Chapter 12. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

So let me get this straight,” started Kai from the backseat of the SUV. It was daylight now but the trees cast a constant gloom across their view. “We’re going to take down the main entrance alone? I get that you want a distraction, but surely having a few of the giant Scottish blokes with us would help?”

“Nah. It’ll be fine. We can handle the front door no problem,” Déaþscúa nodded.

“And how do you plan to do that?”

“I have my ways.” 

Out of the shadows of the forest emerged towering stone. The fort was not overly large but it still loomed. Greening stone blocks rose up from a circular mound to form a bulky rectangular shape with a single curved tower at the back corner. There was a small clearing around the structure but it was obvious that the forest had slowly been reclaiming it until recently. The door was heavy wood with crisscrossing iron beams. 

“So why is this fort so important?” KT asked. It didn’t look particularly impressive. 

“It’s the ancestral home of the MacFeelans and served as their seat of power for centuries. Then Cairan MacFeelan took over as head of the family during the reign of King Henry the Eighth. The powerless were eroding the ancient lands of us magic folk, but we were unable to act because of our laws. Cairan wanted to bring back the glory days so called upon dark magic that drew power to the fort. All residual magic within a hundred miles gathered here. He intended to summon a god to punish the powerless, only, what emerged was something warped with pure hatred. The magic became corrupted and it took a lot of lives to banish the being. Even to this day the dark magic still hangs on the old stones.”

The SUV continued down the overgrown path. Jearl stopped the car and everyone disembarked. They gathered around the driver’s side door as Déaþscúa addressed them. 

“Those doors look pretty sturdy,” he said lightly. “It would take some real force to break through.”

“Indeed it would, boss,” Jearl agreed in an equally jovial tone. “On an unrelated note, have I mentioned that there is a newer model of your SUV? Pretty little thing it is.”

“Oh really? How wonderful.”

“Yeah, it has a bigger cup holder and everything.”

“Such innovation. This car is looking a little bit faded, isn’t it?” Déaþscúa observed in the same overly happy voice as he indicated the lycan created gashes and dents. “I mean, is there even any point keeping this one when bigger cup holders wave at us from the horizon?”

“But it has served you so faithfully, ain’t it guv. To simply leave it here to rot would be a gross disservice.”

“Agreed. We should give it a fitting send off. Being as we’re in Scotland, a Viking funeral seems appropriate.”

KT frowned. “Vikings weren’t Scottish. They were Scandinavian.”

Déaþscúa’s face dropped for a moment. “They were big fellows with axes and beards. They were kin of the heart if nothing else.”

“Too true, boss,” quipped Jearl supportively. 

“So as I was saying,” Déaþscúa continued. “We should give it a Scottish take on a Viking funeral.” He gave a sharp salute to the SUV then turned and saluted Jearl, KT and Kai before climbing into the vehicle. No sooner had the door slammed shut, the engine roared to life and the wheels span. 

The SUV shot down the narrow path toward the fort’s door, gaining speed with every passing second. Déaþscúa showed no sign of slowing or of jumping out. Then there was a spark. Fire suddenly blazed across the metal body, turning the car into a flaming missile. The SUV crashed into the door at full speed. At the second of impact the car exploded, the fire finally having reached the petrol tank. Wood, stone and twisted metal flew through the air in every direction. 

KT and Kai ran through the smoke calling out Déaþscúa’s name desperately. Jearl followed behind at a more sedate pace, his face as cheerful as ever. They reached the car in coughing fits, the smoke filling their lungs as they drew nearer the flaming wreckage. The SUV was little more than a bent frame that still blazed fiercely. It was halfway through a very apparent wound in the fort’s wall where the door had once stood. The site was sheer carnage. Nothing natural could have survived.

There was a loud click that drew both of their eyes. The feeble remains of the driver’s door swung open then clattered to the floor. Déaþscúa stepped out and brushed himself off nonchalantly. The effect was slightly ruined by the fact that he was on fire and was missing quite a lot of skin. He pulled at the tattered remains of his clothes disapprovingly.

“That was fun. I do believe that they heard my polite knocking and have thus allowed us entry into their proud establishment.”

“You’re on fire,” KT pointed out.

“Indeed. It appears that I am.”

“Doesn’t it hurt?”

“Like an absolute bitch,” he answered calmly. As he spoke his skin began to knit itself back together. “Shall we continue?”

“What the hell are you?” Kai asked.

Déaþscúa studied him for a moment before replying. “A very messed up individual who takes pleasure in blowing himself up.” Kai sighed but didn’t press him further.

“Excellent,” the man smiled. “Onwards and upwards. Though in all probability we will be going underground. That doesn’t quite have the same optimistic ring to it though, does it?”

He strode through the flaming rubble without a care. After a simple hand gesture the fires left his clothes and were blown away on the wind. All this achieved was to highlight how little of his clothes remained. He looked at himself with a frown.

“Is this too revealing?” he asked as he turned to face the twins again. 

KT’s blush said all it needed to. He nodded then knelt down. Kai quickly covered KT’s eyes only to receive a swift punch to the gut. Déaþscúa pulled at the sole of his boot to reveal a hidden compartment. He took out a folded length of cloth that he shook out to reveal a full-sized poncho that he quickly slipped into.

“Wait, you carry backup clothes in your shoes?” Kai asked.

“You don’t?” Déaþscúa answered. “And they call me reckless and insane. Ha!”

He turned his attention back to the fort. Distant sounds of battle floated just on the edge of hearing. As he stepped fully into the structure it was as though a switch had been flicked on his personality. His face became serious and his hand rested on the handle of Aeternum Nox. KT and Kai followed cautiously, both clutching their weapons with nervous hands. Kai opted for the shotgun while KT stuck with her pistols.

Déaþscúa waved his hand and the flames parted enough for them to clamber past the wrecked car. The corridor that they entered was a dark, narrow space of heavy stone blocks. There was no source of light beyond the flames and weak daylight that shone faintly at their backs. Every footstep echoed noisily.

Fear clutched painfully at KT’s chest like a frozen hand. The dark and the tightness brought memories of the butcher’s basement racing back to her head. She spat out a curse and forced herself to move deeper into the gloom. Kai held out his hand but she shook her head furiously. She wasn’t about to let her own stupid psyche get in the way and make her look weak. Forcing every emotion down beneath a suffocating layer of focus she continued through the dark. 

“I don’t know what will be in here,” Déaþscúa told them in a low voice. Even so it filled the length of the corridor and continued for several seconds after the words had left his mouth. “This fort is ancient and its corruption is strong. Annis has been gathering forces here but the place is a danger all by itself. Move slowly, keep your eyes on your surroundings at all times and never lose sight of each other.”

As they walked, Déaþscúa held out his hand with two fingers pointed upwards and had a look of concentration on his face. Whenever there was a branching path he picked his direction without even a cursory glance down the differing passageways.

“What are you doing?” Kai asked.

“The way air moves can tell you a lot about an area. What directions are breezes coming from? Is the air dense or free? Humid or dry? Hot or cold? If you know what to look for you can read a space like a book. By opening my senses I can use the air almost like a sonar to map out the building.”

“And what does it tell you?”

“It tells me that we’re in the original fort’s subterranean level. It is a fairly small cluster of basements, dungeons and tunnels. Around that is a whole warren of newer passageways that were dug over the course of centuries.”

“But how does that tell you where you need to go?” Kai pressed curiously. “We could still be wandering around for ages without any clues.”

Déaþscúa gave a faint laugh. “This place is crawling with creatures. We’d find the way soon enough by finding the largest group of things to kill. As it stands though, I can sense a new chamber that’s been created within the last few weeks. The dust is still fresh and the air full with the stench of sweat. Chances are that is where we need to be.”

This didn’t placate Kai by much. “But how do you know? They could have just built a new set of toilets to cater the sudden influx of inhabitants or something like that.”

“I can assure you that goblins don’t use toilets for a start,” Déaþscúa muttered, annoyance tinging his voice at the constant questioning. He paused for a moment then sighed. “Annis is a very smart, cunning woman. Perhaps the most cunning woman alive, and that’s saying something. She clearly wants me to find her. The fact that a new chamber is completed just before my arrival only cements that in my mind. She has a plan and knows that I’ll follow it.”

“So you’re leading us into a trap then?”

“Essentially, yes.”

“Why did you bring us with you? Wouldn’t it make sense for us to fight with the MacFeelans?”

Déaþscúa considered the question for a moment. “I want you to see what you are up against. Anyway, I see some potential in you. Maybe it was fate that led me to you, or maybe not. Either way, I want you both where I can see you. Trust me, I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

KT tried to focus in on Déaþscúa and Kai’s discussion but no matter how hard she tried to keep it down, panic bubbled to the surface of her mind with every step further into the fort. Her vision began to go tunneled and cold sweat beaded on her skin.

“H-how far is it?” she asked. It took all of her effort just to keep her breath calm. 

Déaþscúa gave her a concerned look but elected not to mention anything. Instead he simply said “Not far now. It’s just around this next corner.”

Kai tried to keep the conversation going to avoid the heavy silence of the fort. “Do you think Annis is trying to summon that god thing again then?”

“I don’t know, but I doubt it. Something like that can’t be controlled and she knows it. She has something big planned but with the way her mind works it could be absolutely anything.”

They turned the corner with their weapons raised and ready. It was a dead end with no sign of life. The only thing that stood this section out from the others was that the wall before them was of a smooth, single slab of stone while the rest was either dugout rock or the stone blocks of the fort. At chest level of the slab was a single slit that was thin and just long enough for a child to fit their hand into.

“You’re kidding me,” grunted Kai. “Their new construction was a bloody wall?”

Déaþscúa didn’t answer. He moved closer to the wall and inspected the long hole. He looked it up and down then gazed within the slot. Placing his hand over the gap he closed his eyes. Light emitted from his hand like it did when he healed. He made an impressed sound after a moment.

“It’s a door. That gap is the keyhole. There’s no way to open it without the key. Clever.”

Kai slammed his fist into the wall. “Damn it. We wasted all the time coming here just to be stopped so close! We’ll never find the key. What now?”

“Calm yourself,” Déaþscúa told him softly. “Annis wants me to find her. She crafted the lock knowing that I already possessed the key. This door is simply a measure to ensure that no others enter before me.”

KT stepped to Déaþscúa’s side and looked over the slot with a frown. “But the key would have to be huge. You aren’t carrying anything that big unless you have enchanted pockets or something.”

“I do have enchanted pockets but the key isn’t in them,” Déaþscúa said airily. He moved his hand to his sword hilt and drew the weapon. The deadly metal blade shone even in the gloom. “What better a key is there than something I carry at all times?”

He slid the blade into the slot until the guard rested against the stone door then turned it with a sharp twist of his wrist. There was a click, followed by the clunking sounds of turning gears. He tugged at the weapon but it didn’t move at all now. He shrugged and let go with a rueful glance. The stone shuddered then began to raise until the sword hilt hit the ceiling. The gap beneath the wall was narrow but could easily be passed through on bent knees.

“Clever women indeed,” he chuckled dryly. “Ensure I’m the first one to spring the trap while simultaneously removing my primary weapon. Her plan is flawless once again.”

Déaþscúa made to step into the room but KT caught his arm. “You can’t be serious. You know it’s a trap. Why walk into it?”

“Don’t worry. She’s smart but I’m better in every way. I expected something like this, hence why I brought along backup. Annis can sense magic but two powerless individuals might just pass under her radar.” With that he slipped under the door and into the chamber beyond.

KT and Kai followed close behind after a quick glance at each other. Kai simply shrugged and held his shotgun tighter. The room beyond was a circular space with a single shut door opposite the one they had just entered through. Lights were dotted along the stone wall, filling the area with a dim, yellow light. A large television hung above the shut door. It showed another room filled with chained up men and women.

“Dad,” rasped KT as her eyes took in the TV’s footage. “And there’s Aunt Susan.”

A burst of static broke the silence of the room then a harsh female voice thundered from unseen speakers.

“Déaþscúa,” the voice sneered, contempt dripping from the word. “You’re getting sloppy in your old age. I expected you days ago. And you have brought company too. Two children. How lovely.”

Déaþscúa cleared his throat. “Annis, you’re under arrest. Come out now and surrender to avoid any unnecessary harm to yourself.”

Cackling laughter split the air, rising to a crescendo after several seconds. Déaþscúa shook his head sadly. “There has to be another way, damn it, Annis. What you’re doing is unredeemable.”

“Unredeemable, maybe. But unavoidable.” 

“Well, I tried. The hard way it is.”

“You’ve hunted me for more years than either of us would like to remember and have failed every time. What’s different now?” Annis’ disembodied voice snorted. “You’re out of tricks while my arsenal grows by the day. Just give up and let me do that which we both know is necessary.”

“I don’t know your intentions but wanton murder is never necessary.”

“I have watched you kill. Both of us remember the slaughter that you’ve committed in cold blood. Yet here you are claiming the moral high-ground. You who killed in fits of emotion would judge me? They say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions but nobody likes to be reminded that the road to Heaven is paved with corpses.”

There was the creaking of a hatch opening above them and two brown shapes dropped between them and the door forward. Kai cursed loudly. The figures were those of lycan. 

Déaþscúa rolled his shoulders and raised his Aeternum Nox with a small laugh. “I expected more from you, Annis.”

The beasts leapt into blurred movement, their muscles pulsing and straining with unimaginable strength. Déaþscúa pulled the trigger and thunder crashed through the chamber. A giant hole opened in the first lycan’s chest, splashing blood everywhere. Before the blood even hit the ground Déaþscúa had altered his aim and blew away half of the other’s skull in an explosion of brains.

A third werewolf appeared behind them and barrelled through KT and Kai, sending them skidding across the room as the beast jumped at Déaþscúa’s back. He spun and fired, the bullet entering through the monster’s gaping mouth and exiting somewhere just above its tail. Déaþscúa side-stepped and the carcass crashed to the floor where he had been standing. 

“Oh hell the fuck yes!” he grinned, admiration of the gun almost glowing from him. “Bring on your best, Annis.”

In answer to his taunt, black mist began to seep into the room, forming into dark tendrils that snaked through the air to wrap around the dead lycan bodies. The corpses twitched then started to rise, jerking erratically as the dark magic flooded their veins in place of blood.

At the same time the door opened and a swarm of bodies scrambled out. They were human, or had been at least. Now their skin was white and their eyes showed no spark of life. Their limbs moved stiffly but there was a ferocity to their slow steps that struck fear to the heart.

“Zombies!” Kai shouted.

Even as he said this, KT stared beyond the dead appearance of the once-humans. Most had tangles of greying hair and their pale skin was wrinkled. Their ripped clothes and dead faces tugged at KT’s memory. “Oh God. I know them. They were guests at the lodge.”

Kai’s face tightened as he too recognised the lumbering men and women. His hold on the shotgun faltered. 

“Destroy them,” Déaþscúa told them simply, never taking his eyes from the reanimated werewolves. “They aren’t the people you knew anymore. They’re not people any more. Just empty shells, puppets to Annis’ will. Give them peace.”

Tears welled in KT’s eyes but she knew his words were true. She took aim at an old man who she remembered had offered her a sweet from a tin that he always kept in his breast pocket. Judging by the lump on his chest he still had it, even in death. She tried to clear her mind as she fired. Her first bullet clipped the old man’s shoulder, causing him to stagger. There was no spray of blood, only a slight dark red ooze where the life-giving liquid had congealed. She fired again, this time blowing the undead’s jaw off. Still it limped forward undeterred. A final shot took it in the forehead, shattering its skull and sending brains scattering across the floor. 

Kai looked at the zombies then at his sister then back again. He cursed then pumped his shotgun and started forward. The undead swarmed in his direction now that he was the closer prey but Kai set into them with a merciless barrage of rounds. Limbs flew and bones splintered with every shot. KT continued to pepper them from further back.

The shotgun clicked empty. There was no time to reload before the zombies were at him so he slid it back into its strap and drew his axe, setting into the rotting flesh with animalistic brutality. Their flesh parted easily but devastating wounds did little to slow them. They clawed and bit at him but anything that came within his axe’s reach was severed. Tears stained his face.

Unable to shoot now, KT holstered the pistols and swung her doublesword from her back. It felt cumbersome in her hands but she didn’t have time to worry about it before the zombies closed in. Slowly she inched closer to Kai so they could watch each other’s backs.

Meanwhile, the undead lycan had all charged at Déaþscúa. He fired round after round at them, blowing gaping chunks of flesh and bone away with every shot. Unlike their human counterparts, they didn’t stay down after a single shot to the head. Black magic seethed beneath their skin, keeping them moving whatever damage they took. 

One tackled him from behind, its arms and legs wrapping around him while fanged teeth sought to tear at his throat. The other two crashed into him from the front. Déaþscúa beat one down with the butt of his pistol but the other bit into his wrist. His hand opened and the gun skidded away from him. 

“Déaþscúa!” KT shouted as she batted away a slavering old man with peeling skin. She knocked away another and ran at the werewolves. She threw the doublesword ahead of her like a javelin and it hit home, sinking deep into the back of the lycan that held Déaþscúa. Without slowing she slung the mini-launcher into her hands and fired at the monster who Déaþscúa had fought off. The beast exploded in a spray of gore and bloody chunks. 

She continued on, reaching out to reclaim her blade. The lycan whipped around, slamming Déaþscúa into her. She hit the floor and rolled back into the midst of the zombies who swarmed over her until Kai barreled into them. 

Déaþscúa dislocated his own arm, allowing him to fall loose of the lycan’s grip. He span and drove his fist into the monster’s gut. Blood and darkness spilled out from a large stab wound in the creature’s leathery hide. White bone stood out against Déaþscúa’s tanned flesh, rising from the back of his wrist and extending over his hand to end in a vicious looking point that stuck out a few inches past his knuckles. In a heartbeat he was turning again, this time jabbing an elbow into the Lycan’s side. Mid swing a spike of bone tore through his sleeve before burying deep into the lycan. 

The werewolf howled through a shattered jaw and Déaþscúa cut the sound off when more sharpened bones tore through his arms to slice at the beast’s throat. Its head came loose and hit the floor with a thud. Its body quickly followed.

The final lycan sprang into the air to take Déaþscúa from above. Bones erupted from Déaþscúa’s fingers and he stabbed out, his hand smashing through fangs as it entered the beast’s maw before exiting the back of its head in a shower of brains. With a single quick movement, Déaþscúa grabbed the still falling body and threw it to the side like it weighed nothing.

A bellow of rage drew his attention back to KT and Kai just in time to see Kai cave in the head of the final zombie with a mighty swing of his axe. KT stood with slumped shoulders, her breath coming in ragged gasps. Blood covered them both.

“See, that wasn’t too hard, was it?” Déaþscúa said airily. Kai shot him a withering look.

“I see that life hasn’t dulled you too much,” cut in Annis’ voice. “I wanted one final show of your skill before your death. You know the prophecy. ‘Death’s shadow will die at a woman’s touch when black reclaims the grave’. It’s so poetic. Yet you still chase me. I sometimes fear that you seek your death, like a lover seeking a lost embrace.”

Déaþscúa shook his head. “I seek justice for your crimes. I never was one to put faith in prophecy anyway. You can ask your buddy Christie that. Now are you going to open the door or am I going to have to do it?”

Annis barked a laugh. “I’ll almost be sad when you’re no longer in this world. But, like a fool, you rushed into my trap. It’s a shame. I think you would have been happier with this world once Heaven’s Gate is opened. Farewell Déaþscúa.”

There was a sound of grinding all around them. The walls dropped away to reveal a hidden ring of space filled with hundreds of men. Each was armed with a large gun that was aimed dead at Déaþscúa.

Previous – Chapter 11.

Next – Chapter 13.

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