“Look, we aren’t going to find anything. We’ve searched the whole area,” Kai said as the twins plodded through the frozen forest. The light of day was only just beginning to dilute the darkness of night and the air was still bitterly cold. They’d found no further clues to the man’s whereabouts.
“Stop moaning!” KT snapped. “You were attacked in this very spot by a mythological monster. Surely you want to know what’s going on?”
“Of course I do! It’s just that it all felt so…surreal.” Kai sighed as he suppressed another yawn. “If it wasn’t for you I’d have not given it a second thought. I just don’t know what you’re expecting to find. You think we’ll just stumble across a ring of power or a magic stone that will suddenly make all of your dreams come true?”
KT kicked at the snow. “I don’t know. I just… I just want there to be something more. What we saw was real so who’s to say what else could exist too? I have to at least try to find out more.”
“So what do you propose then? You said that dude told us not to go into the forest alone yet that is exactly the first thing that we’ve done.”
“We aren’t alone. We have each other. Anyway, that thing took us by surprise. We’ll be ready if there is a next time. We can finally put those karate lessons to use. Not that I expect trouble during the day.”
“You quit those lessons after three months.”
“I was the only girl and everyone was scared to face me. They all either didn’t want to hurt a girl or didn’t want to be hurt by a girl. How was I supposed to improve in that environment? Anyway, you quit the week after me.”
“Yeah. I didn’t like the couch. Old Barry, wasn’t it? He thought he was better than me.”
“He was a blackbelt.”
“That’s hardly the point. Aren’t kung-fu masters supposed to be all humble and shit? Not rub it in our face how high and mighty he is.”
KT rubbed the back of her neck absently as she thought. Her mind wasn’t really on the conversation. Her eyes drifted across the trees and noticed the broken branches that marked where the succubus had fled into the sky. Thinking back she knew that the beast had flown south, deeper into the vast forest.
She pointed in the direction that the succubus had gone. “We go that way.”
“Yes, brilliant idea! Let’s go deeper into an ancient forest after finding out that monsters exist. What could possibly go wrong?” Kai mocked as he waved his arms around dramatically. Despite his sarcasm, it was the first time he had shown any sign of energy.
“Think about it,” reasoned his sister. “That man appeared after you were attacked by the succubus. He wounded it but then had to help us. We can assume that he was some kind of monster hunter as he knew all about them and carried around that pistol. He helped us so he is probably an okay guy. He wouldn’t risk the succubus attacking someone else. It makes sense that he would finish off the job.”
Kai shook his head. “South covers a big area you realise.”
“You’re such a pessimist. We won’t know if we never try,” KT persisted.
“I’m not a pessimist, I’m an optimist with a negative disposition. There is a difference,” said Kai, resolved to the fact that he knew his sister had already won.
Knowing that she had won as well, KT wasted no time in venturing off into the forest. Kai followed behind miserably. He struggled to keep his tired eyes open but KT’s eyes constantly flickered back and forth in search for any signs of the quarry. Drops of blood, a footprint, some kind of trail, anything.
“I’d probably avoid mum when we get back. She saw you last night and assumes you were drunk,” KT commented as they plodded around the trees without anything supernatural occurring.
Kai made a snorting sound somewhere between anger and frustration. “Great. I get attacked and still end up having her breathing down my neck. I wish she’d just give up already.”
“You know she just wants you to succeed.”
“Look, there are always going to be people who’re smarter, stronger, faster and more talented than me. Practice makes perfect but perfection is unattainable so why practice? Dear ol’ Mum always said to play to our strengths and my strength just happens to be being a smartass bastard with a fondness for pretty girls. I am the best at what I do and nobody can take that away from me.”
KT had no answer to that argument that she hadn’t used a hundred times before.
They walked in silence for another half an hour without finding anything of note. Even KT was beginning to show signs of doubt. Kai had succumbed to his weariness and was basically asleep on his feet, his legs propelled by their own rhythm more than by conscious thought.
“Can we go back now?” he asked through a yawn. “I think I’m starting to dream again. I can smell bacon.”
KT was about to offer a scathing reply when the scent of bacon caught in her nostrils too. The smell caught her by surprise and caused her to miss her step. She tripped and fell to the floor. “You’re not imagining it,” she said, holding up her hand for Kai to help her up.
Kai ignored her and ploughed forward through the trees, sniffing heavily like a dog following a scent. KT pulled herself up and followed behind him. After a few seconds he came to a sudden halt in a small clearing.
“My bacon senses are tingling. It was cooked here,” he stated confidently. He stood there wetting his lips hungrily since KT had dragged him from the lodge before he could eat breakfast.
KT caught up to him and it only took her a moment to find scattered ashes that indicated a fire had been lit there. Judging by the way that the ashes were positioned, she guessed that someone had sloppily tried kicking snow over the fire’s remains. A passer-by would likely not have spotted them but for someone who was even remotely aware of the ground it was obvious.
“It had to have been him,” she said matter-of-factly. Placing her hand over the ashes she felt a slight resonance of warmth.
“Why does it? Anyone can eat bacon. Hell, it should be law that everyone has to eat bacon at least once a week,” muttered Kai. He was still savouring the smell. His stomach growled in agreement.
“Who else would be out in the middle of a Scottish forest on New Year’s day? It is the only logical answer. If only I knew which way he went.”
“West,” grunted Kai.
Kai shrugged offhandedly. “He is a man who has just filled up on bacon. He won’t be wanting to walk uphill. The ground slopes down to the west.
“Damn it. Kai, you can’t base all of life’s decisions on bacon.”
Kai shrugged, his face a mask of innocence. “Why not? It’s never let me down before.”
KT sighed in defeat. “Fine. We’ll head west,” she agreed, before setting off down the slope.
They walked for another twenty minutes without seeing any signs of anything unusual. Kai stumbled along, his tiredness rapidly reducing his ability to function. More than once he tripped on a root or a section of uneven ground and staggered into a tree. He yawned, swallowed his own saliva, and began to choke noisily.
“You’re right. This is pointless. We’d never find a man like that if he didn’t want to be found,” KT said frustratedly. She took a deep breath then visibly sagged. “What the hell are we doing?”
“Choking,” wheezed Kai.
KT moved to help him but came to a sudden halt. Her entire body was alert as her eyes darted to a nearby bush. It shook slightly then became still again. She took a cautious step toward it then dived away as the bush exploded into motion.
A greyish-green blur erupted from the undergrowth and shot past her, smashing straight into Kai’s back. He screamed out and spun around with his arms swinging. Whatever had hit him jumped back and dashed around to the side ready to strike again at his blindspot.
It was a creature about half Kai’s height with a scrawny build and tight, dirty grey skin that stretched over a knobbly skeleton. Jackal-like teeth gnashed hungrily while pale yellow eyes with slit pupils jittered across the two teens seeking weak spots to exploit. Its nose and ears were sharp like blades, almost as lethal looking as the chipped fingernails. It had no hair whatsoever.
A feral screech tore from the monster’s cracked lips as it leapt at Kai’s back. It flew through the air quicker than Kai could move. KT dashed to intercept the attack and slammed into the creature’s side. It hit the ground hard but bounced back up quickly. It looked half-panicked but wasted no time in grabbing a stone that it hurled at KT. She blocked it with her arm but the blow still came keen. While she was distracted the creature charged at Kai. He was ready for it this time and punched it in the face. The thing’s entire body shook with the blow but before Kai could withdraw his hand it clamped its teeth down upon his fist.
There was an echoing crack and the monster exploded like a bloody firework. Dark blood splattered everywhere while bone fragments and tattered skin filled the air like grisly rain. Both teens whipped around to stare through the blood haze at the man beyond.
Déaþscúa stood with his pistol pointed toward them, a frown on his rugged face. That strange look of confusion that he had shown the night before passed across his features once again. He stood like that for a few seconds then sighed as he holstered the revolver.
“I hate teenagers. You specifically tell them not to do something and they go out of their way to do it,” His voice was more reserved than angry. He walked toward them. “How did you find me anyway? I can’t decide whether to be annoyed or impressed that you followed me.”
Kai’s skin was ashen and he trembled where he stood. KT watched him stare at the creature’s corpse then at Déaþscúa. Anger flared in his eyes just for a moment but then his entire disposition changed, his body relaxing and a blank look settling across his face. His pride had always been stronger than his fear. KT both respected and hated how quickly he could switch off his emotions.
He shook off the remains of the creature’s jaw from his wrist then wiped a coating of gore from his face before speaking. “What the hell was that?”
Déaþscúa looked at the viscera as though seeing it for the first time. “Oh yeah. That. I’d forget my own head if Jearl didn’t occasionally reattach it. That charming little creature was a goblin. Nasty little buggers. Just like you two. Now go away. Go home and forget everything you’ve seen or I’ll be forced to wipe your minds,” Déaþscúa informed them offhandedly.
“Can you do that?” KT asked with a raised eyebrow. She was genuinely curious as to the extent of his abilities.
Déaþscúa was silent for a moment. “Well no… I do know people who can.”
“And where are they?” Kai asked sarcastically. Sarcasm was his default response when it came to people in authority.
“Not here,” the man admitted slowly.
For how imposing the man was he had the quality of a large dog. He seemed endearing and friendly until threatened when the snarling wolf would rise from the mists of ancestral DNA. KT felt safe around him despite his dangerous presence and her own better judgement. “What is going on? Tell us. Please.”
Déaþscúa rubbed his stubbly chin with a scarred hand. “Fine. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know on the condition you return to the lodge and don’t seek me out again. Danger follows me like a shadow and it won’t take much to consume you both. You have to understand that. This might all seem magical to you but in reality it is a series of gruesome deaths just waiting to happen.”
The two teens looked at each other then turned back and nodded.
He sighed again. “What is your first question then?”
Kai raised a hand. “Err, I seem to be bleeding. Do you have any disinfectant or bandages?” He turned so that Déaþscúa could see the claw marks that cut furrows into his skin. The wounds weren’t deep but they still bled, soaking into his black shirt and working down to his jeans.
“Do I look like a doctor to you?” Déaþscúa said. He placed a hand on the injury causing Kai to wince slightly. The same light bluish glow emanated from his hand as when he had healed KT’s stomach. “I’ve stemmed the bleeding. It’s just a scratch so don’t worry.”
Kai shuddered under the man’s touch. The glow seemed to make him nervous and he kept trying to look around to cast distrustful glances back at Déaþscúa.
The second Déaþscúa was satisfied with the injury he turned and started a brisk walk into the forest in the direction of the lodge. After a slight pause, KT and Kai set off after him.
KT tried her luck with the first question. “Can anyone use magic?”
“No,” was Déaþscúa’s simple reply. “It isn’t a regular occurrence. It’s all down to blood, existing magic or cosmic events. Many gifted humans don’t even know why they can do what they do. There are very few of us left in the world. Once there were a lot more.”
KT looked disappointed but quickly recovered and pressed on. “Well, why are you here? Did you come for the succubus, or the goblin?”
“Goblins and succubi are everywhere. I wouldn’t come out to Scotland for something so small,” Déaþscúa said as though the monsters were nothing more than annoying insects. Despite his tone, his features settled into a frown. “I’ll admit though, that goblin’s behaviour was far from normal.”
“Why? It was ugly, smelled bad and tried to kill us. Seems pretty goblin-like to me,” Kai observed.
“Three reasons. Firstly, goblins are nocturnal creatures. For them to wander out in the sunlight is pretty unusual in itself. Secondly, goblins will never attack unless they’re confident they’ll win. That means attacking the weak or outnumbering their prey. After all, they’re creatures that hunt in a pack. A lone goblin attacking two healthy humans makes no sense. Finally, the goblins know that I am in the area. Usually, most creatures will hide away if I’m within a ten mile radius of their territory. It isn’t just that one goblin ignoring me. I can sense that the whole pack is on the hunt. That’s very strange indeed.”
Déaþscúa continued through the forest as though the rough terrain didn’t exist. His movements were easy yet confident, taking him past the trees, branches, roots and bushes like he knew every inch of his surroundings. Kai and KT were basically jogging just to keep up with him.
“Why are you here then? You think there is something worse out here?” asked KT, fearing the answer already.
Déaþscúa laughed bitterly. “There is much worse out in these woods. I seek the worst. You don’t need to know any more than that.” His tone lightened slightly. “Anyway, you never answered my question. How did you track me?”
“We followed the scent of bacon.” Kai answered, happy to be back on a topic that he knew.”
“Curses! Foiled again by my one weakness!” Déaþscúa said overdramatically. Lowering his voice slightly but keeping with the dramatic tone he continued. “But it was worth it. Oh how it was worth it.”
Kai examined the man sceptically. “You don’t carry any supply bags. You don’t have enough pockets to carry food and water for an extended trip. That means that you must have a base around here, right?”
Déaþscúa smirked as he opened up his coat and lifted up his shirt. Underneath it was a vest made from individually wrapped bacon strips.
“You have a bacon vest? That’s awesome!” exclaimed Kai as though it was the greatest invention of humanity.
“I’ll let you in on a little secret. Bacon is resistant to magic. Someone throws a fireball at me and all that happens is that I end up with ready cooked bacon. It shields me and is a conveniently portable food supply.”
“What about the actual heat from melted plastic and cooked bacon against your skin? Surely that still burns-”
“Enough about bacon!” interrupted KT. “We stand at the doorway to a world of wonders and you want to waste time talking about meat.”
They were nearing the lodge now. KT wanted to get as much knowledge as she could before Déaþscúa tried to leave them again. She was about to ask another question when Déaþscúa suddenly tensed. It was like seeing a vicious predator suddenly realising that it wasn’t the nastiest beast on the prowl. Without a single word he burst into motion, leaving the two teens behind.
“I smell smoke,” hissed Kai. “Not the good kind either.”
KT sniffed heavily. Kai’s sense of smell had always been better than hers. It took her a moment but as soon as she looked for the smell it was there. Faint but foul in the pure forest air. A dark smudge was rising through the sky above the treetops ahead of them.
“What could be burning around here?” she began. “The only thing for miles is…”
“The lodge!” roared Kai as realisation hit him like a hammer blow.
Without heed of the branches that lashed at their skin, KT and Kai barrelled through the forest in the direction that Déaþscúa had vanished. The smell of smoke grew stronger and the sky started to grow dull as black clouds rose up to choke the blue heavens. The path between the trees quickly became obscured and their panting breaths turned into chokes as the smoke filled their lungs.
Then they were out in the open. Smoke covered the area like a blanket but the ruined shell that had once been Aife’s Lodge was all too clear. The aged wood had turned black as fire consumed every surface. The glass from the windows was shattered everywhere and stone lay as debris wherever the eyes looked. What remained of the once ornate furniture was now littered across the clearing. One of the walls had completely collapsed, leaving a gaping wound into the building’s gutted remains. Flames had melted the snow, reducing the grassy glen to a churned field of mud.
“Oh god!” KT choked as she took in the devastation.
Déaþscúa stood nearby, pistol drawn. He was advancing towards the signpost that had once borne the lodge’s name. Now it had been converted into a crude crucifix where a human body had been nailed. A human whose blood stained face was all too familiar.