Déaþscúa walked through the clearing with the aid of a walking-stick. His breath misted in the frosty morning air. Tents were quickly filling up the space around him. He had sent out messengers to gather in those he could trust. Niall had already brought together the various Scottish tribes but the numbers hadn’t been enough.
He’d had to be careful. Too obvious a show of force would have brought the Grand Moot down on his head before he could act. They were probably searching for him already. He had to gather in his forces and strike before anyone could interfere. He would not lose Annis again.
Alongside the Scottish clans, Ailia and Elizabeth, there were now a mercenary group known as the Blue Bands and a handful of individuals that Déaþscúa had worked with over the years. Annis had gone too far in having the MacFeelans slaughtered and those who had stood back in the past were now set on her destruction. He hoped more would come soon. No matter the circumstances, he couldn’t wait much longer.
He stepped inside a small tent and was greeted by Ailia and Elizabeth. At the tent’s centre was a bed where KT lay unmoving. She was pale but was breathing, though very shallowly.
“How is she?” he asked quietly.
“She is stable but is showing no signs of regaining consciousness. She might never wake up. For all we can tell, while her body is alive, her mind might have faded away,” Elizabeth explained in a soft voice. “Only an expert could do anything from here. If I still had my powers… nevermind that. There is no point in dwelling on it. For her, only time and care will tell.”
Ailia spoke up then. “You’ll be happy to hear that the vampirism was fought off before it could take hold. If she wakes she’ll be just another boring young woman. Well, aside from all of the scarring, possible paralysis and mental trauma of being that close to death.”
“Good. I wouldn’t wish that upon anybody.”
“Nor would I,” Ailia smiled.
Déaþscúa slumped into a seat beside Elizabeth with a sigh. He spoke to the two women but his eyes never left KT’s sleeping form.
“I plan to move out at dawn the day after tomorrow. I can’t wait longer. That’s too long already for my liking.”
“Do you still intend on visiting the fairies?” Elizabeth asked. She failed to keep scorn from her voice. “You know they’ll never help anybody without asking a lofty price. For something like what you intend to ask, who knows what they will want in return.”
Déaþscúa shrugged, tiredness showing in his every movement and feature. “Annis will be expecting an attack and will have planned accordingly. She can outmanoeuvre me in her sleep. I can’t fight as I am now. I need some advantages from somewhere but I just don’t have the damn time to get them.”
He rubbed a hand against his temples. “Glory Valentine tells me that the Grand Moot have a warrant on me for killing Christie and are narrowing down my location as we speak. They’re searching for her too after she had the smart idea of breaking into the Lion Heart so no doubt they’ll track us down pretty fast. They have ignored Annis for too long. It doesn’t make sense for them to not pull out all the stops in her capture. For centuries they have let her run wild. The more I dwell on it, the more suspect it seems.”
“You think that the Grand Moot is supporting her?” Elizabeth asked, taken aback by the accusation. “What would they have to gain for protecting a psychotic witch with a taste for human children? It’s not like she’s tied to any prophecy like Christie was.”
“Hell if I know. It just doesn’t add up. The fact that someone as evil as she is can still be alive after all this time is troubling enough but now that she suddenly has an army gathering around her and is openly moving against innocents, she should be fleeing from the Grand Moot’s combined forces. Instead they move to arrest me, the one person who’s actively trying to stop her.”
The tent fell into silence as the three considered this. Their contemplation was broken when Jearl stumbled into the tent looking as dishevelled as usual.
“Arteeru has just pulled up outside, boss. He wants to speak with ya.”
“Arteeru? I didn’t expect him to accept. His people never get involved in wider issues. The message to him was more to keep them up to date,” Déaþscúa said. He stood and followed Jearl back outside.
It was a short walk to the edge of the camp. Déaþscúa could see the dark skinned Arteeru fussing around his motorbike. Beside him was the last person Déaþscúa had expected to see. He had to walk closer just to be sure that his exhaustion wasn’t playing tricks on his eyes or brain.
“Kai?” Déaþscúa asked aloud. The young man looked over to him, a wide grin on his face. Déaþscúa returned the grin. “You tricky little bastard. Too annoying even for Annis, are you?” he laughed.
Kai shrugged amusedly. “What can I say? I’m like marmite, the best thing ever but some people just can’t handle me. Dense people. With no taste buds. I mean, who doesn’t like marmite? It’s awesome.”
“Yeah, if you’re trying to torture people. It’s bloody disgusting stuff. You’re right though, it definitely suits you.” He turned to Arteeru. “Thanks for getting him back here. I didn’t think I’d see you.”
“Fate weaves as fate wills,” Arteeru said with a shrug. He didn’t meet Déaþscúa’s eyes. “Your friend stumbled into my hunt. He has much spirit.”
Kai chuckled but his eyes were suddenly tense. He hesitated for a moment. “Where is KT?”
Déaþscúa ran a hand across the back of his neck. “She’s in a tent back there. I’ll take you to her. She’s alive but not in a good state.” He turned to address the lycan. “Arteeru, Niall and the other representatives are over in that big tent there. I don’t know if you intend to help us but please at least speak with them. Right, come on Kai.”
Kai sighed with relief, a great burden lifting from his shoulders. She was still alive. That was all that mattered. He followed Déaþscúa through the camp to the tent that housed his sister. The flap opened and he saw her laying there. Ignoring Elizabeth and Ailia, who had both risen with surprised looks at his sudden appearance, he rushed straight to her side.
“Will she get better?” he asked, unable to hide his nervousness. She looked so frail in that small bed. So unlike the sister he knew.
“I don’t know,” Déaþscúa replied. “Her body is stable but she suffered massive trauma. Nobody here can tell the extent of the damage.”
Kai grabbed KT’s hand tightly. It was cold. “Come on, damn it,” he hissed at her. “I made it back here from Annis’ own hands so you can damn well make it back from a little scratch. I’m the one who’s supposed to spend all day in bed. You yell at me for it too, you hypocrite.”
KT remained still. Kai’s grasp on her hand tightened. He had always hated being helpless. He had done everything in his life to never feel it but more and more it seemed like he could do nothing for anyone. Tears filled up in his eyes that were quickly suppressed with angry self-admonishment. He took a steadying breath to calm himself.
“What is the plan then?” he asked. His voice sounded emotionless in his own ears. “Is it still the same as before?”
“There’s a meeting tonight to lay out the final plans,” Déaþscúa said. “It will be close enough to what I said before. You should come too since you have seen Annis’ current lair.”
Kai nodded. Déaþscúa took one last look at KT then left the tent. Kai didn’t move. Elizabeth brought him a foldout chair and set it up at the bedside. She moved her own chair and sat beside him.
“Don’t worry. She’ll be alright. KT is a strong young woman. She shouldn’t have even survived that kind of injury but she did. She just needs time to recover her strength after such a fight for survival,” she said as soothingly as she could.
“I know. It’s just… we fought so hard to try and get our dad back and now I might lose her too. I feel like we’ve been fighting nonstop since we met Déaþscúa and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. Every time we fight, I run the risk of losing her and that scares me. She always protected me as a kid, even when I got bigger than her. It’s stupid, I know, but I’ve always seen her as indestructible.
“Back when we first moved up into comprehensive school I started to get bullied by a giant of a kid who was a boxer. I stood up and fought him and got the shit kicked out of me. KT was furious. I told her not to go near him but she marched straight up to him. I’d tried to win him in a fair fight. She kicked him in the balls then broke his arm while he was on his knees.” He couldn’t help but smile at the memory.
Elizabeth stood. “I’ll fetch you some food and a nice cup of tea. You can’t have eaten for a while,” she told him kindly.
As though it could hear her words, Kai’s stomach growled loudly. He’d shared a portion of his bacon vest with Arteeru during a brief stop on their journey but more food was always welcome.
He settled down but didn’t have a moment’s peace though as Ailia plonked herself down on the chair Elizabeth had just vacated and leaned in close to Kai. She smiled at him devilishly, her lips curling around her gums in an unsettling manner.
“They let me drink her blood,” she said, looking down at KT. “It tasted so very sweet. I can’t help but wonder if yours tastes the same.”
Kai jumped up out of his chair. “You’re not having my blood! It is very happy where it is, thank you very much.”
Ailia giggled at his reaction. “You’re funny. You know that?”
Kai growled at her. He sat back down, glaring at the vampire.
It wasn’t long until Elizabeth returned with a joint of pork, a slice of buttered bread and a mug of steaming tea. The meat was gone in seconds then he turned on the bread with equal gusto. Not quite satisfied but not hungry anymore, he sipped thoughtfully at the tea. He watched passively as the light faded steadily around him. Another hour and it would be dark.
“The meeting will be starting soon,” Elizabeth told him. “I’ll show you the way. Ailia, are you coming?”
“I guess,” Ailia answered. “Would it kill him to set it an hour later? He can’t imagine the migraines that natural light gives us.”
“You mean you don’t turn to dust in direct sunlight?” Kai asked her sarcastically. “You’ve been running around with us plenty through the day.”
“No. We don’t bloody sparkle either. Vampires have enhanced senses. You see a bright light and it may hurt your eyes and give you a headache. We see that light and it is so much brighter to us. That’s why we don’t go out in the sun very often. I’ve been lathered up in sunscreen all this time but I’ve ran out. Guess what, I also really enjoy garlic,” the young bodied vampire explained in a dry voice.
They left the tent and walked the short distance to the centre of the camp. A large fire was already burning there and a ring of seats had been placed around it. Many of the seats were already filled but Déaþscúa was nowhere in sight. Kai noticed that Arteeru was present, sat off away from the clusters of other men and women. Elizabeth sat beside Niall while Ailia stalked away to the back well away from the fire. Kai joined Arteeru, offering the man a quick nod of his head. The dark skinned man returned it.
More gathered around the fire until every seat was filled. Kai guessed that there were a few hundred people here. Whether Déaþscúa had more elsewhere he didn’t know. Finally, Déaþscúa stepped into the circle of amber light. He positioned himself beside the fire so that everybody could see him. He’d forgone his walking stick but still looked unsteady.
“Thank you all for coming here on such short notice,” he announced in a loud, confident voice. His words rose above the wind and fire to be heard clearly by everyone in the camp. “Terrible things have been occurring of late. Innocents are being killed and captured while the honourable clan MacFeelan has had to bury so many of their family. Black Annis is the root of all of this evil. The Grand Moot might not want to move against her, but I sure as hell will. We’re all here to put an end to her tyranny, something that we should have done a hundred times or more before now.”
There was a general muttering of agreement from the crowd. Disgust and anger showed on the majority of the faces that Kai could see.
Déaþscúa continued. “I’m no leader and neither am I a fighter in my current state. I got cocky and Annis hit my hard because of it. Let’s not make that mistake twice. I suggest that a general is chosen before we progress further. I nominate Niall MacFeelan.
More debate was sparked among the gathering. Niall stood up. “Ye be full of shite, Déaþscúa. Ye have commanded more battles than we collectively have fought and I’ve yet to hear of a defeat under yer name. All the same though, I’ll lead these fine folk inte battle if that’s what they want.” There was a series of cheers and vigorous nodding of heads.
“Good,” Déaþscúa said as the sound faded. Niall stepped up beside him. He looked haggard yet determination showed in his every move. “Kai, Arteeru, join us up here. We need you to detail this village that Annis has taken over.”
They both stood up. Arteeru took the lead. “Annis has taken over a small village near the north-eastern coast that was built for an industry that failed before its completion. It is surrounded by open hills that transition to forest in the east and the sea to the west. It is well positioned for an open battle but there is little chance for stealth and there is no high ground for any covering fire.”
“My dad and the others she took are kept in a basement to one of the inner houses,” Kai added.
Arteeru continued. “My sources suggest that the area is unstable, the barrier between realms being thinner than it should be. Annis will likely use this dimensional weakness to help her open Heaven’s Gate.”
Déaþscúa picked up right where they left off. “The basic plan is to have a multi-pronged attack so that Annis doesn’t know which is our true strike and which are simple distractions. That will be where all of you will be. I intend to visit the fairies and ask them to open a faegate straight into this basement where the hostages are. Kai will accompany me since he is the only one who has seen this place. We’ll free them and, if possible, strike at Annis’ back from her own place of safety.”
“I donae like going te the fairies. Nasty little scunners at the best o’ times,” Niall spat. “They willnae help ye.”
“Me ma’s cousin once went to the fairies,” put in a skinny young man with long, wild hair who Kai recognised vaguely as one of Niall’s many nephews. He was no older than Kai. Robby, he seemed to remember his name being. “Her pregnancy was failing so she asked them to make sure her baby was born safe. They agreed but took her sight, hearing and voice as payment.”
“I know the risks,” Déaþscúa told them. “As I am now, I’m no use in battle. My choices are to sit back and do nothing, go with you all and get in the way, or take this chance and hope to make a difference.”
Niall nodded reluctantly. “Fine. Now te plan out the attack itself. Somebody fetch me a map o’ that area. Quick. Between all of the clans, the mercenaries and the rest of ye there are a fair number of us here at the moment. I’m thinking three main attacks by land, a single attack from the sea, a force dropping in from above and then some long range support. We’ll hammer them from every angle.”
A young woman with fiery hair spoke up. “I brought some helicopters with me. Leave any troop transportation and air support or the like with the Blue Bands.”
“Good,” said Niall. “Ye and yer mercenaries have quite the reputation, Miss Valentine. I look forward te fightin’ wi’ ye. We know that Annis has found some teleportation orbs. I donae want her disappearing again. I trust ye brought a disruptor like I asked?”
“Of course,” Glory answered. “My pilot, Ace, will be setting that up. Annis won’t get away on our watch.”
“Okay, is there anything else that anyone wants te address?” Niall asked to the crowd.
“Where do you want me?” asked a voice that cut through the mumbled discussion of the gathering. Every head turned, several bearing stunned looks.
“KT!” Kai shouted, grinning like a fool as he ran to embrace her. He stopped himself just before crashing into her, suddenly remembering her wound and fragile state. “Are you alright? I… You… “
“I’m okay,” she said despite wincing as she wrapped her arms around him. She wore only a woollen nightgown that looked too big for her. “I ache and feel a bit weak but once I’ve been up and about I’ll be perfect.”
Elizabeth appeared at her side, her face grey. “You should not be up. Even if you had miraculously woken up after those wounds, you should have been bed-bound for weeks yet.”
“Well I’m not,” KT said forcefully as the woman tried to guide her back to her tent. “I want to help and short of tying me down or knocking me out you can’t stop me.”
Elizabeth looked to be seriously considering that idea. She was forced to step back when Déaþscúa pushed his way to the girl. He looked all over her as though searching for any sign that she was too injured to be up but found nothing.
“Ailia, Not-That-Mad Willy, come with me. It’s time for another checkup.” He took KT by the arm and began to guide her back to the tent.
“I said that I’m fine, damn it!” KT huffed in protest.
“That’s what worries me.”
Once they were back inside the canvas walls, Déaþscúa rounded on the Scotsman. “You said all traces of it were gone before it could take hold. If that’s the case, why is she walking around when she should be having a hard time even breathing?”
“What does “It” mean?” KT demanded. She was completely ignored.
“I stabbed her wi’ the sticks and they rotted. I kept stabbin’ her til they stopped rottin’. Even Ailia said she couldnae sense it anymore,” Not-That-Mad Willy argued.
“Stabbed me?” KT gaped. She pulled her gown to peer at her bare chest and made a strangled noise at the sight of the sword wound between her breasts and a series of small punctures across the entirety of her body. She pulled at her sleeves and hem, finding more across her arms and legs. Again she was ignored.
“He’s right,” Ailia confirmed. “It was my bond so had it taken root I’d be able to sense her. Look at her. She still clearly has the wounds. Had the vampirism still been there then all of her injuries would have mostly healed by now.”
“Vampirism! You tried to turn me into a vampire?” KT shouted. When no one showed any signs of answering her again she grabbed one of the fold-up chairs and swung it at Déaþscúa’s back. He staggered forward with a grunt.
“I’m standing right here. Tell me what the hell has been happening. I remember the battle to get your sword back. Me and Kai were fighting a man in a white suit. The next thing I remember is waking up a few minutes ago.”
Déaþscúa muttered something about ‘women’ and ‘violence’ before looking at her. “You were impaled by a sword. It would have been fatal so we decided to let Ailia turn you. Kai had just been taken and you were seconds from death.”
Ailia bared her teeth in a cheeky grin. “It’s just a good job that you’re ‘pure’. Good for you anyway. I personally could use a new zombie thrall.”
A blush spread across KT’s face. “What?”
“Yeah, vampirism is surprisingly picky. Ever wonder why vampires always went after young maidens in the stories? Even I don’t know the details but somehow sex and energy are linked. It’s a transition point between two versions of yourself I guess. You gain the ability to grow but also become vulnerable to corruption. People who’re sexually active can still become a vampire but there is equal chances of them becoming a thrall, an undead soul tied to the will of the vampire that infected them.”
“Not now, Ailia,” Déaþscúa snapped. “The second that you were not going to immediately die we drained the corruption from you and gave you a cure for Vampirism. It should have stabilised you then disappeared to leave your body to sort itself but you’re recovering faster than is natural.”
Elizabeth had taken out a notebook and was writing furiously. “Maybe it is her resistance. Vampirism is a magic based disease so could be negated by her. It couldn’t take over her body but perhaps was still able to passively affect it. Ailia, do you know of any resistants that were ever turned?”
Ailia gummed her lip thoughtfully. “No. There aren’t many of them and of those even fewer would be able to be turned. For your theory to be right though, she’d have to be an accipere resistant.”
“Hold up,” KT demanded. “A what now? Stop speaking bloody gibberish.”
Elizabeth answered her without looking up from her notes. “Accipere is a receiver or taker. Most resistant are unaffected by magic but are inherently powerless. Some have the ability to take the powers of others and use them as their own. This varies widely in the few known cases but it could explain how you received the benefits of the Vampirism without actually becoming a Vampire.”
Not-That-Mad Willy grabbed KT’s arm and held his hand over one of her wounds. His hand began to glow but nothing happened.
“Ye see, my healin’ magic willnae work on her. I had te rely on traditional potions and poultices. That’s why ye still look like a pincushion.”
Elizabeth nodded and started to scribble in her notebook. “Déaþscúa, you try.”
Déaþscúa seemed almost reluctant as he placed his hand on KT’s arm. The familiar warm sensation filled her but when he removed his hand the wounds were still there. They looked slightly more healed but nothing like when they had faded previously.
“Interesting,” Elizabeth said as she made more notes. “It looks like my theory is correct. Your resistance is growing. Think of it like a muscle. Until you met Déaþscúa it had never been used so was weak and ineffective. Now that you have actually been exposed to magic your abilities are maturing. Pretty soon we won’t be able to heal you at all if you get hurt.”
A lot of emotions were coursing through KT. She decided to settle on anger. “I’m not a damn science project to be analysed. Me and Kai never fought because we thought we were safe but because it was what we needed to do. It’s terrifying thinking that I could die at any moment from injuries that I should be able to be healed from but it isn’t going to stop me. I am still going to fight Annis with you and get our dad back.”
Déaþscúa took one last look over her then nodded, a cocky smile spreading across his rugged face. “As you say, Ma’am. We move out in the morning.”