It wasn’t long before they left the main roads and delved into the forest paths that crisscrossed the land in every direction. It had started to snow again but the SUV’s heating pumped warm air through the vehicle, leaving its innards cosy in contrast to the icy world beyond the windows.
“Do you think that Dad and the others will be in this fort?” Kai asked. Until that point they had all been seated in silence, everyone gazing absently outside.
“I believe so,” Déaþscúa answered. “Forces connected with Annis captured the fort and attacked your aunt’s lodge within days of each other. If she’s using it as a base then it would make sense to take her captives there. Even if they aren’t, hopefully we can find some clues as to where they actually are.”
Kai snorted. “So all we have to do is fight through a horde of monsters and break inside of an ancient fort to maybe find a clue?”
“Essentially yes. Don’t worry, I do this kind of thing all the time. It only sometimes goes terribly wrong.”
“Yeah!” added Jearl “Like that time you fell into that trap and all the mercenaries you were with were ripped to shreds by zombies. You made it out by the skin of your teeth on that one. Or that time in Russia with the werebear that was in a vodka induced rage. Or-”
“They get the point, Jearl,” Déaþscúa cut in when he noticed KT and Kai’s faces growing pale. “We wouldn’t want to worry them too much.”
“Course, boss. Sorry, boss.” Jearl turned to the backseat, completely taking his eyes off of the twisting path. “Don’t you worry. Déaþscúa here hasn’t let anyone die in at least four months. I suppose he hasn’t actually interacted with anyone in about that time but my point still stands.”
“Jearl, sometimes I want to punch you. I think you became my driver so I cannot indulge in that want without you crashing and killing us all in a huge fireball of death. You’re a cunning man.”
“Cheers,” Jearl said brightly, focussing in on the complement alone. “I pride myself on me brains. I went to Eton after all.”
“Being hired as pest control does not count as an Eton education.”
“I like to think of it as a crash course in douchebaggery.”
The SUV descended back into silence as the drive continued. Snow was building up outside, the wind stirring the flakes into the start of a blizzard. The sky was dark but the headlights illuminated the snow, turning the world into a ghostly visage. Jearl handled the icy roads with a skill that his bedraggled appearance would never suggest.
“The MacFeelans’ camp is just ahead,” Déaþscúa said after a while. “You’re about to meet some of the strongest folk in all of Scotland. They’re legends in our circles. Or used to be, anyway.”
The trees grew sparser until they entered into a clearing. A circle of log spikes were stuck in the ground at an angle, pointing outwards like old fashioned fortifications. Sandbags and corrugated metal sheets formed a basic wall just behind them. Jearl slowed the car and entered through the single gap into a clustered group of wood and stone huts. A lone sentry tower stood at the camp’s centre which Jearl parked beside.
Men started to emerge from the huts. They were giants with powerful muscles, flaming ginger hair, and kilts. Oversized weapons hung from their backs ranging from double-bladed axes, hammers and claymores. They looked like every picture of a stereotypical Scottish warrior that KT had ever seen before.
Déaþscúa stepped out from the car to greet them and was instantly taken into the arms of the lead warrior in a crushing bear-hug. He wore his hair and beard in intricate braids and the claymore across his back made even Déaþscúa’s blade look puny.
“Déaþscúa! ‘Tis good te see ye. Ye has nae aged a flamin’ day. Ye come te partake in the skull crackin’?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world and you know it, Niall,” Déaþscúa laughed as he returned the larger man’s greeting. “How’re you holding up?”
Niall beamed down at Déaþscúa. “Things are just gettin’ interestin’. There’s plenty o’ killin’ te be done each day. Annis took the fort and is gatherin’ forces there. We’d launch a full attack but she’s been assailing us each night. We’ve missed this kind of battle. Come, join us fe a few mugs of ale and we’ll fill ye in.”
Déaþscúa nodded then knocked on the SUV’s window. KT and Kai climbed out and became the centre of attention among the group. The MacFeelans crowded around them, talking amongst themselves in low voices, their accents so thick that even the words that the teens heard were unintelligible.
“MacFeelans, these are KT and Kai. They’re searching for family members taken by Annis. KT and Kai, these are the legendary MacFeelan clan. We have the head of the family, Niall and his five brothers Friseal, Garbhan, Sèitheach, Maon and Ailean. Let’s not forget Niall’s wife, Maridia either. There are a good number of cousins too but I’ll not overload you with names.”
One of the men, Friseal, stepped closer to KT and reached out a hand. His hair was more blond than the others. She flinched back and Kai stepped between them. Friseal lowered his arm but continued to stare at her.
“Is she o’ the pure blood?” he asked in a slow voice.
Déaþscúa smiled at him and patted the man’s broad shoulder. “You don’t want to go after her, Friseal. She’d as soon castrate you as kiss you. She has too much fight in her to settle down now.”
“Sounds perfect. Wife need te be strong to keep thick headed man alive and raise strong bairns.”
Niall stepped up to his brother and led him away. “Donae ye worry, Fri. We’ll go te the city after all this is over and we’ll find ye a good strong lass.” His other brothers gathered around Friseal and took him inside the largest of the huts. Niall turned back to the teens and offered his hand to them both.
“Sorry aboot young Friseal. He was bashed in the head by a troll as a toddler. Great fighter but hasnae got the wits of a grown man. He means well though.”
They entered into a large hut beside the watch tower and were hit by a wall of sound. The building was packed with Scottish warriors, both male and female, all drinking heavily. Laughter and raised voices flooded the space. Niall led them to a gap on the longest of the tables and no sooner had they all seated themselves than frothing mugs were placed before them. Niall and Déaþscúa drank deeply before slamming the mugs down. Kai took a mouthful and nearly choked. Just the smell of it was making KT’s head feel light. Kai braced himself and continued to drink. He hated to look like the drink was too strong when the others were chugging it down like water. KT relented too and tried a few sips.
Niall grinned at them both, seemingly enjoying their attempts at stomaching the ale. “That’s the spirit! We don’t bother wi’ any o’ that piss they sell in the shops. This is alcohol as nature intended.”
“Brag about your brewing skills some other time.” Déaþscúa told him lightly. “Catch me up on events first.”
Niall nodded and turned his attention back to the man. “We’ve been attacked nightly fer almost a week now. It isnae nothin’ we cannae handle but it’s wearin’ at our supplies and keeping’ us tied doown.”
“And you’re sure it’s Annis? Gathering an army was never her style.”
“Aye. We took some o’ the buggers captive and they said it was the blue skinned witch. She hasnae been hidin’ the fact. I think she wants us to ken she’s here. I just donae ken why. I fear she is tryin’ te use the curse somehow.”
“You’re right,” said Déaþscúa in a grim tone. “She’s trying to get a lot of power fast. I think she has something big planned.”
KT looked between the two men and the darkening sky outside the window. “What time do the attacks usually happen?”
“Any time now,” Niall shrugged.
“Should you all really be drinking if we’re on the edge of an attack?” Kai spluttered.
Niall clapped him hard across the back. “O’ course we should. It fires up the blood and numbs us te any pain we may suffer.”
A horn sounded nearby, its deep note cutting through the room’s banter like a knife. Every mug in the building was drained then slammed down as the warriors stood.
“Speak o’ the devils,” Niall said as he drew his sword. “Lads and lasses, get te ye battlelines! Show these wee scunners the might of the MacFeelans!” The warriors cheered as they piled out of the hut in a rush of kilts, orange hair and steel.
“Déaþscúa, we have a breech at the south o’ the camp we havenae patched yet. Take ye apprentices and keep it clear.”
“Will do, so long as you help me,” Déaþscúa answered with a sly grin.
“Yer a tough man te deal with, Déaþscúa. A fair man too though. Ye have me word. Now git oot there and spill some blood.”
They stepped out of the building, Niall rushing to join his brothers while Déaþscúa motioned for KT and Kai to follow him south. The air was thick with snow, making it hard to see more than a few feet ahead. KT’s breath misted in her face, decreasing her vision yet further. Her eyes scanned the shadows but couldn’t make out any details.
“Ready your pistols,” Déaþscúa ordered them as they took their position among a gaping hole in the wall littered with broken wood. “You won’t have the vision to utilise longer ranged weapons and against goblins you don’t want to waste your heavier guns. Individually they’re weak but don’t let them gang up on you. If I tell you to shoot something, combine your fire and take it down. Stay together no matter what.”
KT held a single pistol in hands that she tried to stop from shaking. She peered through the darkness, flinching at every movement. She had seen what the goblins were capable of. She looked over at Kai. He too stood stiff with his larger pistol in a double grip.
“Here they come,” Déaþscúa said softly.
KT looked but couldn’t see anything. Then black shadows leapt from the snow veil and materialised into snarling gray creatures who ran with a loping gait on all fours. Déaþscúa shot. He was using his old revolver. A goblin crashed into the snow missing half of its face. KT fired and missed where she was aiming but clipped the beast behind in the knee. It fell and was trampled by those that followed. There were so many of them.
All three of them had opened fire now, bullets slamming into flesh in a barrage of thunderous death. KT’s pistol clicked weakly. It was out of ammo. The goblins were close now. She fumbled with her second pistol, dropping the first in the process. Kai was reloading, his face set in a snarl to match any of the goblins.
The next thing KT knew she was on her back in a silent world. Pain flared through her then sound returned to her in a tidal wave of pure noise. She rolled over to see a new hole in the wall. Fire burned everywhere. She blinked. Were there men emerging from the smoke? Men with guns and a rocket launcher?
She scrambled away as the rocket launcher fired again, blowing up one of the huts in an explosion of dagger-like splinters. The goblins used this distraction to swarm the defenders. KT could see the MacFeelans taking what cover there was to exchange fire with the men while trying to hold back the goblins. They had hunting rifles to complement their brutish melee weapons and used them with deadly expertise. Glowing lights flashed bright through the night as magic joined the blades and bullets.
The ground was churned up around her in sprays of dirt as bullets flew. Kai charged at her, grabbing her arm and pulling her behind the closest hut. He holstered the pistol and drew the shotgun. There was a fire in his eyes that KT hadn’t seen for a long time. All of his fear, nerves and anger were just fuel to him now. It was as though he belonged here.
He dashed out into the open. KT cursed but followed him without hesitation. The mini-launcher was in her hands and her eyes were searching out the men in the snow. She hammered the trigger and explosions blazed a trail of destruction. Bullets slammed all around her. She dove behind a pile of debris an instant before it was pitted by dozens of singed holes. She raised the weapon and continued to fire, rolling from her cover to get a better shot at the men on her other side. She could see Kai still running through the snow and smoke. The men were more occupied by her and the hellfire she was raining upon them.
A strange exhilaration coursed through her. She felt sickened by the blood and death, but deeper down a different sickness was filling her. A sickness that she was enjoying it. Her heart pounded and adrenaline flooded her system in a way that she had never experienced before that night at the lodge. She could die at any second but at this very moment she was gloriously alive.
Something slammed into her shoulder and threw off her aim. A group of goblins flew through the air where her rocket exploded. Another impact stabbed into her calf, jolting her leg back, then more pain jolted through her chest. She hit the ground with no breath in her lungs. She struggled to gain a gasp of air but little more than a thin wheeze made it through.
From where she lay she could see Kai close with the gunmen. With KT down they now turned their attention back to him. The first swung his gun around to face Kai but was too late to react as the teen slammed his gun’s butt into the man’s face. He stumbled to the side then sprinted at the rocketeer. The man panicked and fired. Kai skidded below the projectile, sliding through the snow between the man’s legs where he lifted the shotgun and fired. The man collapsed, dropping the launcher with a hellish scream.
Kai pushed himself to his feet only for a spray of bullets to mow him down. Before KT even registered what she had seen, goblins began to jump onto him, engulfing him in a writhing pile of beasts. KT roared a guttural cry and scrambled towards her brother, taking shaky potshots at the creatures with her remaining pistol. She half rammed, half fell into the goblin swarm, swinging the double-sword from her back clumsily to hack at anything that threatened Kai.
He was still breathing. His shotgun was clenched in his arms tightly. KT collapsed beside him as he blasted a goblin that tried to lunge at her with a crude knife. He passed her his axe then clubbed another goblin away with the butt of his gun. KT took it and swung in wide arcs to keep the creatures away.
Then Déaþscúa was there, his sword drawn and glowing in the silvery moonlight and amber flames. His movements were a constant blur; his every swing brought death in arcs of crimson. One attack became another then another in a constant fatal dance, limbs flying away and blood soaking the snowflakes mid descent. Men and goblins fell to his blade with equal ease. His eyes showed no hint of emotion. They shone with the same chaotic light as his sword.
There was a series of battle-cries and the MacFeelans ran at the breaking enemies, their voices howling and their steel flashing. They fired a final round from their rifles then slung them aside, barrelling into the enemy ranks like missiles. The goblins and remaining men shattered before their might, hammers and blades reducing them to slithers of flesh and crushed bone.
Hands grabbed KT’s shoulders and her blurry eyes flickered to look into Déaþscúa’s face. Blue light bathed her skin while warmth pooled through her cold limbs but the world was still growing dark.
* * *
KT’s eyes shot open and she lurched to sit up. Pain tore through her body. She looked around with jittery eyes. She remembered being shot. Remembered Kai falling…
“Kai!” she called out frantically. She turned her head and saw him lying in a bed beside her. They were in a long wooden room filled with beds, several of which were occupied by ginger haired men and a few women and even children. A single women stood in the room. She was tall with curly ginger hair and freckles and looked to be only a few years older than KT.
“Hush, child,” she said softly to KT. “He’s as well as anyone has a right te be. That coat of his protected him from the worst o’ the damage. Ye took more of a beating than he.”
It was then that KT finally took note of the numbness in her left leg. She slid the cover that was draped over her away and looked down to a small frayed patch of her jeans. There was no hole. She checked her shoulder and chest too. The crop-top showed no sign of damage while her jacket bore little more than a faded circle.
“H-how?” she gasped. No clothing could be that strong.
“Ye had ye a good tailor. Ye’d ha been dead withoot them fancy threads. All the fighting folk have similar. Bullets are nae so good against them but a good blade’ll still do the trick. Cuts an’ bruises are yer lot for the time.”
KT groaned, stretched out tentatively, then forced herself out of the bed. A fire burned nearby that filled the room with warmth. She double checked on Kai and was relieved to find the woman’s words to be true. Glancing over the room’s other occupants she could see that nobody looked to be badly hurt.
The woman shook her head. “Luckily nae. A few came close but the lady luck was with us. Some will nae be walkin’ for a good while all the same.”
“The hunter meets with the family council. Ye’ll find them in the hut flying the bear banner. Ye had an invite should ye be up in time.”
KT left the building and stepped out into the predawn twilight. Only a few hours must have passed since the battle. The fires had all been doused but wood was strewn everywhere and great gouges of earth were missing. Goblin bodies lay everywhere. The inhabitants of the camp were already dotted around, gathering the bodies into a pile and rebuilding the defences.
Finding the right hut was easy as the banner was visible from anywhere in the camp. She knocked and the door instantly opened. She stepped in and several men and women sat around a circular wooden table. She recognised Déaþscúa, Niall and a few other MacFeelans but there were many new faces. The one that drew her attention was a powerful looking grey haired man who was seated beside Niall. Déaþscúa nodded to her and she moved to lean against the wall to his side.
It was Niall who was speaking. “What ye are askin’ is damn near suicide. We cannae storm the place as things stand. We’re bein’ worn thin.”
“Keeping that fort free of evil is your family’s ancient task. Would you wait out here as more forces gather there, suffering attack after attack until you truly are worn too thin to strike back?” Déaþscúa stated blandly. “The longer we wait then the harder the fight will be.”
“He’s right,” put in the older man. His voice was deep and coarse but he spoke with a slow certainty. “It is our task te cleanse the taint upon those stones and te keep the land safe of its corruption. Our task, our responsibility, our punishment. If we can kill the witch Annis in the process then it is a job well done.”
“Athair, we do nae have the forces te take the offensive. We cannae remove the taint yet so we risk everythin’ for nae lastin’ effect,” Niall countered. “Our current job is te keep threats contained. We can kill more by staying here than attacking their stronghold. With Annis in charge we cannae ken what traps will be waitin’ for us.”
The grey haired man ran a gnarled but powerful hand through his thick beard. His eyes stared intently into Niall’s. They were not angry but almost sad.
“We have waited fer te long already. How many years has our family defended this place? Fer countless generations we have sat here with the intention of rightin’ the wrongs of Ciaran MacFeelan. Where has that got us? We still have nae idea how to stop it. I fear we have grown complacent over the years. Maybe a bit of risk will git our arses in gear te finally fix things.”
Maridia placed a hand on Niall’s arm. “I ken better than most how heavily this burden has weighed on ye. Ye try to balance MacFeelan honour wi’ MacFeelan lives. MacFeelan ancestors wi’ MacFeelan descendants. We’re fading. I ken ye ken this. It is nae in our blood te be conservative. Every last one of us stands behind ye whatever ye decide.”
Niall’s eyes softened as he stared into his wife’s face. He nodded then cocked his head back and laughed. “Ye could convince the most stubborn of bastards te yer cause, Déaþscúa. I always wonder if persuasion is one of yer many abilities.”
The old man raised his hand before Déaþscúa could respond. “I approached Déaþscúa with this plan. It has plagued my thoughts these past few years. I am old and have achieved nothin’. If I am te die, it will be in a blaze of glory in the heart of battle like me forefathers before me.”
“Aye!” Friseal exclaimed enthusiastically. “We act like rocks in a river standing against the water’s flow when we should be the rocks o’ an avalanche rushin’ te crush our foes beneath our might.” There was a few cheers at that statement.
Niall looked around at the faces of his family. He nodded slowly. “I will nae be known as a coward or have it be said that the MacFeelans were held back under my leadership. Déaþscúa, ye will have yer way. We will live upte the MacFeelan legend and fight until the fort is free or we all lay dead on its floor!”
This time the cheer was deafening. Mugs and weapons were raised in excited celebration. KT had never seen anyone so overjoyed with the prospect of dying. Bloody crazy, the lot of them, she thought to herself. She’d be happy if she never had to fight again in her life.
It was during that thought that Déaþscúa turned to her. “Are you in?”
“Always,” she answered instantly. She laughed bitterly at herself within the confines of her own head. She wanted to save her family but had seen enough blood to last a lifetime. She was sure that Déaþscúa could free them without her help, probably easier, but something about the man made it impossible to say no to. Niall was right, persuasion came as naturally as breathing to Déaþscúa.
But then, maybe there was something more than that. Ever since her confrontation with Christie she had felt different. Back there she had suffered true helplessness and it was something she never wanted to experience again. The thought of it made her sick. She couldn’t rely on Déaþscúa always being there to save her and those she loved. She wanted to be strong so that maybe, just maybe, she could make a difference in the world.
“The fort’s main door is sturdy. Swords and axes will have a hard time gettin’ through,” Niall told them, bringing KT’s attention back to the here and now.
“Don’t you worry about the front door. Me and the runts will deal with that. I have other plans for you wonderful people.” Déaþscúa said jovially.
“Oh aye. And how do ye plan to get in that way, pray tell?”
Déaþscúa splayed his hands and shrugged. “Approach the door and knock politely. How else?”
A feral grin spread across Niall’s face. It was mirrored by many of the other MacFeelans. “Ye crazy bastard are gonna give us a show. I’ve missed fighting beside ye.”
The crazed smile found its way to Déaþscúa’s face. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”