Time didn’t seem to move in the fairy glade. Anything electronic didn’t work either so the hours passed by at a sluggish pace. Déaþscúa sat with his back to a tree and his eyes closed. He could have been sleeping but KT could see the tension that had a hold of him. She sat nearby and no matter how hard she tried not to, she couldn’t help but to keep staring at him as a new memory cascaded through her aching mind. Ghodot’s constant attempts at conversation were not improving her mood.
Kai had been pacing for a while now. “How much longer do we have to stand around here waiting?” he asked. “I can’t even tell how long we’ve been here. My watch has been going backwards for at least an hour.”
Déaþscúa didn’t move. KT had no idea either but Ghodot’s voice pushed its way through her thoughts with an answer.
“Twenty three hours, twelve minutes and forty seven seconds,” she relayed passively.
“So we still have another hour to stand around, twiddling our thumbs? The battle has probably started already. People are out there dying while we prance with bloody fairies! We don’t even know if Annis will still be in that village. This could all just be wasted time.”
“She’ll be there,” Déaþscúa’s voice cut in. “Trust me on that.”
Kai grunted noncommittally.
Silence returned. Each kept to themselves as time meandered by. It felt like several hours passed until a fairy fluttered over to them. It directed them to the newly formed faegate. Hundreds of the portals dotted the area regardless of the fact that a single gate could take you to any other.
Allow me, Ghodot said smugly. KT felt a tugging at her limbs. She signed and allowed the fairy king to direct her hands to input the correct coordinates into the mushrooms. The fairies stood watching them with expressionless faces. KT would be glad to be away from them. For such cute creatures, they instilled a strange fear in her which was not helped by Ghodot’s constant presence. The three stood in the centre of the ring and waited for the warping rush.
“Draw your weapons and be ready for anything,” Déaþscúa told them. “A cornered beast always fights hardest.”
KT tapped the last mushroom and the world folded in upon itself. Teleporting usually made her feel sick to the core but this time she felt nothing. Kai still retched so she could only assume that her steady stomach was Ghodot’s doing.
Unaffected by nausea, KT could actually see what was happening for the first time. Blinding light flickered and streaked in a rainbow of swirling colours. Images flashed into existence for a split second then distorted and disappeared. It was beautiful yet inexplicably hellish. Then, like a stretched rubber band snapping back, everything was still and darkness masked their surroundings. KT’s eyes adjusted quickly to the dark but Déaþscúa was faster.
He scanned the room they were in then moved to the door by the time that KT could differentiate objects through the darkness. Kai had always had the better eyesight but he took several seconds longer to move.
“Keep together and make no unnecessary sound,” Déaþscúa ordered in a low whisper. He splayed his hands. “Five humans in a room below us. Nobody else is in the building.”
“So Annis is gone,” Kai growled.
“We’ll see,” he said. He took out a bottle from his coat and downed it. It smelled familiar. Elizabeth had used it on Déaþscúa’s wounds after the battle at the fort. Silver Devil, KT recalled.
“This’ll give me a short term boost to my healing but I’m still far from my peak. I’m relying on you two, okay?”
Déaþscúa motioned for the two teens to stand at either side of the trap-door. He tried the handle but it was locked. He took a step back then blasted it with a hammer of compressed air. The door shattered into splinters. KT and Kai jumped down into the room with guns at the ready.
The room was exactly as Kai remembered it, or would have been if there were more huddled figures in the corner. The group had been diminished since then. He ran to them, noticing that each had a blindfold wrapped around their eyes and a gag in their mouths. KT and Déaþscúa were with him a moment later. Picking his father from the group, Kai pulled the blindfold from his head then began to work on the gag.
The gag loosened enough for Bob to force out words. “Run! Annis is next to me!”
Flames and spikes of rock materialised before the words were fully spoken. They slammed into Déaþscúa and pinned him to the wall. A woman beside their dad stepped forward, flickered, then took on the appearance of Black Annis. The teens tried to react but Annis had them in invisible bonds before they had fully registered the attack. KT could feel the pressure around her but it was more like water than anything physical.
“Your stupidity never ceases to amaze me, Déaþscúa,” Annis said slowly. Power radiated from her. She stepped up to him. She had to look up since he was impaled to the wall several feet from the ground, but it was clear who had the power. “Did you really think that such a feeble plan would work? That you could sneak up on me when an army suddenly marches against me without you at its head? I expected so much more.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Déaþscúa wheezed faintly. “I do have a few tricks up my sleeves though.”
KT’s doublesword slashed into Annis’ throat from behind. Her head should have been severed but instead she was thrown across the room. The younger woman didn’t let that deter her. She sprang after Annis. Kai found himself able to move again and rushed to help KT. Déaþscúa called to him.
“Take your dad and the others to the faegate. Get them to Jearl and Elizabeth. You remember the coordinates?”
Kai nodded. He cast another worried glance at KT but obeyed. He grabbed his father’s arm and shepherded the other three out of the room and back to where the faegate had grown. Déaþscúa watched them go then struggled to force himself off of the spikes.
KT attacked Annis relentlessly but the older woman dodged and spun with an agility that would put gymnasts to shame. The slashes that the woman could not dodge she parried with her metal claws. Ghodot worked inside her head, scanning through memories to throw out techniques that KT would never have thought of alone. He saw Annis’s movements before KT could register them herself. It was like having a computer in her head.
A wave of flame knocked KT back. Both women stood staring at one another. Tension hung thick in the air. There was a loud thud as Déaþscúa dropped face first to the floor. He laid there groaning for a moment then pushed himself up. Both Annis and KT had turned to watch him.
“Don’t mind me,” he coughed. “Just need a second to catch my breath. I’m getting too old for this.”
“You’re too late. The battle above is almost over. Your excuse for an army has been all but destroyed,” Annis told him. She clapped her hands together, causing the ground to crack. Earth shot up, tearing up the walls and ceiling in a geyser of dirt and stone. Déaþscúa was caught in the centre of it. When everything had stopped, the basement and the outside had become one. Déaþscúa was laid in a pile of rubble in the middle of a churned up street.
Bodies were everywhere. The weather was a raging blizzard but even that failed to cover the blood that seemed to soak everything in sight. Annis stood amidst all this like a proud queen. She watched amusedly as Déaþscúa climbed out from the rubble and brushed himself down.
He reached for his sword but it was his gun that fired. The bullet hit Annis square in the forehead, jerking her entire body back with the force. She was flung through the air only to meet with KT’s doublesword which threw her in a different direction. Before she landed, Kai came charging up the ramp from the basement and slammed his axe into her spine, smashing her to the ground. Déaþscúa was on her in a heartbeat, his sword positioned with the point between her breasts.
“You don’t want to do that,” broke in a new voice. Déaþscúa glanced to the side to see the white swordsman standing behind KT with his blade to her throat. “Step aside or I’ll make sure that the girl dies this time. I don’t make the same mistake twice.”
Déaþscúa looked from KT to Annis and back again. Then he stabbed down. Saint had seen that brief flicker of his eyes and reacted by throwing KT straight at the man. The two collided and went sprawling across the debris. Annis was back on her feet in an instant.
“This is my fight now,” Saint directed to Annis. “That was our deal.”
“I am a woman of my word. Deal with him quickly. I need to open the gate now. I can’t hold this power much longer,” Annis answered.
“Like hell I’ll let you!” Kai roared. His axe made a vertical arc at the witch’s head that she blocked with her nails. They glimmered as they moved, slicing across the shaft of his weapon. The axe fell to the floor in a dozen separate pieces.
“You’re brave but outclassed. Go, run away now. You know that nothing you ever could do would even slow me. My next attack will kill you,” Annis sneered. She advanced on Kai until KT stepped between them.
“Nobody picks on my brother, bitch.”
Annis ran her nails together. Sparks flared around them. “You don’t know what you’re involved in. You don’t understand. This must be done! Standing against me will only add another corpse to the pile and another sin to my conscience.”
Power crackled across Annis’ body. A great pressure seemed to surround her. Through all of that though, KT could see that the woman was sweating. KT certainly hadn’t pushed her that hard yet.
Annis has absorbed a lot of power, Ghodot’s voice cut into KT’s thoughts. She wishes to open Heaven’s Gate but her body is not capable of holding all of the power required. She is unstable.
None of this registered with Déaþscúa. He and Saint had begun to circle one another with their swords out before them. Pain already consumed his entire body. He still hadn’t recovered from the shooting and any strength that he had recovered had been spent by been used as Annis’ ragdoll.
“You’re a legend among legends,” Saint said praisingly. “A hero and villain in equal measures, a god of death to all. You’re the height of battle, the ultimate warrior. You’re the bar that every swordsman strives to overcome.”
“Wow, you must really want to get into my trousers with all this verbal dick sucking. I’m truly flattered,” Déaþscúa mocked with more cockiness than he felt. “Feel free to work the shaft some more next time.”
Saint’s face soured. He readjusted the grip on his blade then dashed at Déaþscúa. Déaþscúa blocked with his larger blade, kicked Saint in the gut and hurled a ball of magic at his face as he doubled over. The man recovered quicker than should have been possible and jumped at Déaþscúa with renewed vigour. His blade was a silver blur that appeared to be everywhere at once. It took everything that Déaþscúa had to keep pace with the onslaught.
KT was suffering under much the same predicament. She had hoped that Annis’ ability to fight relied heavily on her mastery of magic but that was not the case. The witch was stronger, faster and had better reflexes. Ghodot offered suggestions but she shut out his voice angrily.
Kai watched the two sets of fighters to see where he should help when a flurry of movement behind a levelled building caught his eye. He took a few steps to get a better look and saw two hulking shapes that clawed fiercely at each other. One was the dark furred Arteeru while the other was the blood lycan, Claine. The two werewolves were bloody messes. Chunks of fur and flesh were missing while blood ran freely.
Kai’s thoughts raced. He knew that he couldn’t help both Déaþscúa and KT but with a lycan at his side things would be different. Shotgun in hand, he climbed up the devastated building until he could see the two brawling beasts below him. He gulped in a lungful of air then sprang from the roof. His fist connected with Claine’s jaw, the added velocity from the fall trebling the force of the blow, and sent him spiralling into the snow. Kai rolled to his feet and opened fire. Bullets ripped leathery skin like paper.
The red lycan howled. Its jaw hung at an angle but the injuries were not keeping it down. Arteeru came up behind Claine and delivered a vicious punch to the spine. Claine reared back with its body bent almost double. Kai ran at him, pumping his shotgun, and blasted the beast in its now exposed throat. Arteeru grabbed the other lycan’s head, his claws gouging into eye sockets, then pulled. Blood sprayed and the head was ripped free from its body. The body spasmed briefly then began to morph back into its human form. The head too shrank and became that of a man. Arteeru cast it away contemptuously.
“You have my thanks,” Arteeru said in a thick, gravelly voice. Now that the adrenaline of the fight was fading he looked barely able to stand.
“Can you still fight?” Kai asked.
Arteeru chuckled, a strange sound coming from a giant, black werewolf. “While ever I still breath, no battle shall I leave. That is a saying of my order.”
Kai nodded. “Déaþscúa and my sister are in trouble. I haven’t even seen anyone else.”
“The battle was not going well. We must finish this quickly,” Arteeru agreed.
They ran around the building. KT and Déaþscúa still fought on but both were flagging. Kai charged straight for Annis and hit an invisible wall that knocked him back. He reached out and felt a solid barrier. Beyond it, runes were beginning to appear in concentric circles across the floor. Arteeru ran a claw across the unseen surface and shook his head.
“It is a shield. So long as Annis has the strength to maintain it we will be unable to pass. Not without another magic user to counter it.”
Kai cursed angrily and hammered at the wall with his fists. “Let me in!” he raged.
“Find Niall and the others,” Déaþscúa shouted. His voice sounded distorted through the shield. “Help them rally and get them back over here.”
Arteeru nuzzled his hand, indicating for the young man to climb onto his back. “Déaþscúa is right. We can do nothing here.”
Kai cursed again. “Don’t you dare die on me, KT!” he shouted before clambering onto the lycan’s back. Arteeru padded over to a discarded spear and flicked it up for Kai to catch. Then, in a burst of motion, they were off.
KT watched her brother leave from the corner of her eye and was repaid by gaining a sliced cheek. Annis looked distracted though. She had begun to chant under her breath. Even so, the witch was still more than a match for KT.
Annis lunged her talons at KT’s face. KT let herself fall back and rolled away, kicking up at the witch as she did so. The kick did nothing. Annis slashed again, opening up cloth and skin along KT’s collar. The necklace that her Aunt Susan had given her came loose and tangled in Annis’ nails. The woman looked down at it and a smile grew.
“Well, isn’t this just divine? I’ve held this very lump of metal before. Do you remember when I told you of another dark haired girl who had been Déaþscúa’s pet before you? This belonged to her. Tell me, what are the chances of that?”
Pain stabbed at KT’s brain. Memories throbbed in her head. She had been forced to skim through hundreds of memories that involved women but now, with the necklace as a focal point, a specific face resolved itself at the front of her mind. It was a face eerily similar to her own. Ava Peterson.
She could remember Ava fighting against Annis at Déaþscúa’s side. She remembered Déaþscúa’s pride at unlocking her magic and teaching her to master it. She remembered the love and passion on nights beneath the stars and the crushing sadness as he looked helplessly at the crumpled wreckage of a car.
It was strange to remember memories that were not her own but it was stranger still when the memories involved someone who could have been her double. She struggled to shrug off the residual emotions and her own discomfort from them.
She shook herself to dispel the haunting memories. Annis had used her distraction to carve a symbol into the dirt with her foot. It was only now that KT noticed the glowing runes around them. Annis and her symbol were at their centre. KT’s lip was twitching. She realised that her entire body was quivering with rage. There was her own rage, Déaþscúa’s rage and the rage of everyone who had had their lives affected by the woman who stood before her smirking.
“DIE!” she screamed. The white hot anger was her fuel. It burned in her head and in her muscles. She slashed and stabbed at Annis then threw her doublesword into the air to punch and kick at the woman before catching it again like a cheerleader’s baton.
She felt different. Ghodot’s power merged with her own and a sensation like a thousand heartbeats bubbled through her. Light blazed from her, each thin beam heralding the appearance of a fairy. They jibbered in their own strange language as they dove at Annis like a swarm of hornets.
Annis’ smile was wiped from her face. A seriousness settled across her features. No longer did she rely on her metallic nails alone but instead wove small shields of magic and cracked the earth beneath KT’s feet. While KT was resistant to magic, she was not invulnerable to it. Fire joined the earth, forcing her back. The fairies skittered around the attacks, obscuring Annis’s vision and blasting her with tiny bolts of magic.
“Your efforts are futile, girl. I am the prophesied one who will end Déaþscúa’s life. It is my destiny. No matter how strong you are or what you do, fate cannot be changed,” Annis snarled. She was starting to lose her composure.
Déaþscúa took note of all of this as best as he could while fighting for his life. His breath was rasping now and his body protested his every movement. His sword was beautiful and powerful but it was also twice the size of Saint’s and so took twice the effort to swing. The other man was faster than him, there was no doubt in that. Even if he had been at his prime this would have been a hard fought duel.
As it was, it was taking all of his effort just to stand his ground. Increasingly he was having to rely on parrying one handedly with his sword while his other hand jabbed at Saint with spiked bone. The pain was unimaginable as the bone tore through his skin without his healing factor working to counter the damage. Bone ripped through his knee for a kick. Against a normal sword he could have used the bones to block attacks but Saint’s blade would slice clean through them.
“You disappoint me, Déaþscúa. I expected so much more from the one known as the shadow of death,” Saint told him in a sad tone. He was not even breathing heavily. “I lived my life to become the greatest swordsman yet only feel anger that my crowning achievement is so mundane.
Déaþscúa was forced to keep moving backwards. He made sure to direct his steps where he wanted to go though. His body might be damaged but his mind still ran laps around the younger swordsman. He was almost back to back with KT.
“I am not known as the shadow of death because I am a killer. I have killed more than my fair share of people but the name is more passive than that. Anybody within my shadow dies, be they friend or foe. Unlucky, eh?”
Saint glanced around as he realised that the light from a burning building was casting Déaþscúa’s shadow across his own body. Déaþscúa smiled at him pleasantly.
“Now!” he shouted. He locked arms with KT and they both span. KT’s doublesword sliced deep into Saint’s gut while Déaþscúa’s blade lunged for Annis’ heart. She dodged nimbly, the sword only biting into her ribs instead. Guts spilled from Saint’s wound. He staggered, the sword falling from his fingers. His eyes were already glazed when his body finally collapsed.
A look of pure wrath twisted Annis’ face. Blood oozed around the sword. She howled with pain then lashed out with magic. Her own blood rose up and solidified into daggers that plunged into Déaþscúa’s exposed chest. She grabbed the blade in both of her hands, slitting open the palms and fingers, and yanked it free. More blood flowed from Annis to stab into Déaþscúa. She threw the sword behind her and it clattered out of sight.
KT dashed at Annis. The witch splayed her fingers and Saint’s body convulsed. Blood tore from it as a dozen razor-tipped tendrils that stabbed into KT’s back. Pain lanced through her and she came to an abrupt stop. The fairies came to a sudden halt then swarmed around her. Blood gushed from her mouth. She struggled for breath, her body becoming limp, held up by the spikes alone.
Annis cast KT from her mind instantly. She raised her hands into the air and swirling energy surrounded her. Her body began to glow with a blinding light as the power lashed out in every direction. The runes on the floor shone back with equal vigour. The very air crackled. Shapes began to form in the sky above. A deep droning noise hung at the edge of hearing. The light around Annis started to fade as the shapes in the sky grew brighter.
“It’s done,” Annis panted. The first seal of Heaven’s Gate is almost broken. Another few minutes and the magic will begin leaking out.”
She took the few steps to stand toe to toe with Déaþscúa and grabbed him by the throat. Her metal nails drew blood as they dug into his skin. She pulled his head down to her level so that she could look him in the eyes.
“It’s been a fun few centuries but it ends tonight. Skara’s will shall be done and your death will herald the dawn of a new era. An era of peace.” She leaned in slowly until their faces were an inch apart. “One final kiss, for old time’s sake.”
Her lips pressed against his and Déaþscúa’s mouth opened slightly. Then blood splashed his face. Annis stood staring at him with wide eyes. Their lips were still locked but crimson leaked from their mouths and from Annis’ nose. She pulled away, her hands moving to clutch at her own throat. A sharp, white spike formed from bone stuck out from Déaþscúa’s mouth. It too was drenched in blood. It shuddered, then retracted back inside of Déaþscúa’s body.
Neither spoke. Annis dropped onto her back making choking noises. The magic around them spiralled erratically. Déaþscúa was breathing heavily. He limped and swayed with every step but slowly made his way along the battlefield to where Annis had thrown his sword. He recovered it then returned to her, using it like a staff. She stared up at him as he stood over her.
“Why did you say that name? Skara is dead. I watched him die.” His voice was hoarse and his face was set into a snarl. He placed his sword tip against her throat and prepared to force it down. “Tell me!”
Lightning blew a hole through his chest. Annis hadn’t moved. A hammerblow of magic slammed into his head, knocking him away from her. Suited men suddenly jumped at him, pinning him down as magic and metal wrapped around him. The ruined village began to fill with important looking people and more suited men and women.
One old man with grey hair wearing a pale blue robe laced in gold strode towards Déaþscúa. His face was contempt hidden behind a mask of grim indifference.
“Déaþscúa the nameless, you are under arrest for the murder of Andrew Christie, the disobeyal of direct orders issued by the Grand Moot, the raising of an unregistered army in a time of peace and the severing of an essential thread for our race’s very survival. Do you have any words of defence for your actions?”
Déaþscúa stared at the man incredulously. He half sighed and half snarled. “You’ve got to be shitting me? One more second and all of this would be over. At least finish her. Do what you should have done long before now.”
The man wagged a crooked finger at Déaþscúa. “I’m afraid that is out of the question. Aevumancer Protellious Avus spoke new words of prophecy a short while ago. Annis is needed alive.” He smiled at Déaþscúa cruelly. “There was no mention of you being a necessary thread of fate.”
“You scheming bastards! Everything truly is a corrupted mess. How long since you officials abandoned your morality and pride?” Déaþscúa spat. The old man backhanded him without a flicker of emotion.
“As we speak, your surviving followers are being rounded up. They may escape major punishment. That depends on your cooperation.”
Déaþscúa struggled to move so that he could see KT. She was still slumped limply nearby. As he watched, the last fairy touched her and dissolved into lights that glistened against her skin then faded. The old man followed his gaze and chuckled dryly.
“Another young woman led astray by your supposed charm. You really must learn to control yourself. We’ll see to that. It’s no matter through. She’ll be dead soon.”
“Help her,” Déaþscúa growled. “She’ll only die if she’s left there to bleed out.”
“I think not. She is a loose end that needs tying. Her death is the simplest way to deal with that particular problem.”
Déaþscúa’s bonds, both physical and magical, strained. The men pinning him cried out in surprise as he struggled to his knees. His eyes contained pure murder. His guards redoubled their efforts but Déaþscúa was still able to force himself onto his feet. Black fire flared around him.
“You will help her or I will slaughter you all like the worthless curs that you are. There’s a lot of strong people here. You might find a way to kill me. How many can I cut down before that? Help her and I’ll go quietly. Your choice.”
The old man snorted. “You are in no position to threaten me, mongrel. You’re at my mercy.”
Déaþscúa sprang, headbutting the man square in the nose. Once more, bone jutted up out from his mouth to brush against the old man’s throat. The black fire grew, forcing back the men restraining him.
A new voice cut into the sudden silence. “Stand down Déaþscúa. We both know you don’t want to unleash that power. Of course we will heal the girl. Isn’t that correct, Councillor Lokstone?”
The voice belonged to a tall man who looked younger than the man before Déaþscúa but still bore a greying beard and hair. Both had once been black and still contained dark patches. He too wore elegant robes, although much of it was covered by a thick cloak. The bits that were visible were a lush scarlet colour.
“Of course, Arch Councillor Forenine,” stammered the old man.
Reluctantly, Déaþscúa took a step back from Lokstone and slid the bone away. The fires receded back into his body, leaving him looking gaunt and broken. The guards clustered around him, doubling the chains and magical restraints.
“You have my apologies for all of this, Déaþscúa, but laws are laws. You knew that killing Christie would land you in trouble,” Arch Councillor Forenine told him solemnly.
“He was about to kill the girl,” Déaþscúa said blandly.
Forenine shook his head. “You are a skilled man, Déaþscúa. You could have dealt with him in a hundred different ways without resorting to lethal measures should you have chosen to. It was your bloodlust that pushed you to these events now. You will have a tough time getting out of this grave that you have dug for yourself.”
“We’ll see,” Déaþscúa grunted sourly. “Make sure that the girl and her brother are cared for.”
“You have my word,” Forenine said as Déaþscúa and Annis were led away. “Councillor Lokstone, find somebody to see to the girl. I have a mountain of paperwork to fill out and no doubt a horde of very angry people to speak with. That isn’t to mention how we will deal with that,” he said, pointing at the sky.