Chapter 2. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

KT barely made it through the front doors before her stomach began to protest the strain of lugging Kai’s unconscious body. She struggled to take a few laboured steps forward then almost doubled over as she felt her muscles cramp.

She scanned the room with teary eyes. Most of the people left in the hall were beyond the point of being useful. Some were slumped in chairs while others swayed where they stood while speaking overly loud. Most were too old to do any heavy lifting anyway.

One woman stood apart from the others though with a book held open in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other. She had neat blonde hair that rested atop her shoulders and wore a smart yet stylish skirt and blouse. Slender glasses covered icy blue eyes. She was tall for a woman, even when wearing sensible shoes as she did now.

KT waved at her until she caught the woman’s attention. Her gaze passed over KT’s dirty clothes then settled on Kai. She closed her eyes as though to compose herself then made her way over to the twins.

“What has he done this time?” the woman asked. 

“Mum, it isn’t what it looks like,” KT began. The woman cut her off. 

“Really? Because it looks like Kai has got blackout drunk again. Just once I would like to spend time as a family without him showing us up.”

KT hesitated. This argument had been going on for a long time now, and for once, Kai didn’t deserve the blame. At the same time though, telling her mother the truth was a fruitless venture. She would never believe that Kai had almost been killed by a mythical demon. She still wasn’t sure if she believed it herself.

“Maybe his drink was spiked,” she tried.

“Or maybe his sense of moderation is hidden in the same part of his head as his responsibility and respect.” She closed her eyes again and when they opened she spoke with a softer voice. “Let’s get him into his room. There’s no point berating deaf ears.”

Between them the two women managed to drag Kai up the stairs. KT did her best to cover up how much pain she was in, all the while looking at the remaining guests for any signs that they were not what they appeared. Nobody seemed out of place.

They managed to reach Kai’s room and dumped him on the bed. His breathing was shallow and his skin looked pale. The strange man had said that he should wake up fine but KT had no idea if she could trust his word.

Their mother was already at the door. She turned back to KT, her face shrouded in shadows so that the younger woman couldn’t quite make out her expression.

“Try to talk some sense into him. You’re the only person who he listens to anymore. He could do so much but he chooses to waste his potential. Being here should put that into perspective for him. Poor Ava was a rising star and was taken far too early. She died with so much left to give while Mordekai lives just to get drunk and womanise. Try to make him understand that life is too short to squander.” She was gone before KT could answer.

She stayed at Kai’s side for a while. Her head span but curiosity played on her mind more than fear. She had seen something that potentially shattered her very perception of the world. She wanted to know more. Her heart screamed out that life must be more than growing old, getting a job, having a family and then dying. She needed more. She had always been the type of child who had questioned everything. It had been people telling her that curiosity killed the cat that made her take on the nickname KT rather than her childhood name of Kat.

The scene in the forest was on loop in her head. What could she have done differently? Just how bad could things have gone? Before she knew it she was running through a nightmare forest being chased by the succubus. Being chased yet also chasing after a sphere of light that whispered promises of purpose and power across the void between them. Whenever she closed the gap it was a reflection of her own face that stared back at her from the orb.

She awoke with a jerk. The room was still dark. She stretched and winced as her stomach tightened. It didn’t feel as bad anymore.

Kai looked much the same as before but it seemed that his breathing had steadied. Finally feeling content that he was safe, KT stood and left his room. She wandered through the now empty corridors, her feet guiding her towards the room where she had spent most of her time on their previous visits to the lodge.

Her aunt, Susan Peterson, was an old-fashioned woman and her lodge reflected this. Aife’s Lodge had a large room that was packed tight with all manner of old books. It felt more like a symbol of status than a love of knowledge but KT didn’t care.

The smell of dust and old paper washed over her as she opened the door to the library. Clustered shelves lined every wall while free-standing shelves formed a labyrinth of pathways through the books. Most were cheap volumes that bore titles dull enough to put off any potential reader but KT remembered finding a few novels tucked away amongst the history books and manuals. 

It took her a while but she finally found what she was looking for. It was a tatty book in a faux leather cover with the word ‘Myth’ embossed in gold upon the front. She opened it up and was greeted by a roughly sketched dragon that looked too much like a cow to be as fearsome as the description implied.

She flicked through the pages until she found a small section titled ‘Succubi’. This time there was a cramped image of a beautiful, long haired woman with a lithe, small breasted body dressed in medieval style clothing. She wore it in an alluring manner that revealed hints of pale flesh. The only thing that set the image apart from a normal woman was the pure black eyes and leathery, batlike wings. It looked startlingly similar to the monster they had fought. The conflicting body images also fit with what Déaþscúa had told her. She read the scrawled writing that accompanied the image.

The Succubi are a form of demon that prey off of the sexual energies of mortal males. Like their male counterpart, the Incubi, they drain this energy through engaging in intercourse with their victims as they sleep. They take the form of attractive women but elements of their demonic nature are usually visible such as dark eyes, fangs, wings or serpentine tails. While usually non-violent, they are known to attack when threatened. The Succubi are in possession of increased strength and can withstand great amounts of damage. Reports of the creatures have diminished in recent decades but changes in society could easily cover up their dark activities.

She sat down on an overstuffed reading chair and read through the entry a few more times. It all seemed to fit with what Déaþscúa had told her. KT wanted to believe what she thought she had seen but every bit of logic in her screamed that she had to be wrong. There was only one way to know for sure if it had all been real.

KT left the library and traversed the corridors as she made her way toward the front door. Her stomach was starting to settle now but gave off a pang at the thought of leaving the safety of the lodge. There was a very real threat of danger out there now but she was not about to let fear stand in the way of magic. Magic! 

Other girls had wanted to be princesses while boys had aspired to be footballers. KT had always found inspiration in the adventures of Alice in her Wonderland, Eowyn fighting orcs amongst the men of the Rohirrim army and Sigourney Weaver battling against terrifying Xenomorphs. All of her life she had been the oddball. The weirdo who believed in fairies and had spent countless hours reading books on myths and witchcraft in the hopes that she could be special. On reflection, perhaps watching Alien every night at bedtime when she was six had not been the best for her mental state. Remembering her mother’s explosion when she had found out was one of KT’s earliest memories.

But then she had matured, grown out of idle fantasies to make her way through the real world, only for that to fail just as spectacularly. This was her chance. It didn’t stop her from approaching the fireplace first to arm herself with a poker. With the iron rod in one hand and her phone in the other she opened the main door. 

She stepped out into the frozen forest, thickening snowfall obscuring her view, and retraced her steps until she found the spot where the battle had taken place. The dirt was scuffed and the tree she had hit was missing some bark but little else seemed out of place. A growing layer of fresh snow made seeing anything difficult, especially in the early morning dark. A harsh chill was in the air that she could not shake as she moved around the area, searching for any sign of the blood that had been spilt. It was as if it had all simply dissolved into nothing.

After minutes of searching without success, KT was close to giving up until the sun rose. Maybe she really had dreamt it all. As she moved to return to the lodge empty handed, something glimmered in her peripheral vision as the light of her phone patrolled the treeline, causing her to turn back to the tree where the man had first appeared. If she held her head at just the right angle she could glimpse a sparkle of metal amongst the undergrowth. She rushed over to investigate the ground, fishing out a bullet cartridge from underneath an arced root.

Her limited knowledge on guns told her that this was not from any traditional hunting rounds. The strange, flowing patterns that were engraved upon it were too intricate to be used by any sort of hunter she knew of. Its location couldn’t be a mere coincidence. It had to belong to the man, Déaþscúa.

KT fought down waves of excitement as she made her way back to the lodge. As quietly as possible, she re-entered the building, the cartridge clenched in her hand as though if she were to let it go then it too would disappear. 

She rushed back into the library, almost throwing herself into the chair as she grabbed the book. The cartridge proved that Déaþscúa really had been there and did have a gun that he fired at something. That man was the key to understanding what had happened. He looked human but could heal wounds and moved with unnatural speed. The book had entries for all manner of wizards, mages and gifted humans but without more information there was no chance of narrowing down exactly what he could have been.

KT closed the book and was about to stand when a hand touched her shoulder. She jumped and tried to turn around at the same time, resulting in an undignified tumble from the chair.

“I’m sorry, Catherine. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

KT looked up to see the face of her Aunt Susan looming above her. Susan Peterson was a decade older than KT’s parents and those years showed on her hard face and in her grey hair. She was tall and had the same imposing presence as KT’s mother despite being her father’s sister. Her clothes were prim and faint lines marked her boney face. Tired eyes stared down at KT. They always looked close to tears when KT saw her. 

“Hi, Aunt Susan,” KT said as she picked herself up from the floor. “I didn’t expect anyone to be up yet.”

“I am usually up early,” her aunt said absently. “Though it is later than you might think. Winters here are dark well into the morning. You get used to it. Couldn’t you sleep?”

KT shook her head. She had never been sure how to talk to the woman. How did you speak to a rich relative who had lost her husband and only child and now lived alone in the middle of nowhere? Especially when it was constantly pointed out how similar KT looked to that dead child? It always left her feeling uncomfortable.

An awkward silence hung in the air for a moment until Susan spoke again. “Do you know why I asked you to come here?”

KT shook her head again. She tried desperately to think of an excuse to leave the woman but couldn’t find anything that wouldn’t be rude. The discovery of supernatural demons was slightly more important than a lonely old woman. KT instantly felt a pang of guilt for the thought.

“No, I didn’t think that your parents would tell you. Tara likes to keep her cards close to her chest. You may as well know now. I intend to move away from here to downsize somewhere a little warmer. I tried to keep myself occupied by turning the house into a hotel but it never really filled the void. Too many memories you see. Did you know that it was Ava who named the lodge?”

KT made what she hoped came across as a soothing smile. She knew next to nothing about her cousin beyond what she looked like and that she had been in the police. Unsurprisingly, nobody really wanted to talk about the dead woman. It reminded people how fragile life really was.

Susan continued. “I am leaving the lodge to your father. It’s up to him, or more likely your mother, if he wants to keep it or sell it on.” She paused to steady her breath. “I could never bring myself to clear out Ava’s things. I still don’t think that I can. I can’t take them with me so I want to leave them to you. She wasn’t much older than you when she died so maybe you will find a use for some of it.”

She hesitated for a moment. Reaching some kind of resolution, she took a fine silver chain that ended in a beautiful pendant of curved silver and emerald from around her neck. Its shape was indescribable, a complicated mesh of numerous patterns and designs. On every fine strip of silver were very small, golden inscriptions that were unreadable.

“It’s beautiful…” breathed KT as she took in the object’s splendour. Jewelry had never really appealed to her but this was a work of art.

Her aunt smiled. “It belonged to Ava. I’m still not exactly sure where she got it from. I believe it was from a suitor but she was always a very private girl, even to me. She’d intended to pass it onto her first daughter,” she faltered a moment, fighting against a sudden wave of emotions. “I want you to have it now. It is too beautiful to be worn by a tired old woman like me. It will look perfect on you, just like it did her. You both look so alike you know,” the woman finished, tenderly passing the chain to her niece. 

KT hesitated but Susan’s hand didn’t waver as she held it out to her niece. She took it slowly, admiring it for several seconds before sliding it over her head. She had seen pictures of Ava wearing it and wasn’t sure how to feel about having something else that tied her to the woman.

She searched for words but couldn’t find anything that felt fitting. “Er, thanks,” she answered lamely. 

“Ah, but enough about all of that. There will be plenty of time to talk when I speak with you all tomorrow. No need to bring the tone down now. Were you reading anything interesting before I interrupted you?”

KT assessed how much she should say before answering. “It’s a book about myths and legends. I’ve always found that kind of thing interesting. Have you ever seen anything unexplainable out here in the forest?” she asked as innocently as she could.

Susan smiled at her. “Oh yes. I remember you reading about King Arthur the last time I saw you. Hmm. Around here? I’m afraid not. The forest only hides wild animals, snow and more trees. Scotland has a rich collection of myths but I’m afraid I am no expert.”

KT hadn’t expected much but she still felt a sense of disappointment. She was about to try her luck and press the older woman further when the library door opened and KT’s father entered. 

Bob Redthorn was a tall man of slender build, healthy but not fit due to living behind a desk in an office job for fifteen years. His black hair was short and scruffy while his green eyes were shielded by a pair of sleek glasses. He looked relieved when he saw his daughter standing beside Susan.

“KT!” he breathed in relief. “Kai started to shout the place down. Looks like nightmares but I couldn’t wake him up. He looks rough. I went to fetch you but you weren’t in your room. I came here since I remember you being fond of the place. It appears that you were in safe hands.”

“I’m fine, dad,” she answered, somewhat annoyed that her parents were still making such a fuss about her. “I was just catching up with Aunt Susan,” she explained, her tone a little softer now.

“That’s wonderful!” he said. “I’m so glad that everyone is getting on. I just hope that Kai won’t miss getting to spend time with us. He looks pretty ill. How was he when you last saw him?”

KT tried to reassure her father. “He drank too much. Just kept throwing them back until he passed out. Me and mum dragged his sorry backside to bed then left him. I saw him pigging out on cheese at the buffet table too so that probably explains the nightmares.” Her dad was more likely to believe the truth than her mother but it would still have been a long shot, especially with Aunt Susan there.

“But he doesn’t even like cheese,” began her father.

“Alcohol makes you do strange things, wouldn’t you agree?” she replied accusingly.

“I was forced into that dress!” he snapped defensively.

“And the crude pictures that you painted on the car?”

Her dad turned away. “Fine. Point taken. I’ll leave you to it then. See you both at breakfast,” he said before beating a hasty retreat.

“He never changes,” said Susan with a faint smile, old memories glazing her eyes for a moment. 

Seeing her chance to escape, KT grabbed it with both hands. “I had better go and check on Kai. Where would they be without older sisters?” The fact that Susan was eleven years her brother’s elder while KT beat Kai out by minutes was irrelevant. Older was still older and she never let Kai forget it.

“Agreed,” Susan said then laughed softly. “I will see you both later. Hopefully we can catch up some more.”

“Of course. I’m sure Kai would love to get to know you,” KT lied sweetly. “See you later.”

The second the library door clicked shut KT made her way down the corridor and entered Kai’s room. He was still unconscious and his skin and sheets were drenched in sweat. His skin was still paler than normal and his breathing looked slightly erratic. It was still an improvement from when she had left him.

“Kai! Wake up!” she said firmly, shaking his shoulders, anxious to talk about the night’s events. He didn’t stir. Weighing up her options she chose the direct approach and punched him hard in the gut. 

“Gah!” he choked as he sat up violently. His eyes were now wide open. “What the hell!”

“How do you feel?” KT asked, the seriousness of her tone instantly grabbed his attention. 

“Well I feel kinda tired and my stomach hurts but other than that I’ll be fine. I’m just a bit shook up by a weird nightmare I had. I was making out with this hot Swedish chick when she turned into a monster and tried to rape and kill me. It was sexy in that ‘I’m going to hell for this’ kind of way,” Kai said with a yawn.

“What about the blond haired man with the gun?”

Kai looked up suddenly. “Wait! How did you-”

“It wasn’t a dream. You really were attacked by a succubus and saved by a blond haired man with a pistol,” KT explained, passing him the bullet cartridge as evidence.

“But that can’t be real,” Kai murmured, clutching his head with his hands. “It makes no sense.”

“You’re right,” she smiled, throwing him his coat. “That’s why we are going to find this Déaþscúa and learn what’s going on.”

Kai staggered out of bed and eyed his sister sceptically. “Wait up. Even if all of this madness was real, how do you plan on finding him? A man like that could be anywhere. It’s a bloody big forest that we don’t really know, we have limited equipment for hiking through snow and there are apparently dirty great demons out there. Did that impact with the tree knock the sense out of you?”

“See, you do remember! You know it was real. Look, Kai, what do we have going for us here? I failed on the first step towards getting the job of my dreams and you… well you’re you. There is a whole other world out there. I can’t let that opportunity just fly past me without even trying to take it.”

“Damn it, KT. If all of that is true it just means we shouldn’t do anything. People die in real life when scary shit starts happening. This isn’t a story where we just saunter into a magical war and become saviors of the damn universe. Chances are we’d just die painfully, never to be found.”

KT bit her lip. “I know. But that could happen in a backstreet of any city. Every time we step out the front door could be our last but we don’t let that knowledge rule us. This could be the biggest decision of our lives. I have to try. Whether you come with me or stay, I’m going out to find him.”

She turned from Kai and strode towards the door. Kai sat for a moment then growled angrily. “God damn it, KT. You know I can’t let you wander around alone.”

She smiled innocently at him. “He won’t get far,” she said, her eyes sparkling in the dim light.

Previous – Chapter 1.

Next – Chapter 3.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 2. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

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