Chapter 20. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

“I seem to remember instructing you to bring me the girl.”

The voice was that of a woman and was spoken calmly, yet an edge of menace tinged every word. Annis didn’t so much speak daggers but rather poisoned needles. 

She sat at an old table in a gloomy room. The faded decor was from decades past and looked to have been abandoned for nearly as long. Across from her sat the white clad swordsman while the hulking man with red hair lounged on a trashed settee. 

“You’re lucky that you have anybody,” the swordsman answered coldly. “I had to pass up my opportunity to fight Déaþscúa to bring you that wretched boy. The girl is dead. Déaþscúa has lost his newest tools just like you wanted.”

Annis’ eyes stared into his head as he spoke. Since she had absorbed the power from the fort her very aura seemed to radiate strength. It was growing increasingly hard to be in her presence. Without looking away she picked up a glass of red liquid that the man doubted very much was wine. 

“The White Swordsman, Damian Saint. Your reputation suggested that such mistakes would not occur. Well, no use crying over spilled milk. Déaþscúa is defenceless and our pieces are in place. Another few days and I will be able to unlock the portal.”

Claine grunted contemptuously. “All yerr speak of is this damn portal. With yerr powerr ye could rule the world yet ye waste all yerr time chasing legends.” His voice was deep and gruff while his words seemed to roll from his tongue like a beast’s warning growl.

“While you waste your power bullying the weak,” Saint said with a sneer. The two glared at one another.

Annis ran a metallic nail across the rim of her glass. The sound filled the room. Both men froze.

“We’re all here for our own goals. Let’s not pretend that we’re united towards a common cause. The only thing we’re united by is Déaþscúa himself. So, on that note, how do we deal with him?”

“Forget Déaþscúa. I’ll fight him when the time comes, just like you promised. I would rather have fought him in his prime but a crippled legend is still a legend,” said Saint.

“Ha!” snorted Claine. “Ye rreally think ye can beat Déaþscúa in a fairr fight, eh prretty boy? Why seek yerr death?”

“Where is your honour, beast?” Saint countered. “A man’s life is judged by his achievements. We pick a purpose and work until we are the best. True men do not wallow in the shadows of others. Not that you’d understand.”

“Yerr rright. Fuck that. A man’s life is about how much he enjoyed it. Sex, booze and violence is a betterr code to live by than yerr drrivel. Be strong enough to take what ye want without fearring rreprrisal from otherrs. I amnae too proud te say that Déaþscúa makes me fearr my sins.”

The ringing of nail on glass began again. Claine fell into silence. Annis stood and walked over to the cracked window, her back turned to the two men.

“Déaþscúa will be gathering his own forces now. We have prodded enough for him to snap. No doubt we will have a war on our hands. A charming meld of clashing ideals between myself, Déaþscúa and the Grand Moot. We’re about to change the world. I want this village fortified with all of my minions at the ready.”

Outside it was starting to snow again. The dreary shells of the surrounding buildings looked almost serene in the frosty glow. Figures of all shapes and sizes lurched through the snow on Annis’ bidding. It in no way looked like a place where the first battle in an earth-changing war would take place. 

“Go,” Annis said eventually. “See that the preparations are on track. I wish to speak with our new guest. Then I will begin the ritual. In less than a week we will be in a new world. A world of peace.”

Saint didn’t need telling twice. He left the building with the lycan following behind him. As soon as the door thudded shut a tension left his body that he hadn’t realised had been there. Annis was not the sort of person he would usually have had dealings with but fate had different ideas. 

He had tried to kill her at first. What better show of skill was there than to kill that which Déaþscúa had been unable to? He had been young then. Reckless and stupid. His skills were exceptional but that had only led to an inflated ego. Annis had beaten him with little more effort than the flick of a finger. She hadn’t killed him though. Sometimes he wished that she had.

Instead she had given him the power to pursue his dreams. He had continued to hone his skills and make a name for himself but he never directly confronted Déaþscúa. He had learned that lesson well enough. Now though, the witch was calling in her favour and the time was finally nearing when Damian Saint would duel with the world’s greatest swordsman and take that title as his own.

He gazed through the snow, taking in every visible detail. He had already committed it all to memory but he liked to know every inch of a battleground long before first blood was drawn. He was vaguely aware of the cold though it didn’t bother him. Part of his training had been to suppress external discomfort and pain.

“I’d rrun if I werre you, prretty boy,” rumbled Claine from behind him. Even in his human form he smelled like wet-dog.

Saint didn’t bother to turn to the man. “I’ll leave the running with a tail between the legs to you.”

A growl behind him brought a slight smile to Saint’s lips. The man was too easy to get a reaction from. He had done his research on the man, just like every other person of interest who might be within a hundred miles of Saint at any time. He was a rare blood-lycan, born with the gene rather than bitten. He was stronger, faster and more durable than an average lycan, his human form almost matching the wolf form of his regular kin. His only real weakness was his reliance on that brute strength.

“Tell me, lycan, why do you follow Annis?”

The growling stopped. Saint glanced back to see the man grinning.

“I’m a simple man. Annis prromises a worrld wherre I can hunt the powerrless te my hearrts content. It’s a dog eat dog worrld. Surrvival of the fittest. We should rrule this worrld but instead we grrovel te weaklings. Annis has big plans and I intend to be therre te rreap the benefits of the chaos.”

Saint didn’t answer. Hatred of the weak was probably the only thing they shared in common. Claine had been born strong while Saint had put his weaknesses to the sword and trained himself until few could stand against him.

He opened the door to another building filled with crates. 

“There is still a lot of work to do. Let’s just hope that Annis doesn’t feel the same about those weaker than herself.” He paused in the door’s threshold. Claine barged past him. After a moment’s hesitation, Saint turned and followed their footprints back through the snow.

Annis was still standing where they had left her. Her back was still open to the room as she gazed out from the window. Saint watched her through a different window. He had no reason to go back inside the building but treacherous thoughts bubbled in the back of his head that had drawn him to return.

This could be his chance to kill her. She was stronger than ever before but her body was visibly struggling to contain the power. Increasingly, all of her focus was being diverted to her preparations for opening Heaven’s Gate. It was a monumental task and the mental and physical strain was taking its toll. 

A cold laugh escaped his lips. Perhaps he could use her distraction and kill her before she could tear him to shreds with her power. The more he considered it, the less he favoured it. He had no fondness for the woman. In fact, he would say that he hated her. Her goal of returning the world to an age of legends intrigued him though. 

What purpose did a master swordsman have in a world where the worthy were slowly dying out? He had no place in a powerless world. What would he give to experience a world where terrifying monsters plagued the lands and legendary warriors waged war among themselves? To live in a world where his skills were valued and could be further honed?

The thought boosted his spirits. He turned away. That was a world worth allying with Annis to achieve. He would protect her, if only long enough for her work to be completed. As soon as the gate was open, well, that was another matter entirely.

Previous – Chapter 19.

Next – Chapter 21.

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