Even this heat couldn’t encourage her to wear a skirt or dress. She sent Kai a quick text as she walked and he responded straight away. They were at the pub awaiting her. There was no backing out now.
The Silver Spoon was a chain pub that had a reputation for being cheap and little else. It was hardly the most romantic of places but it did have a strange charm about it. KT entered the pub and spotted Kai at a table in the far corner. She crossed the distance, her attention on the chestnut haired figure that sat opposite him.
On seeing her approaching, Kai got to his feet quickly. He looked genuinely nervous. Seeing him like this brought a smile to her face, his sudden shyness helping to dispel her bad mood.
“Hey KT. Thanks for coming. Did that sound too formal? Definitely too formal. Sup, Sis. Nope, that just sounds stupid. Okay, starting over. So, you are here, which is a thing. A good thing. Another good thing, and by thing I mean person, is Cayla. Cayla, this is my sister, KT. KT this is my, wait, what are we? Girlfriend? Partner? Or do the kids call it SO these days? Oh god, I said ‘the kids’ and ‘these day’ This is it! Old age is setting in. I’m not cool anymore. Please tell me ‘cool’ is still a thing!”
The chestnut haired woman, Cayla, stood up and rested her hands on Kai’s shoulders until he stopped floundering. She was tall for a girl, just inching out KT’s height, but had a slighter build. A light smattering of freckles was dashed across the bridge of her nose. She wore a long chequered skirt and a band shirt. She smiled and offered her hand to KT.
“I’m Cayla. Pleased to meet you. Kai has told me so much about you.”
KT took her hand. She couldn’t imagine what Kai would be saying about her but she ignored the lurching feeling of dread. “Yeah, it’s nice to meet you.” That seed of apprehension in her stomach flared again as no other words presented themselves in her head. Thankfully Cayla took the reigns.
They all sat down around the table, Kai and Cayla at one side with KT at the other, while Cayla chatted pleasantly about meeting Kai. A huge blush covered his face for the entire story. Both women found enjoyment in his discomfort. It was weird to hear a nice story about Kai. If KT didn’t know better she would have thought Cayla was speaking of someone completely different.
Drinks were ordered and small talk about music eased the group dynamic. KT found the other woman to be easy to talk with and they shared similar tastes in most things. Kai had been right about that. She was happy to let Cayla carry the conversations too, and the woman seemed happy to do so.
“So, Kai never told me what it is you do. Are you an athlete?” Cayla asked once music had been thoroughly been discussed.
KT couldn’t suppress a surprised laugh. “An athlete? No. I’m a part time receptionist. Making the world a better place one generic email at a time.”
“Really. You look so strong. Don’t you play any sports?”
“I used to. Now I just like to workout alone.” A wave of self consciousness washed over KT. She hadn’t really considered that she would look any different. Looking across the table she suddenly felt like she was in an interview.
Kai noticed the brief look on her face and steered the conversation away from KT’s life. As the drinks came and went, the atmosphere was light-hearted, and even KT started to enjoy herself. Kai got over his nerves and became his usual abrasively charming self. Seeing him being himself again, KT watched the interaction between him and Cayla. She always had a witty response to his quips and made him laugh in a way that she hadn’t seen before. It was nice.
Eventually, many drinks later, the evening had gone so well that Kai made a resolution.
“You know what?”
“What?” KT asked as she went to take a sip of her drink, spilling it over the table.
“Today went really well. Cayla, congratulations, you’ve passed the trial period with flying colours.”
“I’m honoured,” she answered dryly. “I guess you scrape a passing grade yourself.”
“Well, maybe it’s the alcohol talking, but I really like you. KT likes you too.”
KT made a thumbs up gesture without looking. She was currently occupied with being face down on the table in the pool of spilled drink. The excessive exercise, alcohol, and lack of food was starting to hit her hard.
“So I think it’s time,” Kai continued. He took a deep breath. “Time to introduce you to the family!”
This perked up KT. She sat up and stared intensely at her twin’s features. “Are you serious?”
“Super serious,” he slurred. “In fact, let’s go now! I’mma walk right up to Tara and be like ‘Yo Mum, this is my commitment because you always said I could never handle girlfriend. Yeah!”
He stood up with a fiery determination in his eyes, swayed, then toppled to the floor.
KT stumbled over to him and prodded him with her foot. “Hey, you can’t back out now. Passing out isn’t gonna get you out of this.”
“I have made a mistake.”
“You’ve made hundreds. This probably isn’t one though. Cayla, grab his other arm for me. Is this something you want?”
A brief look of deer in the headlights flitted across her face. When she looked down at Kai it resolved itself into a soft smile. “Yeah, I guess I am.”
“Good. Now help me carry him. Don’t let go once you have him or he’ll make a run for it.”
Kai blinked drunkenly. “No. This is the right thing to do. Because I… what’s that ‘L’ word? Oh yeah. Like. Because I strongly like you.”
Caylor waved her middle finger across his vision, causing him to cackle maniacally. The two women hoisted him to his feet between them and started the short journey to the Redthorn house.