The twins sprinted toward the signpost in a mad stumble, any sense of caution immediately abandoned. In an instant they were at their mother’s side, tears rolling down their faces as the sight before them pierced through the initial shock.
Tara Redthorn was a strong woman of unbreakable calm who never seemed to have a hair out of place. Now she hung upon a mock crucifix, her shining golden hair matted with clumps of dried blood, her pale skin nearly unrecognisable beneath cuts and bruises and her fine-cut winter clothes were tattered and burned. Long nails that had once held some part of the lodge together were driven through her flesh into the rough wood. Blood ran from the punctures, dripping down into a crimson puddle below her hanging feet. A thick coating of dirt and ash covered every inch of her.
Kai frantically moved around her, seeking out any means to get her down from her torture. KT grabbed a rock and placed it beside the cross. She stepped onto it then placed her ear upon her mother’s bloodsoaked breast and listened. A faint beat was just audible.
“She’s still alive!” KT cried out, the words coming out as choked sobs.
Kai jumped up to join her, listening for himself just to be sure. His hand shook maddeningly as he grabbed at the nails that secured her outstretched arms to the wood. The metal was slick with blood and his fingers couldn’t find a secure grip.
Déaþscúa came up behind them. He still held his pistol at the ready as his eyes scanned their surroundings ceaselessly.
“Move,” he ordered as he slid the guitar case from his back and clicked it open. All warmth had left his voice. He was now very much the wolf poised to kill.
Inside was a beautiful sword. It was a large blade of shining metal, long and wide with both edges having a deadly sharp edge and a pointed tip that could easily skewer armour. From the ground it reached up to Déaþscúa’s chin. The guard was a white humerus bone with two metal dragons twined around it so that each fanged head rested upon either rounded extremity. The balled tips of the bone had been carved into skulls, the deep eye sockets containing glinting rubies like baleful crimson eyes. The dragons’ tails dropped down, spiralling together to form a firm gripped handle. The tail tips met at the pommel to hold a wicked looking fang.
“Get behind her and brace yourselves,” Déaþscúa told them. KT obeyed him instantly while Kai hesitated for a moment, his eyes never leaving his mother. He bit his lip and followed his sister. In one swift movement, Déaþscúa swung his blade at the base of the cross, the metal slicing cleanly through it. The cross groaned then fell backward into the twins’ waiting arms.
Déaþscúa placed the sword through a strap on his back, not bothering to pack it away into the guitar case again, and moved to check on the woman. He ran a hand over her, his face never hinting at any emotion as he eased the nails out of her flesh then lifted her slightly to place her beside the cross.
“Can’t you save her? Heal her with that glowing hand magic like you did to me!” KT begged. She wanted to move, to do something to help, but she couldn’t do anything more than stand helplessly by.
The man continued to examine their mother as he spoke. “I’m no healer. I can ease minor injuries but she needs someone devoted to saving lives. She’s badly beaten and is suffering from bloodloss. I can slow her death but can’t prevent it entirely.”
“Then we have to call an ambulance. We will save her!” growled Kai. His hands were white from clenching so tightly.
From his coat, Déaþscúa fished out a mobile phone and tapped in a number. He held the device to his ear with one hand while the other began to glow over the woman’s chest.
“Jearl, I need a pickup ASAP. I’m at Aife’s Lodge in Abernethy Forest,” he said briskly then put the phone down, sliding it back into a pocket.
He turned back to the two teens and opened his mouth to speak when his pistol flashed into his hand and fired past them. There was an abrupt scream as KT and Kai whipped around to see another goblin fall to the floor missing most of its chest.
“Get ready!” Déaþscúa shouted.
No sooner had the words left his mouth than the forest erupted into a frenzy of activity as dozens of howling goblins spilled out from the trees. Crude knives, axes and clubs swung wildly as the foul creatures barrelled forward, malice glinting in their small, dark eyes.
There was an explosion of sound as Déaþscúa fired his revolver, hammering the trigger with such speed that multiple shots merged into one peal of thunder. Six twisted figures fell like rag dolls but the others didn’t even flinch.
Well practiced movements saw the gun reloaded from a pouch across Déaþscúa’s chest. “Grab a weapon and brace yourselves! You keep standing there gawping and you will die!”
Kai nodded shakily, picking up a ruined table leg out from the rubble. As he was bending down, a yellow glint from the darkness of the forest caught his eye. He stared for a moment as the baleful glow doubled then resolved themselves as a pair of savage eyes on a bestial face.
“Déaþscúa! Behind you!” he called out.
Déaþscúa span on the ball of his foot just as a giant wolf with ragged grey fur leapt out from the trees, blood slick claws and razor sharp fangs reaching out for the man’s throat. His opponent was larger than any canine, with features that could be attributed to a humanoid more readily than a beast. Clawed hands flexed with powerful muscles instead of paws, bulky arms filled with strength connected to broad shoulders, and impressive abdominal muscles suggested a weightlifter rather than an animal. It stood on two legs but its angular face and fang filled snout were all too animalistic.
He shot it once but the bullet achieved nothing before its hand slammed into Déaþscúa’s face. Déaþscúa flew backward but flipped easily back to his feet. Claw marks oozed blood upon his cheek and exposed white bone, but even as the two teens watched, the wounds began to seal themselves.
The first of the goblins dived at Kai and he quickly lashed out with the table leg, splattering the creature’s brains across the dirt. Bile rose up in his throat and he would’ve thrown up if he’d had the chance before more of the grey skinned horrors were upon them.
“Catch!” grunted Déaþscúa as he threw his revolver and the ammo pouch at Kai. Dropping his club, Kai plucked them clumsily from the air and instantly fired at a goblin that had just jumped to reach his head. The gun kicked back, almost smashing into Kai’s face with the recoil but the monster exploded, coating him in a shower of blood.
KT was crouched beside her mother, hurling rocks at any goblin that advanced too close. There were too many to hold at bay any longer. She grabbed her mother’s arms and frantically pulled her through the slurry towards the wall of the lodge.
Leaning her mother against the wall she scrambled for a weapon. Nothing nearby presented itself as a valid choice. A hiss from her side made her turn to see a goblin with a dagger scrambling toward her. She only had a second to act. Her hand sped to her belt buckle and she clicked it open. In one flourishing movement she whipped out the entire length, smashing the far end into the goblin’s nose with a satisfying crack.
Swapping ends she brandished the belt like a whip, striking one goblin in the face with the heavy metal buckle that depicted roses growing from a skull, then swept away another’s legs. Like a snake it lashed out again and again, spinning through the air to form a safety zone around KT and her mother. Against humans it would have been pointless but the small size and thin bones of the goblins made each strike count.
Closer to the forest the werewolf howled angrily as Déaþscúa drew his sword. It glinted threateningly in the light of the rising moon.
“Lycan,” he observed calmly. His eyes took in every detail, analysed them and provided conclusions in the brief second before the werewolf charged at him. Déaþscúa sidestepped and brought his sword down to slash at the beast’s flank but the lycan sprang into the air with unnatural grace and landed upon his back. Fangs snapped to tear at the back of his neck but Déaþscúa threw back his head, smashing it repeatedly into the wolf’s snout.
Déaþscúa repositioned his sword into a reverse grip then thrust it at the werewolf’s side. The beast jumped away again only to bounce straight back at its prey. Claws and blade met in a death-lock.
Meanwhile Kai had given up trying to follow KT and was now focussed only on keeping the goblins at bay. He emptied the revolver and was fumbling to reload the weapon. The goblins’ numbers hadn’t seemed to decrease at all.
Kai was forced to abandon reloading when a crude axe swept toward his chest. He parried with the revolver then kicked at the goblin’s bony chest. He felt bones shatter beneath his sole.
“I can’t hold them off with a gun!” he shouted to Déaþscúa. “They’re too close!”
Déaþscúa ducked under a swing then span away from an incoming attack from the other side. His sword flashed out, forcing the lycan to back away a few steps.
“What, you want the sword instead? Let me fight the giant wolf in close combat with a pistol? You wouldn’t even be able to lift this!” he snapped. As he said this, the lycan knocked his sword to one side and slashed at Déaþscúa’s chest. Ragged cuts pierced flesh and sprayed blood. “Bloody brilliant!” he spat before punching the werewolf in the kidney.
The wound knit itself back together but Kai noticed that it was taking longer than that first injury had taken to heal. A goblin then jumped onto Kai’s head and started clawing at his face with dirty fingernails. He couldn’t see a thing. He stumbled around blindly until he felt the wall of the lodge then smashed his head into it, squishing the creature between his skull and the wall.
Behind him the lycan launched into a flurry of attacks that tore at skin and jarred every bone. Déaþscúa cursed as blood blurred his vision. He stepped forward into the lycan’s defence and slammed his pommel into the beast’s maw. Fangs flew from its mouth to litter the floor. Dazed, it swung at him but Déaþscúa stepped to the side then severed the hand with a decisive flick of his wrist. The wolf screamed, the sound a terrifying mixture of man and beast that seemed to shake the heavens. The lycan thrashed its remaining hand at Déaþscúa who, despite blocking, was thrown back into a tree with a sharp thud.
A soul rending howl issued forth as the lycan made ready to finish the job. Its battle cry was cut short when music suddenly began to blare through the trees. ‘I’m a Barbie girl in a Barbie world. Life in plastic, it’s fantastic. You can brush my hair-’ Déaþscúa fumbled angrily through his pocket for his phone. The lycan cocked its head at the sound then ran at him but Déaþscúa batted it away with the flat of his blade.
“Damn it Ailia! That is the last time I let you use my damn phone!” he hissed mid swing, quickly silencing the song. He glanced over to the lycan then bounded to his feet, breaking into an instant sprint.
The sound of an engine rose up quickly, growing from a whisper to a roar in the space of a few seconds. From the narrow lane that led through the forest to Aife’s Lodge burst a shadowy shape. Flames reflected across a matte black SUV that looked more suited to battlefields than British roads. It was huge and bore armoured plates. Black tinted windows blocked any view of the interior. It mowed down any goblin that could not dive to the side in time then skidded to a halt beside Déaþscúa.
KT and Kai were still beside the lodge, their position almost overrun as the goblins ignored Déaþscúa to swarm the easier prey. He could see them crawling over the building, clambering down the walls like spiders to take the teens from above.
“Shit,” he said through gritted teeth. The lycan was charging him again but he didn’t have time to waste on it. He ran towards KT and Kai with the lycan chasing behind. It was rapidly gaining on him. He threw his sword, spearing one of the goblins to the wall just above KT’s head. The lycan swung at him and he leapt up, landing on the beast’s back as he grabbed its arms and forced them backwards into a tight lock.
Kai dove aside as the lycan crashed past him into the wall. Déaþscúa sprang up, grabbing his sword from the wood and landing beside Tara.
“Get in the car!” Déaþscúa ordered. He snatched the revolver from Kai and slid home another six bullets before passing it back to the young man. He effortlessly picked up Tara with one arm and began the run back towards the SUV. KT and Kai followed closely behind him. Few of the goblins dared to get close now that Déaþscúa was so near. The lycan had no such issue and was storming across the mud after them.
Déaþscúa made it to the car first and put Tara into the passenger seat. KT whipped one more goblin across the knuckles with the belt buckle then threw herself into the back seat. Déaþscúa and Kai barrelled in after her, Kai emptying the pistol’s chambers before shutting the door. Even as the door slammed shut, the car’s wheels screeched and it shot off back down the lane.
There was a howl of rage then the entire vehicle shook as something thudded into the roof. Metal screeched as claws punctured the roof and began to work jagged grooves into its surface. Déaþscúa muttered angrily then grabbed the gun from Kai. He reloaded then began firing up, wincing at every hole he made. The gunshots rang out like thunder within the confines of the car.
Through the messy gaps above they could see the lycan, wounded but undiminished in its movements. It snarled, baring glistening fangs at its intended prey below. Its good arm struck out again, tearing another set of lines into the roof.
“Open the door!” yelled Déaþscúa.
KT looked at him unbelievingly. “Open the door? we’re driving at max speed down a forest lane with tightly packed trees on either side and a pissed off werewolf on the roof wanting nothing more than to get inside with us. Why the hell would I open that door?”
Déaþscúa growled angrily. He leaned over KT against her complaints and yanked at the handle. The door opened and Déaþscúa scrambled across KT to swing himself out, deftly pulling himself up onto the roof beside the lycan.
Déaþscúa and the lycan stared each other down, both braced against the car’s movements, their muscles tensed to leap into action at a moment’s notice.
“Care to stop smashing up my car?” Déaþscúa asked. The wolf snarled and sprang at him. Déaþscúa ran to meet it and jumped with unnatural power. He landed upon its shoulders and shot at its head, blowing a large section of skull away. Another flip saw him back onto the vehicle’s roof.
Despite the horrendous injury, the lycan only staggered around the roof howling, struggling against the pain to get a focus on the man before it. It shook its head, flecking blood everywhere, then bared its teeth ready for one final attack. Déaþscúa simply waved goodbye and stepped to the side.
A stout tree branch smashed into the lycan’s ribs. The sound of breaking bones was all too apparent. As the SUV drove on, the lycan slid from the branch and hit the ground limply. Déaþscúa watched silently as the great mass of muscle and fur shrivelled and shrunk, receding and rotting until only a battered human body remained. His naked skin was ragged and blood soaked and his overgrown brown hair was tangled. Scrubbed up and healthy, the man would have been considered handsome.
Kneeling, Déaþscúa leant down and knocked on the window. It opened and he hopped down through it almost casually.
No sooner had he seated himself Kai grabbed him by the shirt. “What the hell is going on? Monsters burn down the lodge and kill everyone just when you’re coincidently strolling through the area! Why did this happen? Who the hell are you?”
“They aren’t dead,” replied Déaþscúa calmly. “Think logically, boy. Did you see any bodies? Any blood? We didn’t get there before they had a chance to hide so many bodies.”
“Is still alive as well,” Déaþscúa interrupted. “I suppose you could see it as a message.”
“Will she survive?” KT asked in a weak voice. “I mean, you said you couldn’t heal her.”
Déaþscúa nodded. “I can’t. I do know someone who can though,” he said before tapping on the black glass that separated the back of the car from the front like a limousine divider.
The window slid down to reveal the cluttered area beyond. Their mother was still unconscious in the passenger’s seat but around her was a mixture of gadgets and fast-food wrappers divided messily along with a wealth of other miscellaneous crap. Magazines were arranged across the dashboard that varied from nude women, comic books and cheap gossip prints.
Leaning from the driver’s seat to see his passengers was a lanky man with messy brown hair and a long, blemished face. He wore a black chauffeur’s suit that was too baggy on him. It was creased and the jackets buttons were all undone. Its collar was up and the whole outfit had a very lived in look. KT could almost believe that the messy style could be attributed to some strange, niche fashion circle.
The man took a look at the destroyed roof and tisked to himself. His gaze slid over to Déaþscúa after they had rested several moments upon KT. Kai was completely ignored.
“Where to, boss?” he said in a cockney accent.
“Get us to Glasgow as quickly as you can,” Déaþscúa told him as he pushed himself forward to check on Tara. “We need this woman healed or she’ll likely die. These kids don’t want to lose their mother and I don’t want to lose a possible source of information.”
“Got it,” nodded the other man assuredly. He turned back and the divide began to rise again.
“What do you mean by ‘source of information’? Doesn’t a human life mean anything to you?” Kai snarled.
Déaþscúa watched him passively. “I saved both of you didn’t I? You serve no purpose to me but I still protected you and have brought you along with me. I also have enough information to not need whatever your mother could tell me. I helped her because she needs it and not because I need her. If she can even think logically when she wakes, the most that she could tell me would only confirm my suspicions.”
“And what are those suspicions?” KT asked. She looked into Déaþscúa’s bottomless eyes, determined not to look away until he answered. He had skirted too many of their questions for her liking. “Why did the goblins attack the lodge? Where is our dad? And Aunt Susan and all of the others? Why was everyone taken alive if you’re right? None of it makes any sense.”
He stared right back for a few seconds, the ice blue of his pupils seemingly slicing into her brain like a cold wind. “Exactly,” replied Déaþscúa with a frown. “The goblins should have kept well away from any human settlement. They only ever fight humans if they’re starving or have been rallied to war. Neither really fits here. Added to that, the lycan hate goblins and will hunt them as readily as any human. The lycan are hunters and will go after single targets. Only frenzied werewolves or those who still control their own actions would ever attack a group of people. Our fur-brain was neither. No goblin or lycan would take a captive, especially a whole host of them.”
“That doesn’t answer anything then!” Kai said, clipping each word out angrily. Now that the adrenaline was fading, his emotions had started to tear through his numbness.
Déaþscúa shook his head. “You have to look around the answers you know to see the shape of what you don’t know. If you open up a hundred piece jigsaw and only count ninety nine, which is easier, looking through each piece individually to try and guess what isn’t there or assemble what you do have in order to see the gap? I know that a building that I’ve recently been around was attacked by unlikely allies in circumstances that do not fit with their natural behaviour. This suggests they were attacking because of me and that a higher authority was guiding their actions. Running through the list of people that want me to suffer who’re near enough to know my movements and has the power to pull the strings of these creatures leaves only one name. Black Annis.”
Silence descended within the car as it raced over the dark roads. Kai clearly had no idea who that was but recognition sparked in KT’s eyes. Her eyebrows furrowed.
“Wasn’t Black Annis a mythological witch who lived in Leicester? Why would she be hunting you in Scotland?”
Déaþscúa removed a leather wallet from the back pocket of his trousers and routed through it for a moment before removing a folded piece of paper. He showed it to the twins. It was a pencil drawing depicting a twisted woman in black with blades for fingers. Water colour paint had been used to give the woman a bluish tinge to her skin.
“It is me who’s hunting her,” he told them slowly. “As I have been for longer than I care to remember. She did have a den in Leicester but I hunted her from there long ago, with the aid of urban expansion anyway. You have to consider, when your diet consists mostly of human children, you can’t stay in one place for too long. She was known up and down the British Isles by one name or another. Scotland is still wild so provides a good place for her to hide. She fled here and I followed.”
“Why burn down the lodge?” asked Kai. “You never went inside. We were the only ones you had spoken to and there were no children for her to take, just a load of gristly old folk who probably taste of bitterness and disappointment.”
“Annis enjoys suffering. Or at least the strong emotions that come from it. She knows that in an open fight against me she can’t win. Instead she wages mental war on me. For years anyone I was ever close to was killed by her. Then when I stopped making bonds she murdered anybody who I even spoke to. She made me pick between social isolation or the death of innocents. That is why I warned you not to go near me.” Déaþscúa sighed. His eyes held a distant look to them as he spoke.
Kai raised his voice. “You said they were all still alive. Dad, Aunt Susan, everyone.”
“And they probably are,” Déaþscúa replied simply. “Annis is a smart, treacherous woman. She’ll use them as bait to lure me into her trap. She thinks that the second innocents are in danger then I’ll just recklessly rush in and save them.”
“You have to save them!” yelled Kai. Tears brimmed in his eyes.
“First we save this one.” Déaþscúa said, indicating their mother beyond the divide.
“Then what?” asked KT, nervous of the answer.
“Then I’ll just recklessly rush in and save them,” he smiled. “Now get some rest. Even with Jearl’s gung-ho driving it’s a long way to Glasgow.”