Chapter 25. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

Snow fell in frozen sheets and wind bit at flesh like a knife. Ailia stood alone at the edge of a forest that looked out at a small industrial village. Her breath didn’t mist and her skin was as pale as ever. She wore no extra clothing, only a thin, white dress. Normal eyes were unable to see far through the snowy torrent but to Ailia it made no difference. 

There was no sound above the wind but she knew that someone was approaching her position. His scent cut through the damp air like a beacon. 

“Arteeru,” she greeted without looking around. “All this snow is not helping with your wet dog smell.”

“Better a wet dog than a dusty corpse,” he answered dismissively. “My side is all clear.”

“Ditto.”

  They jogged through the snow and joined a large gathering that was assembled further into the forest. Niall MacFeelan met them at the front of the host. A near feral look contorted his leathery face.

“There are no signs of activity outside of the structures,” Arteeru reported. “They are all inside because of the weather. We can strike before they realise there is a threat.”

“Good,” Niall said, a grim smile twitching across his lips. “Everything is ready. We might nae even need Déaþscúa. I cannae say that the idea of killin’ the witch wi’ me own two hands doesnae sound appealing.”

“I don’t like it,” Ailia said quietly. “She’ll be prepared for an attack. I’d much prefer an open battle than running through Annis’ hoops. Don’t let your guard down.”

“Donae ye worry, lass. I willnae allow Annis te git away again. No mistakes.” He turned to the warriors behind him. He had to shout to be heard above the howling wind. “Right then. Listen up. You all ken the plan. Get inte ye groups and brace yeselves for a storm. Move out!”

There was an organised scramble as the men and women divided themselves into the assigned units. Ailia and Arteeru joined Niall’s group. They would be the ones to make a full frontal attack and take the brunt of the enemy forces. It was still dark but with the heavy clouds above there was no chance of the sun affecting her. Nothing would stop her rampage today.

The group forced their way to the edge of the forest only to now be confronted by the full effects of the weather. Each step was a battle in itself. Ailia could see the buildings but to everyone else there was only a white haze. The others cut deep trenches through the snow while she stepped lightly across its surface. A smile refused to leave her face. She missed war.

They were very close to the first building by the time everyone could make it out. It was a simple, squat structure made from stone. Niall stopped them and surveyed what he could see.

“Let’s light this place up,” he announced loudly. “Burn them out!” 

Fire materialised in people’s hands then arched through the air. From the edge of the forest came the boom of mortar fire. The sounds of sizzling snow, churned up earth, and the crackling of the flames punctuated the gale. Light consumed the white gloom. The mortars paused their rain of explosives. Half of the group continued to pump out spheres of flame while the other half charged into the shattered village to begin the assault. 

Ailia was with those who entered the village. It still appeared empty but the air reeked of filth even over the snow. Everything was soaked but it wasn’t long until the fires took hold and lit up the roofs of the buildings that hadn’t collapsed. 

Every door burst open at once and men and goblins rushed out, screaming with fear and rage. There were too few though. A handful of MacFeelans led by Niall cut through them like wheat in a field. Arteeru hadn’t even transformed, instead walking forward with his pistol out. One goblin leapt at Ailia with a wicked dagger but she backhanded it across the face without even looking. The slap broke the goblin’s neck and dislocated its jaw. The sound of fighting had flared up across the entire village, which meant that the two flanking forces had also engaged. 

Without warning, several of the buildings suddenly exploded. Rocks and fire washed over the fighting, throwing men to the ground and pelting them with deadly projectiles. Ailia side-stepped the speeding stones with contemptuous ease. Before her ears had stopped ringing, a new noise registered to her. Howls and battle cries. 

She span just in time to avoid a forking lightning bolt that scorched the earth just behind her. Hundreds of men and creatures were charging from the forest down to their position. They were leaving the forest from the same spot that Niall had led them from minutes before. The mortar crews lay dead, new men controlling the weapons now. There must have been a hidden tunnel nearby where Annis’ forces had been hiding. 

Ailia cracked her fingers. This was more like it. She didn’t wait for Niall’s orders. She moved with the speed of the raging wind, closing on the army before most of her allies had even picked themselves up off the floor. Without slowing she punched out at the first man. Her fist drove straight through his chest and grabbed the head of a goblin behind him which she pulled through the gory hole, twisting it with a satisfying pop so that glassy eyes looked up to the heavens. Using her momentum, she vaulted over the joined corpses and landed in a sitting position on the shoulders of another man. One leg hung from either side of the man’s head until she squeezed with her thighs and crushed it like a watermelon. He fell and she rolled straight into the next target.

Off to her side fought Arteeru. He still hadn’t transformed but had put away his pistol and now stabbed at his foes with a carved, darkwood spear that was only as long as his arm. His movements were not flashy or skillful but blunt and to the point. His sheer strength and speed ensured none stood against him.

Behind them, Niall and the other warriors had regrouped and split to fight off both the enemies still in the village and the newcomers. Magic lit up the sky with flashes of hellish light from both sides. Bodies and blood flew in every direction. Explosions and screams drowned out even the wind. 

A stray bullet shot through Ailia’s side. She didn’t miss a step. The wound instantly began to knit itself back together. She spun and her nails ripped through skin and guts alike. Blood drenched her. She laughed maniacally, loving every second of the death. Something hit her in the shoulder with the strength of a speeding lorry. She hit the ground then bounced into an axe-wielding MacFeelan. He staggered for a second and was blown apart by a spiral of red energy from a nearby sorcerer. 

Bones had broken all across her body. Ailia swore angrily as she waited for them to mend. She looked to where she had been and saw the red furred wolf who she had fought back at the ruined fort. He was advancing on her with his glistening teeth open and ready for the killing bite.

A spear flew through the fighting men and struck the lycan’s thigh. A second later a mass of black fur barrelled into his side. Ailia only just managed to roll away from the tangled mess of thrashing limbs. Arteeru had finally transformed and was pummeling the other werewolf with everything he had. The blood lycan fought just as hard. 

A hand grabbed Ailia’s arm. She looked up to find Glory looking down at her.

“What’s the matter, eh Ailia? Scared by the big, bad wolf?” Her tone was mocking but lighthearted. 

“Shut up,” Ailia snapped churlishly. “I’m fine. Better than you would be with a dozen broken bones.”

The woman pulled Ailia to her feet. “That’s true, but I’m good enough not to have my bones broken in the first place. Try not to let your immortality make you too cocky. Cocky children’ll always get their comeuppance,” Glory laughed. Without waiting for Ailia’s response, she bounded back into the heart of the battle, her staff splitting skulls with every twist of her wrists.

Her bones felt moveable again so she threw herself back into battle, venting her frustration on an unfortunate goblin. She left it as a ball on the floor with its feet shoved down its own throat. 

***

Niall was a short way off, chest deep in goblins. Each swing of his giant claymore parted limbs from bodies and spilled internal organs. Athair, aged but just as ferocious. Magic flowed constantly from him as he fought off other magical attacks that targeted Niall. 

“She’s gotten herself some trolls,” Athair informed Niall between bursts of purple fire. 

Niall glanced in the direction that Athair had indicated and snorted. Five of the creatures were wading through the battle. They were not the massive creatures of terror depicted in fantasy stories but closer to the fairytale brutes that lived under bridges. Rough fur covered their bodies except for their hands, feet and heads. They stood as tall as an average man but were perpetually stooped over. They had bulky muscles and thick skin that made them powerful opponents and were smarter than their looks suggested. 

  “They rarely leave their bridges. I havenae killed a troll in twelve years. Ye remember? Ugly scunner who wouldnae let us pass. Ye set him on fire then I took his head off,” Niall commented. His eyes blazed as he watched them cut through his warriors.

“Aye,” Athair nodded. 

The two men made a beeline straight for the trolls. The trolls were currently lobbing stones at the heads of any of Niall’s warriors who were within range. Athair hurled a fireball at the closest, causing it to scream. It dropped and rolled through the snow to put itself out. The other four howled a warcry and began a shambling run toward them. 

Niall ran at the trolls. As he neared the first he ducked low and swung at its legs, taking one off at the knee. It toppled with an inhuman wail.

His second swing was blocked by a crude axe that most trolls tended to carry. Another slash clove the axe in two. Lightning struck the now unarmed troll. It convulsed until its eyes burst. Its smoking body hit the dirt.

“Keep on coming. I’ll kill ye all!” Niall roared to the world at large. 

His blade continued to swing at the trolls but a look of astonishment crossed his face. His perspective suddenly changed. He could see his body as though it were another person. Fingers gripped his hair. He was turned around to look into the eyes of a handsome man in a white suit. A sword was held in his free hand that dripped with blood. Niall’s blood. Indignation burned in Niall’s eyes until they rolled up. Darrian Saint threw the severed head away contemptuously. 

Athair howled in rage. Red electricity sparked across his body and his white hair flew wildly around his face. Saint sighed then slashed. Athair hurled fire at the man. The flames arched through nothing but air. Daggers of ice formed around him then flew at Saint. The man’s sword became a blur and all of the shards fell harmlessly. Steel flashed and Athair’s arm was cut clean from his body. As he recoiled, Saint thrust his blade deep into the MacFeelan’s throat. 

“Pathetic,” he sneered at the two corpses. He surveyed the battle with uncaring eyes. “Where is Déaþscúa? He is the only one I have a desire to fight. This filth doesn’t deserve to dirty my blade.”

“Bastard!” roared a youthful voice. 

Saint looked to the side slowly. A short way off was a man who couldn’t have been into his twentieth year yet. He wore a kilt and had ginger hair like the bodies at Saint’s feet. The boy shook with impotent rage and fear. Saint raised an inquiring eyebrow at him. The young MacFeelan bit off a curse then turned tail and ran.

He didn’t run away from the battle though. He was too proud for that. Any true Scotsman was too proud to run. That didn’t mean that he wanted to throw his life away meaninglessly. Robby MacFeelan was likely the first MacFeelan to ever be born with common sense. This didn’t make him feel any less a coward but he gritted his teeth and did what he knew must be done.

Robby darted through the battle. He was not yet big enough to barge his way through. As far as Scottish warriors went he was positively scrawny. The hatchet in his hand was more than enough for him to cut a path when needed though. He was looking for the other clan chiefs but the person who he spotted first was the female mercenary captain.

  Glory Valentine was in the thick of the fighting. A handful of other men and women bearing the blue wristbands fought at her back so that none of them could become outflanked. Her staff span, knocking away blades and blasts of magic with equal ease. Robby fought his way to her side and stood there panting before he could force out any words.

“Niall’s been killed,” he managed after a moment. “Our side is collapsing. We have no leader and the bastards are nae showin’ any signs of defeat.”

“Cover me!” Glory ordered with an iron voice. The other Blue Bands closed around her and Robby so that they had a small open space away from the hordes of enemies. She tapped a device in her ear. “Ace, status report.”

Static crackled from the device. A barely audible voice resolved itself. “…weather too rough. We… little visuals. I’m flying by heat signatures. We’re as… useless up here.”

“Niall is dead. How spread thin are we?”

“…Can’t really… Everything looks like a cluster f… position is being overwhelmed.”

“Land where you can and set up a rally point. Do not directly engage.”

“Roger.”

Glory motioned for Robby to step closer to her. “Give me a lift,” she told him. She took out a pair of binoculars from a side pouch then stood up on Robby’s hands. She moved up onto his shoulder with Robby clutching at her ankles.

The battle really was a mess. Looking through the binoculars, Glory could see blurry red figures all around her. It was hard to make out people or even sides using heat signatures alone but the various creatures were easy to pick out. The battlelines didn’t make sense. Annis had never had influence over others until very recently but even so, there was no way that she could have had access to so many soldiers. There must have been double the numbers they had estimated they would be facing. Goblins, men and trolls were one thing but Glory could also see winged creatures and a handful of lycan. The lack of heat from some shambling figures suggested zombies too.

“We have to fall back,” she shouted to the Blue Bands encircling her. “We’ll regroup in the village then strike out as one blade to wherever Ace sets up. Relay my orders. I’ll hold them back.”

The Blue Bands nodded and began to fall back, roaring at the top of their lungs for any of Niall’s warriors to do the same. Glory flexed her muscles and eyed the horde without any hint of emotion. 

“Are ye crazy?” Robby spluttered. “Ye cannae hold that many off on yer onesie. Hell, ye are the bloody leader! We cannae lose another.”

Glory offered the young man a smile. “I’m the only one with the talents for this situation. The others will make do. A few more kills and I’ll be ready.”

She span her staff into a goblin’s ribcage with a very audible crack of bones. From there the staff lunged out like a snake to smash into a man’s nose. The nose disappeared inside the man’s head in a gruesome spray of blood. The engravings along the staff’s surface suddenly began to glow with a hellish red light. It beeped merrily like a chirping bird.

“Here we go. Come on, you bastards!” she said. She swung the staff around again but now a searing crimson laser burst from the end to bifurcate man and beast alike. It continued out through the army as another joined it. The air was filled with blazing beams while the staff spun in a deadly dance.

Robby leapt back with an unmanly yelp at the sight of the carnage. He had never seen anything like it. Blood spattered the snow and misted in the air while red light cast the world in crimson. Magic users had set up shields against the devastation, however they seemed ineffective. 

Abruptly the lasers stopped. Glory swayed then fell into a puddle of melted snow and gore. No longer suppressed, Annis’ forces converged on her with a terrifying bloodlust. She didn’t look up. Robby screamed a wordless cry as he clove the skull of a man in half. He swung about himself with the hatchet in an inhuman fury then crouched and grabbed hold of Glory.

“Come on! I am nae goin’ te bury another woman yet.”

A smile flittered across her face. From her position on the ground she tripped a troll with her staff then gave a poor man a firm thwack to the balls when they threatened to overpower the young MacFeelan. 

“Maybe you should worry about not being buried yourself,” she chided him. He helped her to her feet then she shook off his grip on her. “We should probably run now.”

“Agreed,” said Robby. He could barely keep hold of his axe now. 

They ran as fast as they could back toward the village. Bullets and blasts of magic shot past them into the chasing ranks behind. Blue Bands and grim faced Scotsmen shouted encouragement from the village’s edge. The two passed the first line of men into a rubble strewn space. Only a handful of the building still stood.

Glory noticed three men stood atop one of the remaining houses and vaulted up to join them. Robby stared after her but decided against clumsily clambering up the wall. Instead he sought out other MacFeelans. He saw a knot of them holding off the remaining trolls and moved over to support them.

***

The three men were clan chiefs. They watched Glory as she approached but did nothing else to acknowledge her presence. She ignored them too. Her eyes scanned the battlefield and didn’t like what they saw. Most of their forces had been able to retreat and now held the ruins of the village but there didn’t seem to be an end to the enemy numbers. 

“We cannae hold here,” a grey haired, broad faced chief grunted. Glory recalled his name as being Denn. “We have to act fast or we’ll be swept away.”

“Tell us the obvious some more,” snapped another. “I’m sure that will help.

“It cannae help any less than sarcasm,” Denn countered angrily.

The third chief, a huge, bald man with a long white beard, frowned. “We’re in the centre of events grander than we ever imagined. Annis couldnae have gathered this army. Why would they fight for her? What do they have te gain? Nothing. Déaþscúa has gotten us inte a full blown war whether he kens it or nae.”

Glory gave up waiting for them to actually do something useful. “Enough with the philosophy, old man. Shit has hit the fan. Don’t waste time deciding who threw it while the flies are gathering and the smell’s getting worse.”

“Aye. The lass is right,” Denn said. “Where are Niall and Dorren?”

“Niall is dead. If this Dorren isn’t here then count him as dead too,” Glory told them bluntly. “Our plan has gone to shit so we need a new one. Fast.”

“What we need is Déaþscúa,” the middle chief added dejectedly. 

Glory’s earpiece buzzed. “Glory. We are down. We’re setting up defences as we speak. Head to the coastline about half a mile from your position.”

“Easier said than done, Ace. I’ll see you there or in Hell.”

“Roger that.”

She turned her attention back to the men. “We have a foothold half a mile away. You think that you can get everyone there?”

“No, but we’ll try,” answered the bald chief. 

“That’s the spirit,” she told them enthusiastically. “Get going. Me and my men will fight our way back while you take everyone else at a run. Don’t argue.”

Reluctantly they agreed and began to tell the combatants below the plan. Glory jumped down too. She was greeted by a brown-skinned man with the blue bands on his wrists. 

“Jal, get the men into formation Seventy Two B. Mark Two variant. A steady retreat to the coast as we funnel their forces and slow their advance. No unnecessary risks.”

“On it,” the man said with an offhanded salute. He left without hesitation to organise the battle-bound Blue Bands.

Glory watched him go. She rubbed a finger across her nose distractedly. “Hurry the hell up, Déaþscúa. Even if we could win here, there’s still no sign of Annis. Without her dead, all of this is for nothing.” She strode towards her men. “Where the hell is that wretch Ailia? It’s time we fuck some shit up.”

Previous – Chapter 24.

Next – Chapter 26.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 25. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

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