Chapter 16. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

“Déaþscúa…”

He tried to laugh good naturedly at the concern on KT’s face but it came out more as a painful sounding cough. “It takes more than an over-zealous firing squad to keep me down. Believe me. I’ve faced more than my fair share. Though I will admit that machineguns are far more effective than rifles. Annis knew that she had to be the one to finish me off. The cave-in might have done the trick, and who knows what I’d be like if I hadn’t been cared for, but you get the picture. I may be near immortal but that doesn’t that my body can’t be broken beyond repair. Drinking through a straw for the foreseeable future is no way to live.”

His body was still a mess. Cuts and bruises covered every patch of his skin and he was only standing with the aid of a walking stick. His movements were slow and deliberate and clearly brought pain to his face despite his laidback attitude.

He began to plate up the bacon, making well filled butties that he slid across to the two teens before tucking into one himself. Elizabeth joined them without a word, nodding to Déaþscúa as he handed her one of the sandwiches. They ate in silence until Kai, who had devoured the food, spoke up.

“How long will it be until you’re able to fight again? I’ve finally realised that we can’t find our dad without you.”

Déaþscúa frowned slightly, running a hand through his hair. “I can’t say. Whatever they were using in their bullets really messed me up. More than being shot hundreds of times anyway. My healing isn’t working properly. Again, not working properly in the sense that I am walking around a single day after said hundreds of gunshot wounds. I’m up but I feel weak as a baby. It’s tripped out my powers. I can’t use magic and can’t heal myself. That rules out relying on my bones as weapons and limits the damage I can take.”

“So we stay here until you’re feeling better?”

“Since I don’t know how long that will be, no. If Annis is trying to open of Heaven’s Gate then we have to act fast. It’s no longer about finding your family or my petty revenge. It just means we won’t be seeking direct confrontation with her or her followers. We need to be smart and luckily. That doesn’t require a strong body.”

“Everyone keeps talking about this ‘Heaven’s Gate’ thing as though we should know about it,” Kai said. “Why is it such a bad thing?”

It was Elizabeth who answered him. “In the early days of Earth, all life was magical. It was a time that you might think of as that of myths and legends. But as the years passed, the magic began to wane. The ruling body of the time decided to pump fresh magic into the world by opening a rift to the realm of gods. Nobody knows the exact details, but the plan failed.”

Déaþscúa picked up the story. “It turned out to be a disaster. Magic went wild. Seventy percent of the population was burned out in an instant. This was the birth of the powerless. It did succeed in greatly boosting the magic in the other thirty percent.”

“But why would Annis want to repeat that?” KT asked. 

“The theory behind the Gate was solid. Many believe that whoever performed it made a simple error. This was thousands of years ago. Scholars have spent lifetimes researching it. Maybe Annis thinks she has found the answer.”

“But wouldn’t that be a good thing?” KT asked slowly. “If it works, wouldn’t everybody become magical?” There was a faint glimmer in her eyes.

Déaþscúa shook his head. “I’m no expert but my understanding is that the Gate is tied directly to magic. It would forcibly pump magic into life. The powerless cannot process magic. Your bodies can’t contain it or guide it. Anyone without existing magic would likely die in agony.”

KT set aside the last bit of her sandwich, her appetite suddenly gone. “So what’s your plan?”

Déaþscúa hesitated. “I’m not exactly sure yet. I need time to think. Thinking tactically was not on my list of priorities last night. My body still needs a little more time too.”

“So when do we leave?” Kai asked.

“Tomorrow,” Déaþscúa answered. “I have a few things to organise and we have to wait for Jearl. Until then, there is a sparring ring down the corridor. You two should get some practice in. With me like this and Elizabeth burned out we need to rely on your strength.”

KT took a deep breath and steadied herself. “Déaþscúa… While you were unconscious you started to talk. You called out for Ava. Our cousin. Why did you never tell us?”

Déaþscúa’s face dropped. He didn’t answer and kept his eyes fixed on his scarred hands as they rested upon the table. KT was beginning to fear that she really should not have asked. Without looking up he finally spoke.

“I’ve hunted Annis for many years but she is the only being that continues to evade me. She had disappeared completely for a decade when rumours of her began to emerge from Scotland. I went to investigate the sightings and that is when I first met Ava Peterson.

“I was in a large town, skulking around alleyways in search of a way inside a building that I believed had been used by some of Annis’ supporters. Ava was a trainee in the police who saw me and thought I was suspicious. She followed me inside, expecting to catch me trying to steal something but instead she found me in a swordfight with a golem and a handful of goblins.”

“I expected her to scream and run. Instead she ran at the closest goblin and smacked it across the head with her baton. She had no fear and fought like somebody born into battle. I was quite frankly amazed. After the battle, drenched in blood, she grabbed me by the throat and demanded to know what was going on.”

“Her aura was out of control. It raged like a fire. If it flared up like that whenever she was worked up then she would be a target for any magical beings. I’d not seen anything like it. She fascinated me, so against my better judgement, I agreed to her demand to join me. She was a natural at everything she tried and took to our world like a bird to flight.”

He paused and the faint smile that had began to spread across his lips faded. “Then Annis found her. Ava had left me to return home for Christmas when Annis attacked her. She was in a car with her father. There was nothing that they could have done.”

Silence descended on the room. It showed no sign of abating so Déaþscúa shrugged awkwardly. 

“That’s all in the past now. Don’t get yourselves down about it.” 

“Why didn’t you tell us though?” KT pressed. “You knew from the moment that you saw me that we had to be related. You must have known about the lodge too. Why keep it a secret?”

“Why? Can you imagine stumbling into a situation where you come face to face with someone who looks identical to your dead partner? All those long buried emotions rushing back into your head, all those memories. How would you have liked me to bring it up? ‘Hey, you look exactly like my dead girlfriend who died horrifically because of me’. Every time I look at you it brings me unwanted pain, but I didn’t mention it because it isn’t your fault. Comparing you to someone else doesn’t help anybody. But that’s how it is. Does that answer your question?”

KT put down her cutlery and looked Déaþscúa straight in the eyes. She felt that strange tug on her mind, an alien feeling that she should drop the subject, but it slid off of her like rain on a tiled roof.

“I’m sorry. I’ve always been compared to her so don’t worry about it. I just need to know that you’re helping us because you want to and not because we are Ava’s family.”

Déaþscúa shrugged. “I promised her I’d watch over her family. Back then I only knew of her mother. So I’d pass by the lodge whenever I was in the area. That’s what led me to you two. It’s why I didn’t follow protocol and have your minds wiped. It’s why I put so much effort into freeing your dad and aunt. Her memory gave you an opportunity, but you have both proven yourselves capable on your own merits. I’m sorry that I wasn’t straight with you.”

Kai looked uncomfortable with the whole situation. Behind the discomfort was a growing curiosity. “Annis told us that our auras were different too. Is ours like Ava’s? Is that why you’re helping us?”

“No,” was Déaþscúa’s curt reply. “Her’s was golden fire. You two have something like quicksilver. Most folk have your more basic colours. Your blues, reds, greens, blacks. Silver is rare but not unheard of. They don’t reflect power though, only character. Now eat up. We have a busy day ahead of us.”

***

When everyone had finished, Déaþscúa showed KT and Kai to the sparring ring. It was a large room with a wide circle in the centre and several racks of weapons and training dummies. He grabbed one of the dummies and set it up in the ring. The dummy looked like an armoured scarecrow and was armed with a wooden club. Déaþscúa tapped a rune on its forehead and it jerked to life.

“This here is a Spartron. Half magic, half machine. Defeat it then turn up the difficulty. Rinse and repeat. Just don’t get hit as that club will break bones. That’s not even mentioning internal bleeding. My magic is out so I can’t heal you. My body needs it all to heal itself. Enjoy.”

Déaþscúa stepped from the ring, leaving KT and Kai to stare at the dummies with concern. He stood beside the door where Jearl joined him. They spoke in muted tones that were little more than murmurs to the teens.

“You sure this is a good idea, boss? You really want to push them this hard? Them Spartrons are right bastards if you don’t know what you’re doing. Not that I care much either way, ya know.”

“If they can’t protect themselves from a training dummy then what chance do they have? If they get themselves crippled then a sickbed is the best place for them until this all blows over. I have a feeling they’ll do just fine though.” He faced back to the twins and raised his voice. “Try not to die while I’m gone, okay!”

***

They watched Déaþscúa and Jearl leave. Kai finally shook himself and grabbed a training axe from one of the racks. The second that he stepped into the ring the Spartron jerked around to stare eyelessly at him. 

“Greetings combatant,” the dummy said in an echoey voice. “Please choose the level of skill between one and ten that you wish to train at.”

“Err…Level one,” Kai told the machine awkwardly.

“Level one is activated. Beginning training session in three. Two. One. Begin.”

The Spartron rushed forward with the whirring sound of gears. It raised its club and swung high to smash Kai’s head like a pumpkin. Kai crouched and spun, dodging the machine’s charge, and slammed his training axe into its exposed back. It stopped then sagged defeatedly.

“Level one training bout completed. Victory achieved. Would you like to spar again?”

Kai snorted contemptuously. “That was easy. How does Déaþscúa expect us to be ready for battle using this? Training level five.”

Level five is activated. Beginning training session in three. Two. One. Begin.”

The Spatron became a blur of movement that made straight for Kai. The teen smirked as he made ready to dodge but at the last second the dummy jolted to the side, right to where Kai was moving to. The club darted for Kai’s ribs and was only turned away by a hasty block from his axe. He span, swinging the axe low but the machine slid back easily before diving straight back into the attack. 

They traded blows for a while. What Kai lacked in skill he made up for with a brutal determination. His position changed, leaving himself open to a lunging attack. He took a glancing blow in the shoulder but managed to hook the club between the axe’s head and its shaft. He twisted it violently and the club wrenched loose of the Spartron’s grip.

Sweating, Kai stepped out of the ring and slumped onto one of the benches. He motioned for KT to take his place, a competitive light in his eyes. “The one who gets the highest wins?”

“Game on,” KT grinned. She grabbed the only doublesword in the room and took to the ring. “Level five.”

Retrieving its club, the Spartron took its place again then began its countdown. KT prepared for its initial charge but it surprised her by moving back then circling around her. She turned to keep it in view but it doubled back then zigzagged at speed for her. 

She jumped back and swung horizontally to meet any point it could attack from, spinning in the air with the swing to avoid smacking herself in the gut with the other end of the blade. The spartron blocked the attack easily and pressed on. KT parried with one blade then countered with the other before kicking out with her foot. She too was lacking in skill but where Kai used an animalistic passion, KT flowed like a raging river. The two blades of her doublesword never stopped and nor did her body. Her legs kicked in lunges and sweeps, assaulting any area the blades were not. The Spartron’s single club couldn’t keep up with the flurry and eventually slumped in defeat from the sheer number of attacks.

Kai took on level six and managed to beat it after a hard fought battle. He came out of the ring with several bruises and was breathing raggedly. KT matched his performance and came out of the ring a while later, battered but still standing.

They took a break to eat before coming back to take on level seven. The countdown ended and the Spartron wasted no time in striking out at Kai. The force of the blow was nearly enough to take the axe clean from his hands. He cursed as another swing followed immediately that jarred the muscles in his arm painfully. He hastily jumped back but was offered zero respite. The club cut up toward Kai’s face. He blocked but his axe was knocked high by the force of the impact. Before he could recover the Spartron swung low to take Kai’s feet out from underneath him. He hit the ground struggling for breath.

KT tried next and attempted to avoid the dummy’s attacks rather than defend against them. She dodged, ducked and spun but never had a chance to launch an attack of her own. Eventually she tripped on her own feet in her haste to backpedal and was rewarded with a club to the ribs. She dropped, gasping for air.

“Damn it!” KT said through gasping breaths. “How are we supposed to stand against Annis if we can’t even beat a stupid dummy? Before we were dead weights but now Déaþscúa expects us to be the muscle. Dad and the others are depending on us! Christ, the entire world might be!”

It was at that moment Déaþscúa returned to the room. He watched with a sly smile as Kai helped KT back to her feet. He stayed by the door and beckoned the teens to him. He took in their sweaty, disheveled appearance and nodded approvingly. 

“Wheels are in motion. Everything is as ready as it can be until Jearl gets here. Now we just have to prepare ourselves. What level kicked your ass?”

“Seven,” Kai answered sourly. “If I wasn’t injured I’d beat it no problem.”

“Seven is impressive, especially for two teenagers who aren’t fighters. I’d almost say miraculous. The Protectors train at level eight as a standard and they’re the trained soldiers of the Grand Moot. If you can both beat level six without any real training then what you could achieve with some guidance would be astounding. Something to note though, I never said you had to train one on one. You’re going to be fighting together when we leave so training together might be a good idea. Numbers can make up for individual power.”

KT and Kai looked to each other. They nodded in unison before both stepped into the ring once again. 

“Level seven,” they said as one.

Once more the Spartron whirred into action, lunging straight for KT. She threw herself back but at the last second the machine darted instead for Kai as he rushed to flank it. Club met axe then span to meet sword blade. The top half of the dummy moved like a spinning top to keep up with the attacks from two sides. 

KT tried to think ahead and plan out how the fight would go but the dynamics between the three of them were so different than in a simple two man duel. When it was just you and your foe there were only three factors to keep track of. There was your own movements, those of your opponent, and the environment and surroundings. By simply adding another person, everything changed. Even with that person being on her side she realised that she couldn’t simply focus on what she was doing and what the Spartron was doing. Her moves affected what Kai could do as his moves affected her. It was like a balancing act. Only, balance was not enough. They needed combat synergy.

She dropped back, leaving Kai to hold off the machine for a few seconds while she circled around behind him. She reared her arm back.

“Duck then uppercut!” she shouted to Kai. “Now!”

She threw the doublesword. It span through the air like an oversized shuriken. Kai heard her and ducked low. The Spartron battered the double sword away but had left itself open for the shortest of moments. Kai’s axe flashed upward and thudded into the dummy’s chest. While he was still half knelt, KT ran and used his back as a springboard. She kicked out in mid-air, slamming her foot into the Spartron’s head with enough force to snap it sharply to the side. She landed behind it and swept her legs low just as Kai stood and drove his axe into the machine’s side. Together they toppled it, watching in satisfaction as it hit the floor limply.

“Easy, eh?” Déaþscúa said, sharing in their satisfaction. “It’s all just a matter of practice. Except if you’re just born with unnatural talent. Then I suppose it’s not a matter of practice. The sentiment still stands though. Which on that note, I have the space of an afternoon to catch you up on everything you need to know about what may lay before you. A quick, well stocked brain is usually more useful than an abundance of muscle.”

They left the training room and walked along the wide corridor. KT admired the art and objects that they passed but came to a stop in front of a tall manikin between two cabinets. A black cloak was draped around it with the hood up over a smooth yellow mask with a smiley face carved into it. It looked like someone had taken the Grim Reaper, stood it in an alcove then covered the skull with a silly face. Something about it drew KT’s attention. She reached out to touch the mask and the head tilted to the side to look at her in a curious manner. She yelped and jumped back.

“Don’t mind old Fred,” Déaþscúa told her without any sign of concern. 

“Who the hell is it? Why is it just stood there in your house?” KT questioned shakily.

Déaþscúa paused and looked at the cloaked figure. “The question is more ‘what is it’ really. He, I call it a ‘He’ but I don’t really know, just kind of… appears every now and then. He’ll just stand somewhere and stare at me. I’ll look away and he’ll be gone again. When I first saw him I tried to kill him but I couldn’t hurt him at all. I’ve gotten use to him now I guess.”

“But what is he? Why is he watching you? It’s bloody creepy,” Kai said. He was keeping as much distance as he could from the creature.

“I don’t know really,” Déaþscúa admitted. “From what I can piece together, I believe that it’s a creature that lives outside of time. It’s akin to Death but instead of seeking out lives that are ending it follows people who fundamentally change the world. I think he feeds off of destiny, if that makes sense to you. Great heroes and despicable men and women have reported seeing a strange, black robed figure throughout history. He scares the hell out of me but then I started calling him Fred to make him feel more cute. I see him as a pet cat now. He wanders in and out without my knowledge, follows me but doesn’t talk. Just ignore him.”

He continued down the corridor, leaving the strange being behind, and took them to a small room with half a dozen armchairs circled around a large table that took up most of the space. Flames burned in a fireplace which gave the room a comfortable warmth. Books, papers and an assortment of objects were already laid out on the table. Elizabeth sat in one of the armchairs.

“You seem to have combat down already,” Déaþscúa was saying as they took their seats. “What you don’t know can kill you though so I guess this is Survival 101. Elizabeth,” he nodded to the woman.

Elizabeth pointed to an intricate diagram of the human body that was scrawled with notes. “As you both know, the human body can be toned and improved. A fat man and an athlete of the same age will perform very differently. This is also true of the mind. Powered humans train their minds to use magic and other abilities but the Powerless can also use their mind to achieve unbelievable things.”

“I am sure you have heard tales of mothers lifting cars to save their children or the like. Determination can be measured and does have a physical impact upon a body. If you two can sharpen your minds and learn how to focus your thoughts you can push your bodies past their natural limits. This will obviously be useful when fighting things that are beyond your scope. I can’t teach you much but this book should help,” she said, sliding a thick volume across the table.

Déaþscúa picked up where Elizabeth had left off. “As well as your bodies and minds, you can also use other people’s minds. Gadgets, enchanted items, potions, anything that can give you an edge. Always have tricks up your sleeves. Be unpredictable. Find what fits your style and integrate them into your plans. A lycan can smell you in the dark so use stink bombs. Goblins hate light so use flares. A ring that can shoot a laser once per charge can still turn the tide of a fight if used correctly. You two are weak by our standards but the weak have strengths of their own.”

He paused and studied the two teens. “What do you want to learn about first? A rundown of creatures is usually a good start.”

KT hesitated for a moment before asking “What are you? The real answer this time. You survived being reduced to literal pulp. You fought using your own bones. You’re like nothing I’ve ever heard of.”

Déaþscúa sat in silent contemplation. After a few seconds he sighed. “I am both many things and just a simple man. If you really want a label then I suppose I’m known as an Addonexus.”

“Addonexus?”

“In simple terms, I was born under the passing of Halley’s Comet. For reasons that would take too long to explain, the comet affects newborn babies at a genetic level. Rather than having a magical well that can be tapped into, our magic is infused into our very body. I can use magic but would be considered fairly weak by most powered standards. In return my senses and reactions are superior in every way and my body heals at a dramatic rate. I can also control my bones.”

“I don’t remember ever reading about an Addonexus,” KT said slowly.

“There aren’t many of us. Only children born in a one or two day span every seventy five years are Addonexus. Of those, many die when their body spirals out of their control. Puberty is when most realise they’re special because their bones begin to shift and fevers wrack their bodies,” Déaþscúa stated. “Puberty is hard at the best of times, let alone when it involves your bones shredding your own innards.”

“What’s so special about a flying space rock anyway?” Kai asked.

Déaþscúa shrugged. “No one knows yet. The comet has been in the skies for thousands of years though. Many believe that it was actually the star that the wise men followed to find Jesus.”

“Wouldn’t that make Jesus an Addonexus too?” KT said sceptically.

“All I am saying is that he was born under a shooting star, used magic and was nailed to a cross, stabbed with a spear and left to die yet walked out of his burial cave right as rain.” He shook his head to refocus himself. “But what I am isn’t important right now. What’s your next question?”

They talked over everything that could be remotely useful long into the night. When they finally retired to their beds, KT found her mobile phone and tried her luck at getting it to work. She hadn’t even looked at it in days. It turned on, a miracle in itself after all that the phone had been through. The battery was low but a wireless signal was available. This surprised her because of their remote location but she had hoped that Déaþscúa would have an internet connection. 

Tucked up in her covers she searched the term ‘Addonexus’. It took some looking but she found a few scattered mentions of the word but only one fragment told her anything beyond Déaþscúa’s own description. 

She read the line aloud in a whispered tone. “Heralded into life by the comet’s light, heralded into death when the light again is seen. Those of the Addonexus live but in the space of Halley’s passing, seventy five years of youth.”

She made a quick search of Halley’s comet, her brows furrowed in confusion. The last comet was in 1986. That would mean that Déaþscúa was only a few years older than her and Kai. He looked to be in his thirties or forties, not in his twenties. More than that though, he had known Ava. The dates didn’t add up with what he had said. She would have to fact check him in the morning. With questions still spinning in her head, she soon managed to drift off into a reluctant sleep.

Her fitful slumber was shattered many hours later by a thunderous blaring noise from outside the house. KT shot from her bed, grabbing her doublesword that was leant against the wall, and rushed to throw open the curtains. Her window looked out across the gardens and woods at the back of the house. She couldn’t see anything that may have caused that noise. 

Noting that her tailored clothes had been left on the set of draws, she quickly changed then rushed downstairs. The front door stood open and Déaþscúa and Elizabeth were outside, staring down the path out of the valley. Grumbling angrily, Kai stomped down the stairs and joined his sister. Together they left the house to see what was happening.

Parked a short way down the path was a giant, black SUV that was all sharp edges and angles that seemed to somehow flow, curved and elegant despite the deep lines. It had four doors, tinted windows and wheels that looked more at home on a sports tractor. KT had thought it impossible but it made the last vehicle look like an old lady’s mobility scooter. If the last SUV was a military vehicle then this one was from some demonic world of war.

The noise sounded again, coming straight from the car. It was the loudest horn that KT had ever heard. The driver’s door opened and Jearl hopped out, a smirk splitting his face from ear to ear.

“Mornin’ all. I thought I’d take the liberty to acquire a ride for us. This suit your needs, boss?”

Déaþscúa laughed aloud. “I think I’ll make do with it. Does it have a cup holder?”

“Oh yes, guv. And a mini-fridge.”

“Well then,” Déaþscúa grinned. “Let’s take her for a spin. Does a baptism of fire sound fitting to you?”

Jearl mirrored his childish excitement. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. Got a good first test drive for you too. How does a rescue mission sound to you?”

Previous – Chapter 15.

Next – Chapter 17.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 16. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

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