Everything was dark. Even when he was sure that his vision had cleared and his thoughts had returned to their rightful places, it remained dark. Not a pitch black darkness but a murky gloom that lay upon everything. It didn’t obscure his surroundings, only made everything a grey wraith of itself.
Kai groaned as his body caught up with his mind and feeling returned with a vengeance. He forced himself to his feet, half expecting to find himself restrained in some way. He was not. None of his weapons were in sight but all of his clothes seemed undamaged. He had a better look around now that he could move.
He appeared to be in a dusty basement. It felt like he was underground constantly as of late. The room was completely bare except for a single door. And a shadowy figure blocking it.
“It took you longer than I expected to wake,” said a female voice.
There was a sound of a switch being flipped then a single lightbulb spluttered out a dull, yellow light. Black Annis stood before him, her corpse-blue skin draped in delicate black silk. Long black hair framed an elegant face and ice blue eyes studied him. Kai had to admit, she was a beautiful woman and not at all the old hag that the legends had made her out to be.
He retraced his memories until they came to an abrupt stop when the swordsman had smacked him in the head. A lurching dread passed over him. He remembered fighting. Then KT had been stabbed. Rage bristled through him. Anger and fear fought in his chest.
“Where is KT?” he asked in a low, clear voice. It took all of his effort to keep a calm face. He wouldn’t give the woman the satisfaction of seeing him in distress.
“Dead. Darrian Saint informed me that it was a fatal blow and I’m inclined to believe him. Did you know that he is the only man born in the last century who can stand against Déaþscúa with a sword? He is a truly remarkable young man.
Kai’s breath caught. Emotions torrented through him unchecked. None of it showed.
“I’ll kill you,” was all he said.
Annis laughed. “That’s the spirit. “Having so many men who dedicate their lives to me is so very flattering. I would have preferred your sister to be here. Déaþscúa always had a soft spot for women. You’ll have to do though.”
“Having me means nothing,” Kai said. “Déaþscúa won’t come running any quicker for me than any of the others you’ve taken. If you think you can turn me against him like in all the books and movies then you’re delusional.”
Annis’ grin grew further. “Believe me, that is not my intention. I know that you would never join me. I have no need for followers. I have my orders to complete but I’ve no need to kill you. I am nothing but a pawn seeking peace after all.”
“You’re a sick, twisted monster,” Kai growled. He took a deep breath to calm himself. “What do you want with me?”
Annis didn’t answer. Instead she opened the door behind her and motioned for Kai to follow. The space beyond was tiny. Stairs led upward and a trapdoor opposite them led down. Annis opened the latch on the trap door and disappeared down it. Kai eyed the stairs but joined Annis at the bottom of the ladders. This new room was about the same size as the one he had woken up in, only it was far from empty.
A dozen wretched figures huddled in the corner. They cast fearful glances at Annis but made no sound. Kai recognised them.
“Dad!” he shouted, running to the cowering crowd. Most flinched at the loud noise and sudden movement but one lurched from his stupor.
“Kai?” asked Bob Redthorn in a weak voice as he staggered to the front.
Kai barrelled into his father, wrapping his hands tightly around the man, tears in his eyes. The man was thin, dirty, and dishevelled but returned the hug with equal vigour.
“You’re safe. Thank goodness. I thought you were dead,” his father said through growing sobs. He calmed himself enough to look into his son’s eyes. “Where’s your sister? Where is KT? Is she safe?”
Kai hesitated. “I don’t know. She was in trouble before they took me but she’s in the safest hands I know. Mum is safe though.”
“Tara… I thought… I saw her being dragged away by those… those creatures. She’s really alive? Susan, did you hear that? Tara is okay.”
Another figure emerged from the corner and slowly moved toward them. Susan looked in a worse state than Bob. Her nerves were frayed. She walked like someone in a dream. Bob sighed softly and drew her into the embrace. She took comfort from this and even managed a small smile.
“Scenes like this really warm the heart,” Annis’ voice cut it. Susan shivered at the sound and fled back into the corner.
Bob snarled at the witch, his fists clenched. “I’ll see you dead for what you’ve done.” Kai had never seen his father angry before. He was always the laidback one while their mother was strict and quick to anger. He couldn’t remember ever hearing him make a threat either.
“Of course you will, you poor, poor, little man. I’m sure you’ll also see pigs fly and witness world peace,” Annis chided. She stepped past Kai and Bob to examine the men and women at the back. Sobs and moans broke out at her approach. After a few seconds, she pulled Susan from the crowd.
Susan screamed and kicked, showing the first signs of real life Kai had seen, but Annis only smiled and held her as though the woman was a child throwing a tantrum. Bob roared and ran for the witch but was lifted into the air with contemptuous ease by a gust of magic and hurled into the wall. Kai charged her next, swinging his fist. Annis caught it easily in her own hand then headbutted him in the forehead. His vision flared and he tumbled to the floor in a sudden wave of dizziness. The other captives huddled closer together.
Annis placed a clawed hand onto Susan’s breast which flashed red. Her screams came to an abrupt stop. Her body convulsed, stiffened, then collapsed to the floor like a ragdoll.
“For one so old, you had a lot of power left. It was so pure too. Things just keep getting more interesting, don’t they?” Annis said to herself. She made a satisfied sound then grabbed the body by the collar. She began to drag it easily across the floor toward the ladder up. As she passed Kai she spoke.
“Join me upstairs. We have much to discuss. Now.”
Kai fought to overcome the dizziness. He had a splitting headache but adrenaline numbed the pain. He glanced over at the lodge guests then back at his father who was slumped against the wall but clearly breathing. Bob met his stare with tear-filled eyes.
“Don’t worry. I have a plan,” Kai lied confidently.
Bob spoke in a wheezing voice. “Be careful, Kai. That woman doesn’t care about human life. She’ll kill you without a thought.” Kai nodded then followed Annis up the ladder.
Annis had continued up the ladders and then the stairs into a small cottage above. It was cramped and rundown with cold wind blowing in from a number of cracks and holes in the walls. Looking out of a grimy window, Kai saw that they were in a village filled with similarly dilapidated looking cottages.
A pale man in rags stood in the room, smiling joyously at Annis. She handed over Susan’s body. “Cut it up. Try and make a better job this time. And be quick. I’m hungry.”
“Yes, of course,” grinned the man manically. “A feast fit for a queen. On it.”
Annis sat on a wooden stool and pointed at a torn armchair nearby for Kai to sit on. He complied, his emotions carefully locked away, all the while searching out escape routes and possible threats. There were no visible guards but getting past Annis was going to be challenge enough.
“Life is one giant, infinitely complex chess board,” Annis said as soon as Kai was seated. “The pieces are easy to manoeuvre but they follow certain rules that cannot be broken and are sometimes prevented from doing the moves that you wish. I have survived for this long because I am an excellent chess player. Me and Déaþscúa have been in a game for a long time now but I intend to finally end it. You are a pawn that will lead to his checkmate.”
“I’ve told you, I won’t help you and Déaþscúa won’t hand himself over for me. I’d rather die than be used.”
Annis ignored him. “The individual pieces are unimportant. It is how they’re used or how they’re prevented from being used that wins or loses the game. I keep killing his pawns but it gets me no closer to killing him. Now though, all the pieces are in place. He is fighting against the clock to save those wretches I have imprisoned below so he must be hasty to succeed. Your sister is dead and you’re here so his prime pieces are gone. What pieces remain scattered across the board he is now seeking to gather together for one final attack. His body cannot heal itself after my last attack so he has no choice but to rely on others for the first time in his life. I will devour him.”
“Tell me,” Kai said as calmly as he could. “Why are you doing all of this? The fighting and the death has to serve a purpose. Or is it really as simple as you’re an evil-hearted bitch?”
Annis smiled at him. There was no malice in it. “You have such courage for one so young, especially in these circumstances. You’ve a strong will to succeed and a determination to grow stronger so you can save those that you love. Both Déaþscúa and I also share these traits. Do you know what separates us though? It is the scale of our moral perceptions.”
“The world is falling to pieces around us. Dear Déaþscúa is perhaps the strongest man alive but is he ending wars? Uniting the world? Battling the growing darkness that we can all feel? No. He is pouring all of his energy into saving a group of nobodies from me. It is a personal thing. He has always fought the small battles at the expense of the bigger picture. As for myself, I saw a threat and did what was necessary to have the power to face it.”
“By killing people? By eating children?” Kai said quietly. A snarl creased his features.
“Yes,” Annis replied simply. “Death is the quickest way to gain power. Children contain the most. Would you sacrifice a few children who would grow to live mundane lives without worth in order to save a greater number of people? Where are your lines? What would you answer if I offered to release your father and yourself on the single condition that you put a bullet through the head of another captive? What if I released everyone for that single innocent’s death? One life to save the many. Can you do it?”
Kai tried to keep his eyes locked with Annis’ but her cool gaze caused him to falter. He blinked and looked away. He could hear crying from below. His fingers twitched. “You’re full of bullshit. Justify it how you want, you’re still a sadistic murderer. Don’t you dare try and sell it like you’re the good guy.”
This time Annis laughed. It was a hollow, patronising sound. “That is an excuse and you know it. You cannot bring yourself to do what is best for the most people so you let everyone suffer for your weakness. Just like Déaþscúa.”
“I might be weak, hell, there’s no might about it. But Déaþscúa? Ha. He is strong enough to win against any threat. He scares me a lot more than you do yet still manages to do the right thing. You’re nothing compared to him.”
Annis’ face settled into an emotionless stare. “Déaþscúa cannot save this world. He doesn’t have it in him. I will be the one to kill the cancer!”
“Cancer? What cancer? The only cancerous thing I’ve seen since becoming aware of all of this is you and your followers. Killers, psychos and bloodthirsty monsters who prey on the weak. Déaþscúa is the only person I’ve seen actually making a positive impact. He has killed everything that you have thrown at him. Even I know that you can’t have many minions left. Your entire plan relies on a lot of assumptions.”
“True,” Annis admitted with a small smile. “You know war, boy?”
“I’m an ace at strategy games,” he shrugged idly. “A keen eye, a quick mind and a headful of knowledge is enough to conquer most situations. For example,”
Kai leapt out of the armchair and spun, grabbing it and throwing it at Annis in one quick movement. She batted it aside contemptuously but Kai had already ran past her and threw himself through a cracked window. Annis ran to the window and sent forth a fiery blast of magic at Kai’s back. Kai turned and took the fireball straight in the chest. He flew back and crashed hard into the mud but managed to roll back to his feet. His clothes were a burnt ruin but through the scorched holes were several packets of meat. A pleasant smell filled the air.
“Bacon bitches!” he cackled as he continued his sprint.
Doors opened all around him from the other cottages. Men appeared from everywhere. The white suited swordsman stepped out of a building just ahead of Kai. Beside him was a giant of a man covered in long red hair. He looked like an ugly cousin belonging to the MacFeelans.
Kai cursed and swerved. Annis was outside now too. He heard a howl and saw the red haired man transform into the crimson furred lycan they had fought against before. Claine was what Annis had called him back at the fort. There was nowhere to run to. There was nothing but open hills between him and the edge of a forest that he doubted he could reach in time.
Kai thought furiously. What would Sun Tzu do? He was all about preparing for victory, not being chased by an army of mythological madmen. Gandalf? He didn’t do jackshit other than throw flaming pine cones and shine a light. What about Jesus? Let himself be caught and killed? Bollocks to that. Just keep running, he told himself.
He heard movement directly behind him. Looking back he saw the red lycan charging at him, mere feet away. He braced himself for impact and it came a second later, only from the opposite direction to what he had expected. All the wind was driven out of him. He was defenceless. He looked around in a frenzy. His coat was held in the jaws of a pure black lycan that was carrying him at a gallop toward the distant forest. Claine gave chase but everyone else was left in the dust. With Kai’s weight pulling the darker lycan down, the crimson wolf was catching up fast.
The black lycan threw Kai into the air, swinging him around onto its back. Kai held on for his life. They were close to the forest now but Claine was gaining too quickly. He had to do something, but what?
Kai yanked one boot off and leaned back, swinging it like a club at the red lycan. “Bad dog. Go on! Shoo!” Razor fangs bit into the leather and yanked it from his hand.
Claine pounced, caught the black werewolf’s back leg and pulled it down. Kai flew over its head and landed in a heap between the two lycan and the woods. The werewolves were a blur of motion as they tore at each other in a fury. He ran for the trees as fast as his legs would carry him.
Once he was behind the cover of a tree trunk he risked looking back. The two lycan still fought but the other men from the village were almost upon them. Kai knew that he should run but he couldn’t do it. He cursed himself with every insult he could think of while glancing around for a makeshift weapon. Right next to his head he saw a rucksack hanging from a branch. Shoved into the side of the rucksack was a small pistol. He frowned but took it. It had a full clip inside.
“You’re a damned idiot, Mordekai Redthorn,” he grumbled to himself, jogging back out of the safety of the woods. “You have two rules: Enjoy life and only risk that life for a pretty girl. Nowhere did it say run into certain death for a bloodthirsty monster with bollocks the size of tennis-balls.”
As soon as he had a clear shot he opened fire on the red lycan. He expected the bullets to do nothing, he had seen first hand the damage that these werewolves could take, but the beast actually recoiled with every impact. The black lycan took advantage of this moment of weakness and threw its foe to the ground. The wolf glanced between its foe and the approaching group of hostiles. It snarled but stepped back. Before Claine could recover, the black lycan had once again grabbed Kai and was speeding off into the forest, scooping up the rucksack as they passed it.
The lycan ran on for several minutes, weaving its way through trees in confusing patterns until it finally came to a stop beside a large bush. It dropped Kai then sniffed around before standing still. It looked to Kai almost like a pure shadow, the only colour being the white of its fangs. Even its eyes were dark abysses. Kai stood back as the fur began to retract and the leathery skin contorted and shivered. It shrank and twisted until only a man stood before him.
The man looked a scant few years older than Kai and had skin that was a dark, near black brown. Black hair hung down to his broad shoulders and his eyes had no iris, only large, black pupils. Kai could see that he was muscular. He could see that all too well as the man was stark naked. The lycan offered him a crooked smile then rummaged through the rucksack to pull out a handful of clothes that he quickly dressed himself in. As a finishing touch he slid into a leather biker jacket.
“You interrupted my hunt,” the man said in a deep, low voice. “The blood wolf, Claine, must die. I spent so much time preparing but had to save you instead.” He spoke slowly, a slight accent tinging his voice. Kai could hear a jovial, almost musical quality in his speech though. As he spoke, he disappeared into the bush then returned pushing out a motorbike.
“Climb on,” he instructed as he seated himself. Kai swung his leg over and sat himself behind the man. The bike instantly roared and burst into motion.
“Who are you?” Kai shouted over the sound of the engine.
“I am Arteeru,” the man shouted back. “I belong to the Covenant of the Moonlight Order. I hunt those lycan who give us a bad name. A better question is, who are you? That village is in the throes of she who’s known as Black Annis. It is no place for a powerless like yourself.”
“I had everything under control,” Kai said defiantly. “I’ve fought Annis before and am still alive. The name’s Kai. I’d been imprisoned there, but as you could see, I had escaped.”
Arteeru laughed a deep, rich laugh. “You have plenty of inner fire. I like that. Where is a safe place to leave you?”
“I need to get back to Déaþscúa. He planned on going to the MacFeelan’s new camp but I don’t know where that is. Do those names mean anything to you?”
The man nodded. “I know Déaþscúa. I know where he is too. He is gathering an army to fight Annis. A messenger found me yesterday asking for my aid. I turned him down. I am here for Claine and he alone. It appears that our goals are linked however. I will take you to his camp.”
“Thank you,” Kai bellowed. “The faster the better,” he added. He had to see KT. He hoped that he could see her again. Hoped so hard that it hurt. “Be alive, damn it.”