Chapter 21. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

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.”

Previous – Chapter 20.

Next – Chapter 22.

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.

Chapter 19. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

KT flicked through the pages of a book as the SUV hurtled along the road. They had driven a short way north until Jearl had pulled into a clearing where they could sleep for the rest of the night. As soon as dawn had broken they were back on the road. KT wondered how far they were from the burnt out ruins of Aife’s Lodge. So much had happened since that night and there still was no end to the madness in sight. Fear clutched at her heart at the thought of her family being hurt but the idea of travelling around with Déaþscúa and battling monsters was growing strangely pleasant to her.

“How do you even know that your sword will still be at the fort?” Kai asked, cutting across KT’s chain of thought. “You said the place will be crawling with Annis’ minions so surely they’ll have taken it already.”

“There’s a chance that’s the case. It was buried under an awful lot of rubble though. Even if they were actively searching for it, they have only had a few days worth of excavation. It’s more likely another trap.” The way Déaþscúa said that was as though they hadn’t almost been killed repeatedly in previous traps.

“I’m getting sick of walking into traps,” Kai sighed. “It feels like that’s all that we’ve done since joining you.”

Déaþscúa shrugged. “We have a vampire with us this time. Vampires don’t get taken by surprise. They can smell a trap a mile away.”

“Wasn’t she captured by a regular businessman when she went to see him?” Kai pointed out blandly. 

“Hey! I knew it was a trap. I simply underestimated it!” Ailia protested.

“We just need to be smart,” Déaþscúa told them with pure confidence. “And you know what they say about smart people: ‘The smarter you are, the more high grade explosives you carry.’” He turned his attention to Jearl. “Pull up just ahead so we can prepare.”

“Aye aye, Captain.”

The SUV stopped and Déaþscúa struggled out, limping around to flick the boot open. The others gathered around him. Déaþscúa pressed a section of the lining and the base of the boot rose up to reveal a hidden space below. This section was filled with rocket launchers. 

“Drive-by rocket assault, anyone?” Déaþscúa said happily. “It’s a twenty minute drive to the fort. We’ll wait here until evening so we can best utilise Ailia. There’s food in one of the rucksacks.”

They ate and amused themselves until the sun began to lower in the sky. KT’s hand still felt numb and her body was tender and stiff. She had a sense of eagerness to rush onwards to help her dad, but at the same time, she was all too aware of how much strain the back-to-back battles were putting on her body. 

She noticed that Kai was regularly nursing the back of his head, even after Elizabeth had done what she could with her lotions, and Ailia looked like a shell of herself. Elizabeth had no magic and every movement still seemed to bring Déaþscúa crippling pain. They were one hell of a rescue party, she mused idly.

Finally it was time to move. Déaþscúa instructed everyone to take the rocket launchers into the car with them once they were ready to leave. They maneuvered the bulky tubes into the SUV with care. Room really was sparse now. Jearl started up the engine and they set off through the forest, hurtling past trees faster than KT imagined was safe for such rough and densely packed terrain. Déaþscúa used this time to outline his plans. 

It wasn’t long until the crumbled remains of the corrupted fort came into view. It looked little more than a sunken pile of rubble now. The tunnels beneath it had been collapsed, reducing the land around the stone shards into a desolate and fractured mess of earth. Déaþscúa had been right about the site being searched. Goblins scurried through the rubble, digging through it and carrying stones away like disorganised ants. A single man stood atop what was left of the fort and seemed to be commanding the goblins. Larger creatures moved among the goblins too, ugly, brown skinned humanoids who carried rocks bigger than a person with seeming ease.

Jearl revved the engine loudly, alerting all of the searchers to the SUV’s presence. The goblins dropped their stones and scrambled for weapons while the larger creatures simply stared at the car with an unblinking gaze. The man scowled at it, his hands beginning to glow with a red energy. The SUV started forward, its tires throwing up dirt in great torrents. It sped forward, targeted straight at the ruins without showing any signs of slowing. 

The man laughed and pointed his hands at the car. “Are you insane, Death Shadow? You’re a fool to come here. I’ll reduce you to dust and take your shattered body back to Annis. I will-” All four windows of the SUV opened, as did a panel on the roof. A girl in a long coat jumped up on top of the car with a large black tube on her shoulder. Similar tubes protruded from the windows. It took a moment for the man to recognise them. “No! No! Fu-”

Rockets decimated everything in front of the SUV. Dirt, rocks and broken goblin bodies cartwheeled through the air. The SUV skidded to a halt as the dust cleared. Creatures still lived but none were making a move toward the car. Figures either fled or writhed in pain. The larger creatures still stood motionless, their eyes fixed firmly upon the black tinted windows. A glowing light surrounded the enemy leader which blinked away to reveal that he had taken no damage. 

“Ailia, search for my sword. Your senses should find it quick enough. You know its aura. KT, Kai, take care of that sorcerer. I’d wager his strength lies in defence so just keep pressing the attack. Stay away from the big things. They’re Viimetus. Stone-like skin and a taste for flesh. When they see you they’ll do anything to kill you. We’ll keep them out of your hair. Mostly.”

Ailia nodded then left the car at a run. The Viimetus didn’t budge at her presence. “She’s a vampire. Dead. Not very tasty,” Déaþscúa explained. “Now go!”

Kai opened the door and stepped out with his shotgun held before him. As one, every Viimetus head turned to him. They opened their wide mouths, showing hundreds of needle sharp teeth, and began a gurgling roar that turned his blood to ice. KT stepped out a moment after her brother. She blinked and the Viimetus had suddenly covered half the distance between them. The SUV cut between them, clipping the first Viimetus and blocking the others.

KT could hear Déaþscúa’s voice from the still open windows. “Elizabeth, climb onto the bonnet.”

“What?” she shouted. “You can’t expect me to-”

“Jearl is driving and I’m crippled now get on the bonnet. They need to see flesh to chase us.”

“I am not bait!” Elizabeth protested but all the same she climbed up out of the roof panel. 

The Viimetus saw her and sprang at the car, their jaws opening so wide that they dislocated, their eyes so far back that they stared skywards as the needle filled maws sped for Elizabeth’s flesh. The SUV turned and tried to open up a gap between them and the monsters. Déaþscúa leaned out the window and began to open fire. 

KT and Kai tried to ignore the terrifying creatures as they ran at the sorcerer. Kai had taken out his pistol and was taking unsteady shots while KT sent a barrage of small missiles at the man. He was blocking everything with bright barriers or quick beams of energy but Déaþscúa had been right about him not attacking back. She aimed lower, blowing away the chunk of rock that the man had been standing on. He fell back but managed to right himself only to receive a shotgun blast to his chest. A moment later the shotgun itself followed after Kai threw it. The sorcerer batted it away on instinct, allowing Kai the time to grab his axe and dive at the man.

KT joined the melee, attacking from the other flank as they had done against the Spartron. The sorcerer sweated against the onslaught, his shields only just managing to hold off their attacks. He attempted to release small blasts of power and whips of energy but could not spare the magic to make them a threat. Then his power simply flickered out. He sagged where he stood, lurching back when Kai drove the butt of his axe into his gut. He fell to his knees panting.

KT looked down at the man. What were they supposed to do with him now? A monster they could have killed but a human, whoever he fought for, was something completely different. If she had killed him in battle then that was that. Looking at the pathetic and groaning shape at her feet made her feel uneasy. She had no way to tie him up but she didn’t know how long until the man could use magic again.

KT stepped back, leaving Kai to decide what to do with the sorcerer. She took the time to glance around. The goblins had all fled into the forest. The SUV still circled around the clearing with the Viimetus in pursuit. Several rips in Elizabeth’s dress suggested the creatures had come a little too close on occasion. KT searched for a moment then found Ailia digging through the stones. The vampire disappeared for a second then stood up clenching Déaþscúa’s oversized sword. The shining blade, bone guard and twinned dragon handle were all undamaged.

KT turned to tell Kai that they could return to the SUV and screamed. Kai was stood as still as stone, a thin sword held to his throat by a tall man in a white suit with black hair that spilled down his back. Stood at the swordsman’s side was the hulking, red furred lycan who they had fought in the chamber below where they stood now.

The lycan stepped forward and reached out. Rather than grabbing Kai like KT had feared, the monster took hold of the sorcerer instead. The other man never took his eyes from Kai.

“No! I did everything that was asked of me. You can’t do this to me! Without my shield they’ll kill me,” screamed the sorcerer, terror spilling from his every word.

“That’s rratherr the point,” the lycan said, his canines flashing in a gruesome grin. He spoke in a beastlike growl. 

The lycan threw the sorcerer like an American football. He hit the ground hard, the sounds of bones cracking audible, right in the midst of the Viimetus swarm that had been chasing after the SUV. The monsters converged on the man instantly. He screamed his throat raw as the seething mass of creatures tore into him, their needle teeth ripping chunks of skin and flesh from his still writhing body.

Ailia had seen their situation and ran at the swordsman with Déaþscúa’s sword clenched in her hands. The lycan blindsided her, its giant hand enveloping her head while its jaws clamped into her shoulder. She kicked at it and smashed her free fist into its gut. The swordsman didn’t glance in their direction.

“The witch has plans for you both.”

Kai was breathing heavily. A snarl played across his lips. “You can take that sword… and shove it… up your arse!” He pushed himself forward, swerving his neck just enough so that the blade sliced across the side instead of driving into his jugular. One fist struck a kidney blow followed by swinging his head back around into a headbutt. 

KT didn’t waste a second before stabbing out at the man with her doublesword. He parried it with a single hand while punching Kai below the chin with an uppercut using his other. KT span, putting all of her strength into a horizontal slash. The man knocked Kai away in order to block the attack with his own blade held in a twin grip. The swords clashed together and the man easily forced her back. No sooner had he done this than Kai grabbed him from behind in a bearhug like hold. His muscles strained to keep the older man’s movements in check.

KT lunged. The man kicked back and caught Kai in the crotch. The teen released his grip fractionally for half a second but it was enough for the swordsman to wrench his sword arm free and stab out. The blade passed by KT’s doublesword and slid straight into her chest through the valley of her breasts. Her momentum drove it further until she came to a stunned halt.

“KT!” Kai screamed. The man pulled the blade from KT’s chest like a reverse viper strike, slamming the pommel into Kai’s temple in one fluid motion. He swayed then dropped to the ground in a heap. 

***

The sounds of an engine pushed to its limits roared through the clearing. The SUV was speeding straight at the man like a metallic bull. Déaþscúa was leaning out of the window, his face a mask of fury. He fired at the swordsman who flicked the bullets away with ungodly flicks of his sword. Ailia flew at the car, slamming into its side with enough force to make it veer away. 

The swordsman sneered down at the teens. “I had intended the girl for Annis. Too bad.” He picked up Kai and threw him over his shoulder. The lycan returned to his side as he drew out a red sphere. 

“Don’t you dare run, you bastards!” Déaþscúa roared. “Fight me!” 

The suited man offered him an expressive shrug and grimaced. Then both he, Kai, and the werewolf were gone. The SUV slammed to a stop where they had been a moment later. Déaþscúa all but fell out of the SUV in his haste to reach KT. Elizabeth beat him to her and had the girl’s t-shirt pulled up to examine the wound when Déaþscúa dropped to his knees beside them. 

Elizabeth’s voice was grave and her eyes were dull. “Two inch long wound straight through her body which has severed her spine and a major artery. Déaþscúa, even if I still had my powers I couldn’t heal this.”

Déaþscúa grabbed KT’s head with both hands. Green light flared and her eyes shot open and she gasped for breath but more blood pumped from the wound and she fell back motionless.

“Damn it! Keep breathing, damn you! Keep that damn heart beating! You hear me? Don’t you dare let go! Help me get her in the SUV. We have to get her to the MacFeelans. I won’t lose anyone else!”

Together they managed to carry KT and lay her across the back seat of the SUV. Elizabeth felt at her wrist.

“Her pulse is slowing rapidly. She won’t last until we reach the MacFeelans. It’s a wonder she still clings to life at all. I don’t think her body could take the strain of a faegate.”

Ailia joined them with a passive expression. She looked down at KT, her eyes intent as though she could see beyond the clothes and skin. Her pale fingers went to KT’s equally pale throat then moved down to touch the bleeding wound. 

“Her body can survive for another minute and forty seven seconds and no longer no matter how strong a will she possesses. She’s a corpse in denial.”

“Shit!” spat Déaþscúa, the word brimming with anger and frustration. 

Ailia pursed her lips thoughtfully. “I could keep her body alive long enough to get to the MacFeelans’ new camp. It probably won’t work but the alternative is certain death.”

“You mean to turn her?” Elizabeth stated coldly.

“Temporarily,” the vampire answered. “The virus takes a short while to develop and can be cured in that time but will still seek to keep its host alive until it can claim the body. The dead cannot be turned.”

Déaþscúa nodded. “Do it.”

“Is she a v-”

“Just do it. She’s dead either way so roll the dice and hope.”

Ailia leaned over KT and brushed the black hair away from her neck. The vampire moved her head closer, warmthless breath drifting across the girl’s skin. Using the nail of her thumb, she punctured KT’s jugular. Blood began to drip down her neck. Fangs would have made the whole process much cleaner. She placed her mouth over the wound and stayed like that for several seconds then rose, licking the blood from around her mouth.

“She has a strange taste. How I would like to drink her dry.” She shook her head to clear her senses. “It’s her battle now to win or lose.”

“Get in the car. We have to reach the MacFeelans quickly. Better she died than lose herself to vampirism.” Déaþscúa said grimly as he suited his words by reclaiming his sword then clambering back into the SUV. Ailia and Elizabeth followed. Even before the doors closed, Jearl had kicked the SUV into motion.

They drove in silence for a while. The SUV shook and bounced as Jearl drove it through the forest with an urgency that took his driving from reckless to plainly suicidal. Not long into the journey, KT had begun to buck and scream. Her body writhed as though on fire, each jittering movement bringing more blood from the puncture in her chest. Her breathing rattled and rasped whenever she could manage to draw breath between shrieks of agony. Elizabeth did what she could to close the wound but it was a losing battle. 

“What about the boy?” Ailia asked. “I was beginning to like him.”

Déaþscúa’s fists were clenched. “I don’t know. We try and save him like the others.” His head was lowered and his voice quiet. “I just can’t work out how Annis has gathered such support. She’s always worked alone. The local creatures I can understand but Viimetus, sorcerers, blood lycan and that swordsman?”

“Things are stirring,” Jearl said aloud. “When you were injured I saw how tense everything was getting. The Grand Moot seems to be going through some internal conflict about something and powered creatures are gathering all across the world. Something is pulling at the threads that bind us.”

Déaþscúa nodded. “I can feel it. We need to investigate it but we deal with Annis first, this time once and for all.” He looked back at KT who had fallen silent. Sweat drenched her skin. Her breathing was shallow but still there. He took out his phone and held it to his ear.

“Niall, we’re on our way to you now. Yeah. Right. Give us twenty minutes. Make sure that you’ve got a healer’s tent set up with some anti-vampirism tonic. KT has been stabbed. Fatally. The vampirism is keeping her alive but I want it gone as soon as we get there. Right.”

The SUV fell back into silence other than the steady groans from KT. Déaþscúa stared forward with eyes that burned with intensity. He ran his fingers along the length of his sword that rested between his legs. Elizabeth had her hand on KT’s forehead, a deep frown marring her features.

“She’s still fading. The wound is closing itself but the strain is killing her as effectively as the injury itself.”

“Her body is fighting the vampirism,” Ailia explained, interest tinging her voice. “She really is a resistant then?”

Elizabeth sighed. “Being resistant to magic has its disadvantages. It’s harder to heal them. Most die from wounds that could be cured in others.”

“I’ve healed her easily enough before,” Déaþscúa told them. “I never picked up on anything special about her.”

“Your powers don’t constrain themselves to conventional laws of magic. I imagine that her skill is developing though. She is growing more resistant to magic the more she is exposed to it. If I’m correct then you won’t be able to help her any more, even if she did survive,” Elizabeth suggested.

“We’re here,” Jearl announced as the SUV began to slow.

Niall and a handful of his brothers greeted them when the car came to a stop. Their mood was bleak but they looked anxious to save the girl’s life after allowing so many of their own to perish. Together they quickly bundled KT off into a nearby tent and laid her out on a fold-up table. Tools and bottles filled boxes that lined the tent’s walls. It all looked very shabby.

Niall was stony faced as he looked upon the girl. He already looked years older than the last time they had met despite it being only a matter of days. “We’ll do what we can for her, Déaþscúa, but most of our supplies burned and our best healers were caught in the massacre. Not-That-Mad Willy is our battle-healer.” 

He beckoned and a clean-shaven man approached them. He wore a plain apron over his plaid clothes and had a slighter build than most of the other MacFeelans. One of his eyes were blue while the other was a dark brown. Saws and scissors hung from his belt and bulged out of his pockets.

“Ye like te push me, Déaþscúa, that ye do,” the man muttered as he circled the girl. “Ye bring me a pretty wee corpse tee stubborn te stop whimpering and want me te perform miracles. Not-That-Mad Willy is a damn miracle worker if nothin’ else though.” In a flurry of movement, the man buzzed around the tent like a hummingbird. “What blood-type is she?”

“Unknown,” Ailia answered. “I know my blood by taste and hers tasted different. Sweet.”

Not-That-Mad Willy grunted something unintelligible but never stopped rummaging through the few supplies that were left. With his arms full of plants and vials he strode back to KT. Carefully, with help from Elizabeth, he stripped her down to her underwear and examined the wound closer. He went to unfasten a necklace from around her neck but Déaþscúa stopped him. He eyed the metal with a furrowed brow. His hand reached out to touch it until he shook his head suddenly and moved away. Not-That-Mad Willy continued as though he had never been stopped.

He busied himself around KT with a series of liquids and tools, muttering to himself constantly as he worked. His hands flashed through a rainbow of colours as he worked. “Right, we pour this vial inte the wound te accelerate tissue growth, shove some o’ these leaves in there te help with the blood and numb the pain and this nasty smelling liquid down ye throat. Come on lassie, head up. Be glad ye are unconscious as it tastes worse than a goblin’s sweaty ballsack and believe me, when you’re hungry you’ll try anything so I ken.”

He grabbed a handful of thin wooden skewers from a chest then began to rub a gel in small dots across her entire body. Once he was satisfied he started to stab the skewers into the glistening patches. He continued this until a dozen of the wooden spikes jutted up out of her. These new injuries did not bleed but the wood slowly began to darken, almost as though the wood was withering and rotting before their eyes. 

“Lizzy, look in that box over there. It has all o’ me apothecary gear in it. Brew me up a milk based regenerative solution with extra goat horn and a healthy shot o’ scotch. No painkillers,” Not-That-Mad Willy ordered briskly. Even as he spoke, the glow around his hands grew brighter, one settling on a green colour while the other turned purple. He placed the purple hand on KT’s forehead while the green hand rested over the hole in her chest. Both started to glow with a fiery intensity that lasted for several long minutes until sweat drenched No-That-Mad Willy’s face and clothes. 

The lights faded away. Not-That-Mad Willy stepped back. “I’ve done all that I can. I’ll give her Lizzy’s concoction once it’s done but there is nothing more. She’s still alive, which is a miracle itself. From here on out it’s all on the poor lass’ shoulders alone.”

“Understood,” Déaþscúa replied quietly.

Previous – Chapter 18.

Next – Chapter 20.

Chapter 18. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

“Ah, Miss Valentine. A pleasure as always.”

Glory offered the speaker her best fake smile. He was a grey haired old man in ornate blue robes with a face like sour grapes. The key fact though was that he was an important old man with a personality that matched his features.

They were in a spacious office with little in the way of decor. A heavy mahogany desk was the main feature of the room. There were no windows. Glory had been guided here as soon as she had arrived at the Lion Heart.

The building was old. It was also grand in every sense of the word. A magical dome surrounded it so the towering gothic structure couldn’t be seen from a distance. It had served as the base of the English branch of the Grand Moot for centuries. Despite the intimidating beauty and attention to comfort, it was a place that set Glory on edge.

“Mornin’, Councillor Lokstone. You seem to be doing well for yourself.” It took a lot of effort to maintain her courteous tone. The man was a prick and always had been, but he was the vindictive type that you didn’t want to offend.

“Busy times call for busy men. Busy men who can handle the strain tend to rise to the top of things. Ah, but you’re not here to talk about me. Have you come to accept our bounty?”

“Fifty million pounds to kill one man. That’s a lotta money,” Glory said contemplatively. She sat down on the chair opposite the man and leaned over, her fingers steepled just below her chin. “My main question though, is why?”

Lokstone met her gaze and offered her a grim smile. “We have allowed Déaþscúa to operate outside of the law for far too long. He has always been a loose cannon, disobeying orders whenever he pleases. If I’m being totally honest, such a decision would have been made many years ago, but I am afraid that those who had the power to do so were scared of him. A master should never live in fear of his dog. As a leader yourself, I’m sure you can understand this.

“He has overstepped too far this time. He has murdered a key thread in our world’s tapestry and potentially doomed us all in doing so. Reports say that he has also allowed two powerless children to get entangled in his affairs without alerting the authorities for a mindwipe. He has broken almost every law that we have but we all know that he would not come quietly if arrested.”

Glory’s face remained emotionless. “Forgive me if I’m wrong, Councillor, but my understanding is that the Grand Moot has a large security force and a formidable army at its disposal. Why then would you hire mercenaries? I hear tax money is already stretched and quality mercenaries are a big investment.”

There was a rattle of pots behind the councillor then a steaming cup floated around to rest beside his hand. He picked it up and took a small sip. It was an excessive use of casual magic. Glory couldn’t use basic magic like most powered individuals. Was he taunting her?

“You and I both know that you understand why we have asked you. If we send an army then there will be casualties. Our soldiers are strong but they have never been trained to take on a monster like him. Even our special forces would be reluctant to face him, especially since he trained most of them. Your Blue Bands are renowned for taking on suicidal missions and succeeding. More than that though, Déaþscúa is considered a hero by the public. Can you imagine public opinion if we were involved in his death? We’re already in an unstable position as it is.”

“But the prophecy-”

“Yes, yes. Perhaps you can’t kill him without Annis. You can maim him and capture him though. This contract is for bringing him in, dead or alive.”

“That’s no easy task. He’d need to be ambushed first, which is easy enough if he is focussed on his current hunt as deeply as I believe he is, then brought down by heavy fire power. Melee would be a big no-go. 50cal shots to shred him then plasma to prevent the regeneration. A man like Déaþscúa has little in the way of protection from modern weapons. None of us do.”

Lokstone sneered at that comment. “I am not concerned with the how. Do you accept the job?”

“I’ll have to speak to the band first. You’ve given me a lot to think about.” She stood up. “I’ll be in touch with you soon.”

“Don’t wait long,” Lokstone added in a cold voice. “It is a job offer, but it is one given by the Moot for the betterment of Earth. To refuse could cause unwanted consequences. Neither of us would like that, would we, Miss Valentine?”

Glory left without another word. As soon as the door closed behind her she began to swear under her breath. A faint metallic hissing noise began from under her shirt.

Déaþscúa was hunting Annis. Several others shared his goal, meaning that he would likely team up to take her down. This meant that getting him alone would be that much harder. Maybe Ailia would join him too. Beating him would require siding with Annis. Was enough money to finance her ambitions enough to throw aside her morals? 

It wouldn’t be a sensible decision to antagonise Déaþscúa in such circumstances, not that she had any intention to do so. Lokstone was an idiot if he thought that money alone would be enough to make her do something so damn stupid. He should also have known that his thinly veiled threats would only encourage her to rebel. Déaþscúa was a dick, but he was a good man at heart. At least until he lost his temper.

Something more had to be going on behind the scenes. Most people would have left it at that but Glory was a troublemaker at heart. That, combined with a deep need to understand everything, led her to turn deeper into the Lion Heart rather than towards the exit.

She walked confidently through the grand halls, passing cloaked men and women without causing a second glance in her direction. In fact, she didn’t receive a first glance.

Glory’s magic wasn’t something she could harness in physical ways. She couldn’t throw fireballs, heal herself, or form shields. What she could do was meld perception. Everyone knew that she could. She had made sure of that. Only, she always forgot to mention that her ability worked in two ways.

Glory was popular because her power made everyone like her. She always stood out in a crowd and few people ever felt inclined to argue with her. It was a useful trait for a mercenary captain. What was perhaps more useful though was that she could reverse the effect. She could make herself so indistinct that she faded completely into the background.

This ability wasn’t perfect though. It didn’t work on cameras or sensors, something that the Heart had in abundance. A hundred years ago it would have been a flawless technique.

She wandered the corridors for a while until a woman in ornate red robes came into view. Glory recognised her as a minor councillor. As the woman passed her, Glory reached out and plucked an ID badge from her robe pocket. She smiled sweetly as the woman rushed obliviously onwards.

“Bingo.”

She set off again with renewed purpose, the ID badge flicking between her fingers as she walked. Moot buildings were shrouded in secrecy, their layout and contents only ever told on a need to know basis. Glory needed to know just about everything so had managed to obtain plans of almost every Moot building, along with several other important structures, all across the world. Most people collected stamps, teapots or trading cards. Glory collected classified documents. It was all the same to her.

She directed herself towards the Moot library. It stood in the oldest section of the Heart and was said to be the largest collection of knowledge in all of Europe. After a short wait, the door opened as an old man shuffled out and Glory slid past him before the door could close. The first part of the library was open to the public. She could have entered without needing any ID or stealth but she needed to go deeper.

The smell of old books washed over her as she made her way through the towering labyrinth of shelves. Gilded leather covers filled the polished wood frames in every direction. She glanced at the titles as she walked but she’d already read most of the book she could see.

Up ahead was another door. A sign stating ‘Private’ was nailed to it. This marked the entrance to the classified section of the library. Only ranked members of the Moot or specially selected individuals could access the information within. Someone like Glory certainly couldn’t. Or, at least couldn’t unless they had happened to steal a councillor’s ID badge.

She held the card up to a scanner beside the door. It beeped softly then the door clicked open. Glory quickly passed through it, closing the door behind her. The room she entered was smaller than the public section but the main difference was that the shelves were split into smaller sections that were sealed off behind locked panels. This meant that even people with access would only be able to read specific texts.

There was a camera above that was aimed down at the door. She’d have to work fast. She tapped her ear.

“Ace, I’m in. Give me a ten second warning. I’ll only have a few seconds to act.”

There was no response, but she wasn’t expecting one. Ace was waiting for her in the main reception room. Communications that crossed the building’s barrier were monitored but internal chatter was too common to bother with. Right about now, Ace would be stepping outside for a cigarette, conveniently wandering just beyond the barrier’s bounds. From there he’d be able to contact the rest of the Band.

Curiosity whispered in her ears to take a few moments and raid the classified files. There could be any amount of juicy information within. A stern beeping began from her back. She sighed and suppressed these thoughts then moved to the end of the room.

There was another door here, this time a bulky construct of metal like something you might find on a bank vault. Her stolen ID card was useless here. Only the top Moot leaders had access to the Future Archives.

Static crackled in her ear. It sounded like Ace was merrily chatting away with the receptionist. “It seems like that phone of yours is ringing every ten seconds. No rest for the wicked, eh.”

That was the signal. Ten seconds. She took a disc from her belt buckle and placed it over the lock. It was made of stone with runes engraved on its surface. Metal formed a frame around it. She tapped several runes then readied herself.

The lights flickered off. The disc glowed blue then began to spin. It made a hissing noise then the lock clicked open. The door inched open and Glory dove through it, wedging a foam tennis ball into the gap behind her. The lights flashed back on and the door tried to slam shut until it was blocked by the ball.

She was walking a dangerous line. Tripping the Heart’s primary power triggered the backup energy supply that was in turn disrupted with an EMP pulse. Not many people had the resources and knowledge to pull that off. The Blue Bands would be a prime suspect. She had to move fast.

The Future Archive was unlike any other room in the Heart. The information here wasn’t contained in books or machines but in beams of light. Hundreds of vertical beams glowed golden from all manner of objects that sat on ornate display stands. They warped the air around them, giving the whole room an ethereal feel like something viewed while half asleep.

Glory knew that she had to be quick but this time she couldn’t stop herself from staring in amazement. She wandered to the closest pillar of light. It was emanating from a wooden spoon. The plaque read ‘Famine in camps of magic’. She reached out and brushed the shimmering air with her fingers.

Visions rushed into her head so quickly that it took her breath. The pictures moved too fast for her to focus on but the feeling of hunger and hopelessness that rippled through her was enough to make her feel sick. She pulled her arm away in a panic.

Cautiously, she moved around the prophecies, her eyes darting between plaques while trying to avoid staring too far into the lights. Eventually she found what she was looking for. She took a deep breath then reached out towards a grayscale globe of the world. Sensations washed over her. This time she was ready for them. 

The images returned, this time of a desolate landscape of ruined buildings. It was hard to focus on any details, the specifics seemingly changing with every slight movement, but a raging storm of energy filled her attention. A dark figure stood beside it, arms held wide. She couldn’t see who it was as their back was turned. The hair suggested a woman. 

Another figure lurched into view. She had never seen him in person but the disproportioned body matched the description of the cannibal, Christie. The scene played out in a jarringly erratic way as Christie approached the woman and reached out. Power crackled around them both as his hand brushed against the woman’s cheek. Then he grabbed her head and twisted. There was a sharp snapping sound then the storm of energy constricted around them before imploding.

The vision ended abruptly. So, Christie was supposed to kill someone mid ritual. Judging by the appearance and circumstances, this was probably Annis. That meant that Annis needed to be stopped. But if the Moot knew this, why had they not moved against her and why now were they wanting to keep Déaþscúa from her tracks? It didn’t make sense.

She turned to leave when another plaque caught her eye. Cursing, she moved closer. It read ‘The eclipsing of the shadow of death’. Above it laid an antique sword. As she stared at it sirens began to blare.

“Fuck. Five more minutes, guys. Don’t be rude and interrupt me now.”

Her curiosity was too great. She thrust her hand into the light only to immediately pull it back as pain and sickness wracked her body. Her knees gave out and she toppled to the tiled floor. The vision hadn’t just been of the death she had expected but of complete and utter madness.

Sounds were audible behind the door now. She was out of time. Angry voices encouraged her to pull herself together and search for a way out. At the far side of the room was yet another door but Glory couldn’t see any way to open it. A magic seal likely kept it closed.

She reached behind her back and under her shirt to where a small tube was strapped along her spine. It was metal and was about as long as her forearm. At the press of a button it extended to a full sized staff. Runes glowed crimson across its surface.

“I’d hoped not to have to use you yet. Oh well. Hope you’re ready for a show.”

The runes pulsed excitedly. She aimed the tip of the staff at the door then the entire room lit up with an explosion of crimson energy. As quickly as it had appeared, the light vanished, leaving a clean hole through the metal before her. 

Glory dived through the whole, careful not to touch the molten edges. As soon as she rolled to her feet she heard the other door begin to open. There were no other exits. She was trapped.

She scanned the room. It was full of wires that ran across the walls and floor. All of them were connected to a central structure that looked half computer and half hospital bed. A body was visible beneath the machinery. It wore the lavish robes of a high councillor.

“Protellious Avus. Grand Moot Aevumancer,” she said, her smile growing. An important hostage was always a good start for an escape plan. “So, you’re the one who made all of those prophecies. Wait…”

She looked closer. The body was just that. A lifeless corpse. The faded skin was pulled tight over bones while eyeless sockets stared at the ceiling. It looked like he had been dead for a few months at least.

Her staff beeped hectically. She span and fired a blazing beam through the gap in the door. Shouted curses filled the air as the guards took cover. A blast of fire narrowly missed her as they began to counterattack. It seemed they were reluctant to enter the room. She doubted very much that it was because of her. That hesitation wouldn’t last long.

Glory aimed at the floor between her feet, jumped, then fired. Smoke and dust filled the room. By the time it had cleared she had already vanished through a dark hole where she had been standing.

She’d misjudged the thickness of the ground, cutting through more layers than she had ever intended. She fell through a dusty basement then further until she crashed into a pool of shallow water.

“Bollocks,” she muttered, sitting up slightly then jamming a dislocated leg back into place.

It appeared that she was in the Moot’s sewer system. Fetid water surrounded her in a cramped stone tunnel. The smell was almost unbearable. She quickly gathered up her staff and set off down the passage, wading through the knee high sludge as fast as she could with a limp. The staff beeped loudly at her, its glowing runes casting the walls in a faint red hue.

“Hey, stop swearing. Only one of us is allowed such foul language. Think of the age rating.”

Beep Buzz.

“I’m not breaking the fourth wall. You are by pointing it out.”

Buzzz Eh Eh Beep

“No, we can’t just shoot through the roof indiscriminately. Potential cave-ins aside, we wanted information, not wanton murder.”

BEEPBEEPBEEP

“Okay, perhaps you wanted senseless murder. But then this is why you’re a stick. Anyway, you’re out of power and you know it. Now shut up and let’s get outta here. I have a lotta work to do before the shit hits the fan.”

Previous – Chapter 17.

Next – Chapter 19.

Chapter 17. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

They grabbed a quick breakfast then gathered everything they would need and loaded it all into the SUV’s spacious boot. This included a heavy toolbox and several black cases that were handled with delicate care. They climbed inside, Déaþscúa taking the passenger seat while KT, Kai and Elizabeth filed into the back. It was like a limousine inside with heated leather seats and all manner of buttons and compartments. Even stuck in the middle as she was, KT had all the room that she could have wished for. 

Jearl started up the engine and the sound reverberated through the car like the throaty growl of a tiger. He turned it to face back down the path then slammed his foot onto the accelerator. It thundered down the dirt path yet it could have been a slow drive down a highway for all that the SUV shook or bumped. 

“So what are the specifics of the plan? Save Ailia sounds really vague,” Kai asked.

Déaþscúa nodded to Jearl then leant back in his seat. “Well, after you paid Ailia a visit that was so rudely interrupted by a group of men hired by a Mr Golman, she decided to teach him a lesson. The thing is he was expectin’ her, you see. I don’t know the details but Cathal says she left in the evenin’ and never returned. We can assume that he has captured her and that she is being held prisoner within his compound.”

“Or she’s dead,” Kai added dryly. “Any good gang leader should know to kill potential threats.”

“True that, mister,” Jearl nodded. “Savin’ that Roger Golman is a man who likes to stretch out his victories. He likes power. Anyone has the power to kill but few can hold lives within their hands and force it to their will. He’ll see Ailia as a potential advantage.”

KT stared at the pistols at her side and ran fingers down the edge of the doublesword. “So we drive to this compound and break her out? We don’t know where she’ll be within that place and it will likely be guarded by armed men. Me and Kai can’t pull ourselves back together after gunshots.”

“We won’t be engaging with the guards if possible,” Déaþscúa told them. “You two are the only ones who can fight. I don’t like those odds. We infiltrate the grounds then try to locate Ailia. Golman will be expecting any rescue attempt to be by powered individuals, mages or monsters, so will not be looking too closely for regular folk.”

“Where is this compound?”

“The south of Scotland,” Jearl answered. “It’s in a remote plot of land but is close to all the necessary transport links. He is a businessman after all.”

“It’ll be a few hours until we get there. Let’s see what this beast can do,” Déaþscúa said eagerly. He pressed a button and a heavy guitar riff began to blare from a dozen speakers. The noise was almost physical. He inched his head to Jearl and the SUV’s speed doubled.

The ride went by quicker than KT had imagined. The further north they travelled, the more treacherous and cold the weather became, but inside the SUV it might as well have been summer. Towns and countryside zipped past through the windows and the music drowned out the sounds of the engine and the wheels. 

It was hard to tell what time it was when the SUV finally pulled to a stop on the outskirts of a small town just off of a motorway. Thick clouds boiled overhead casting everything in shadow. They disembarked and gathered around the front of the car.

Déaþscúa slumped against the bonnet but he tried to make his voice sound as strong as ever. “Jearl and Elizabeth are going to ask around town and see what info they can find. KT and Kai will be with me as we go and do some reconnaissance of the facility itself. We’ll meet back up in that little cafe over there in two hours. Agreed?”

Everyone nodded before separating into the two groups. Elizabeth and Jearl made their way into the town while Déaþscúa headed off down a long road leading in the opposite direction. KT and Kai walked at his side, moderating their pace to match the man’s slow but steady limp. The constant look of suppressed pain on his face made KT wonder just how badly he was hurt.

It was a short walk along the road until Déaþscúa veered to the side and took to the sparse trees that ranged out all around them. The ground here sloped upwards where the road had been gradually inching lower. Despite the rough landscape and Déaþscúa’s unsteady walk, he still moved without making a sound. They moved through the trees until they came to an abrupt ledge that looked down upon a fenced off enclosure filled with a cluster of large buildings. Déaþscúa motioned for the two teens to get down then jerkily laid down himself. 

The compound was a series of five large brick warehouses that surrounded a central office block. A metal fence ran around it all that was topped with a tangle of barbed wire. Men in security uniforms patrolled the site, none visibly armed but easily a dozen in number. There were likely more guards that they couldn’t see as well. Gates opened along the road to allow a truck to exit then closed again almost as soon as the vehicle was fully through them. 

“You expect us to sneak in there, search until we find Ailia, then get back out again without being seen? You’re crazy,” Kai remarked cynically. 

“True enough,” Déaþscúa responded dryly. He continued as though he had not acknowledged Kai’s comment. “I would guess that the guards have concealed weapons but at least we know they won’t be pulling automatics or rockets out on us. At least not without grabbing them from someplace first.”

“Oh goody. We can be shot once instead of multiple times. Lucky us.”

“Lucky indeed,” said Déaþscúa without really listening. “Hmm. Their patrol routes are basic but cover the ground almost perfectly. This Golman knows his stuff.”

KT watched the men below while trying to fix their patterns into her head. “We could hide inside one of the trucks that go in. Or maybe dig under the fence,” she offered uncertainly.

“We could,” agreed Déaþscúa passively. He pulled himself to his feet with a groan. “Come on. I want to do a lap of the compound to find every little detail.”

Slowly, they circled around the compound, stopping every now and then for Déaþscúa to examine something or other before he would move on again. When they finally came back to the road Déaþscúa started up it straight away. 

They walked in silence to the small cafe that Déaþscúa had marked out earlier. Elizabeth and Jearl were not there yet so Déaþscúa ordered three coffees and a bowl full of deep-fried Mars bars, just because. The cafe was empty other than them so they seated themselves in the corner furthest from the counter and waited.

“It’s a good job we bought Mars bars,” Kai told them between mouthfuls of the fatty delight. “My teachers always said Mars bars were good just before an exam.”

“Yeah, because an exam is the same as walking into a guarded compound filled with armed men.” KT scoffed.

“Exams and battles are the same,” Déaþscúa told them slowly, his voice taking on the sound of a wise man imparting his wisdom. “They’re both bad for your health and are utter bullshit.” He started to laugh at his own joke but it quickly turned into a coughing fit. Blood dripped from his mouth which he hastily mopped up with a napkin.

The cafe door opened and Elizabeth entered, followed by Jearl. She looked disgustedly at the deep-fried chocolate then ordered herself a cup of tea that she sipped at disapprovingly. Jearl excitedly bought himself an entire bowl of the snacks and a hot chocolate to wash them down with.

“Did you learn anything?” Déaþscúa asked quietly.

Elizabeth sat herself down then began to speak. “Golman’s security is tight. All vehicles are searched before they enter and again before they leave. The guards are all rough men, none of whom are local, and he apparently has dogs out at night so nobody can sneak in under the cloak of darkness. None of the locals have ever been inside except for a single lorry driver and he said that he had not been allowed to leave the side of his lorry.”

Déaþscúa looked thoughtful for a moment. “Dogs, guards and a strong fence. That’s all easy enough. I have just the right plan.” The group leaned in around him as he filled them in on his scheme. There were some incredulous looks but he eventually managed to talk everyone around.

***

They took to the few shops around the village then returned to the SUV to make their preparations. When night came around, Jearl drove down the road, slowing as he neared the gate. Stone-faced security guards surrounded the SUV, their leader knocking on the tinted window of the driver’s door. It was the passenger side window that opened in response though.

“Good evening,” Déaþscúa said with a charming smile. “It’s looking to be a nice night. Wouldn’t you agree?”

The guard leader dashed around the car with a pistol now in his hand. One look inside was all he took before aiming the gun at Déaþscúa’s head.

“Mr Golman warned us about ye, freak. Keep your hands where I can see them.”

Déaþscúa lifted his hands. One still had a bullet hole through it. “Don’t misunderstand my intentions. I am not here to fight you. I simply want to speak with Mr Golman.”

“Ye arenae te pass this gate unless we’re draggin’ yer sorry carcass. Those are Mr Golman’s orders.”

“How very uncivil of him,” Déaþscúa said with mock hurt. “And here I was trying to be kind. You know that you can’t stand against me. When I come back you will all die a horrifyingly brutal death. You know I have the power to do it.”

“Ye don’t scare us. We know that ye got swiss cheesed back at the old fort. Our guns can take you down.”

“And yet here I am before you all a few days later.” He spoke cockily, his eyes scanning the surrounding land instead of watching the guards. As his eyes passed over the steep ledge to his left he nodded his head slightly.

***

Kai lowered a cheap pair of binoculars. He and KT were positioned on the cliff that they had used earlier in the day to examine the compound below. Scattered around them were several bags filled with an assortment of objects.

“Déaþscúa gave the signal. It’s time.”

“Right,” sighed KT from his side. “So we’re really doing this?”

“Looks like it.”

“We did say that we wanted to be involved in all of this.”

“True,” Kai nodded miserably. “That doesn’t mean that I have to like it though.”

KT stepped up to the ledge’s edge carrying a triangular shape of metal and fabric. It was a makeshift hang-glider that Déaþscúa and Elizabeth had made from items bought in the town. Kai picked up an equally shoddy looking glider and took a deep breath.

She grinned at him. “I didn’t realise you were scared of heights anymore. You told us that you’d gotten over that years ago.”

Kai shuddered. “I’m not scared of heights. Heights are nothing. It’s drops that scare the shit out of me. Velocity plus ground. Hard surfaces at high speeds. Blissful freefall abruptly ending with the shattering of bones and rupturing of internal organs.”

KT’s smile faded. “That was the least encouraging thing that you could have said moments before we throw ourselves off of a cliff.”

Forcing all thoughts from her head she moved back, filled her lungs, then ran for the edge with the glider held above her. She leapt from the ledge and immediately dropped several feet before the air caught the glider and eased her down at a more angular descent. Kai swore then followed with his eyes closed. They glided for only a few brief seconds before their feet brushed against the roof of the closest storehouse then thudded down. 

Peering over the roof’s edge, KT could see that the sniffer dogs that weren’t circling Déaþscúa’s SUV were pulling their owners away toward the other end of the compound. That meant that Elizabeth had deployed her bait. Most of the guards would be distracted now, if only for a few minutes. 

Kai had removed a small box from his rucksack and set it down. From the box he slid what looked to be a large, bulky pen made from metal. It was connected to the box by a thick wire. He fiddled cautiously with it for a moment until a bubbling black liquid began to froth around the end of the pen. It emitted a soft hissing sound.

“Blacklight plasma-cutter. Magical technology is pretty damn cool,” he said appreciatively as he set to work cutting into the roof.

He peered into the small hole and saw a narrow walkway that circled the large room within. Below that was a single large space that was filled with metal storage containers. One man patrolled the room with a torch that cut through the yellow gloom of the handful of buzzing lights that hung from the ceiling.

They moved to the side of the roof then cut a larger hole that a person could fit through. It took an effort to stop the circle of material falling to alert the guard but they managed it. The man below still seemed oblivious. As quietly as they could, KT dropped down onto the walkway followed closely by Kai. They crouched in the shadows and listened as the guard moved slowly around the crates below them. There was nothing to suggest that anyone else was nearby.

KT’s breath seemed too loud in her own ears. Every slight shift of her weight made the walkway groan. She had never been so conscious of the pounding of her own heart. None of it caught the attention of the guard though. She forced the distractions from her mind. If she wanted to prove herself to Déaþscúa then she needed a clear head. The slightest mistake here could doom both herself and Kai, not to mention Ailia, and Déaþscúa’s plans to stop Annis.

Kai waited until the guard paused in clear sight then shot him with a small tranquiliser pistol that Déaþscúa had provided them. The man cried out in surprise but even as he span around his movements became sluggish. It only took a few seconds for him to collapse to the floor. They climbed down a ladder then hid the unconscious guard in a corner before moving through the building in search of any signs of Ailia. There was nothing. KT took out her phone and dialled Déaþscúa’s number. He answered almost instantly. 

“The first warehouse is clear. No sign of Ailia.”

“Okay. We’ve pulled back so the guards will all be back on patrol. My bet would be that Ailia is in the central administration building. That will be where Golman spends most of his time. Do you think that you could get in there unseen?”

“Maybe. We’ll have a look. How long until Plan B is ready?”

“Give me three minutes,” Déaþscúa said before dropping the call. 

The teens moved to the front of the warehouse. The large entrance for vehicles was locked but the side door opened. KT peered out into the gloom. Guards and dogs moved between pools of light in a series of circuits. There was no chance of them crossing the gap to the administration building without being seen. They waited in silence for Déaþscúa’s distraction, placing sunglasses over their eyes which made the world almost unseeable.

The sky lit up in a sudden flash of red followed by a deep boom. Then more screeching sounds of fireworks heralded lights of every colour exploding above. KT and Kai dashed through the door, sprinting as fast as their legs would carry them toward the entrance to the brick building at the centre of the compound. The guards staggered around shouting, the sudden lights blinding them for a few precious seconds.

One guard was already opening the door to the administrative block. Kai tackled him straight through the door and fired a tranquilliser into his back from point-blank range. Another guard stood inside, his eyes wide with shock. KT slammed her fist into his face hard enough to jerk his head back into the wall. He slumped to the ground and Kai shot him with the dart-gun just for good measure. They closed the door then manhandled the two men into a nearby storeroom.

Moving as quietly as they could, the two teens searched the building. It seemed to be empty. The fireworks had ended and the guards outside were on edge but were luckily staying outside. It was not long until they found a large office that looked positively fancy compared to the rest of the compound.

KT redialled Déaþscúa. “We’ve found Golman’s office. There’ no sign of him or Ailia.”

“Right. Keep your voices down. My guess is that there’s a hidden room accessible from somewhere in there. Golman and Ailia are likely within there. Start a video call so I can look around.”

“No need,” Kai cut in. He was stood with his eyes closed and his fingers splayed. “Remember what he told us about faint air currents back inside the fort? There is a draft coming from that wall panel there.” He pointed to one of the wooden panels that looked the same as every other in the room.

Déaþscúa’s face appeared on KT’s phone. “Point me to this panel.” KT complied. “There must be a switch to open it if Kai is right. Move the phone around slowly so I can have a good look. No. No. Nope. Too obvious. Ah. That looks promising.”

“What does?”

“You see that glass vase of flowers? Golman doesn’t strike me as a man who keeps flowers. It is simple and boring to the point that nobody would be curious enough to ever move it. Give it a try.”

Kai stepped up to the small shelf that contained a few dusty books and the vase of lilies in question. He tried to pick it up but instead the vase only pivoted. There was a click from the panel that Kai had pointed out. He grinned widely. 

“Be careful down there. If Golman is here then he will be armed and won’t hesitate to kill you. Always remember that humans can be far more monstrous than any creature of nightmares.”

“Got it,” KT said then put her phone away. 

Kai drew his gun and stood ready as KT opened the secret door. It slid open soundlessly, revealing a stone staircase that descended under the building. KT grit her teeth as she stared into the darkness that stretched out before her. Seeing KT’s face, Kai entered first. He found a switch that lit the darkness with cold, white light. KT stayed close behind him, a pistol clenched firmly in her hands. The staircase ended at another door. Kai tried the handle and it was unlocked. He counted to three in a whisper then threw the door open. Both teens ran into the room with their guns swinging in every direction searching out a foe.

The room was small with grey stone for all six surfaces. It was completely bare except for a strange machine that rested against the back wall, a single chair, and a young girl who was chained up in the middle. Ailia looked as battered as someone without blood could look. She was completely naked beside the thick metal that bound her wrists, ankles and neck. Small holes lined her arms and her mouth hung open. Where her fangs had been there were now only gum. She did not stir at their approach.

“We’ve found her,” KT said unsteadily into her phone once Déaþscúa was on the line again. Seeing Ailia look so broken was difficult.

Kai had already set to work cutting through the chains using the blacklight plasma-cutter. He cut through one chain holding her arm then started on the one around her neck. “She’s unconscious I don’t know if she’ll be able to get out of her on her own feet. Wait. Shit!”

“What?” came Déaþscúa’s voice but she had already put the phone away. 

Footsteps were coming down the stairs. Golman’s voice sounded as they neared the door. “Is my wee sucker ready for her exercise? I ken that secretly you love it with all of your tainted wee heart.”

KT and Kai took aim at the door. It opened slightly but instead of Golman entering, a glowing ball that was slightly smaller than a football rolled into the room. Before either of them could react, streaks of blue lightning shot from the sphere and hit them both, knocking them to the floor with a fit of spasms. KT tried to scream but her lungs wouldn’t let any breath out. Her mind was nothing but white hot pain.

The ball stopped glowing. Golman stepped into the room with a look of smug satisfaction across his face. He was tall, had short, black hair and slightly pudgy features. He wore a neatly pressed suit that looked unworn and expensive. Upon seeing KT and Kai, a contemptuous sneer flickered across his features before settling back to cockiness.

“Déaþscúa sends bairns to do his dirty work now does he? Did you honestly think that you could break into my compound without me being alerted at any point? You clearly underestimate me. Even a mighty vampire is nothing more than my toy.”

“I’m a toy am I?” The voice was quiet yet cut off Golman like a slap. Ailia’s eyes were still closed but slowly her head rose. “On the contrary, parasite. You’re the toy, and a poor one at that.”

“Silence bitch! You live by my will! Your powers are suppressed by my technologies and your body is bound. I’ll make you watch as your friends here die.”

Ailia snorted then strained, a low growl rumbling from her throat. The chain that Kai had started cutting that held her neck snapped. 

KT glanced at the large mechanical device on the wall. It pulsed with red light. Wires ran from it to the chains. Her muscles stung but she reached out and grabbed the sphere that Golman had thrown. It sparked in her hand, sending fresh waves of pain through her body. Golman moved to kick her when Kai grabbed his leg. The man turned and shot him in the head but Kai had pulled up his hood. He screamed and clutched the back of his head but the second he had bought had been enough. KT surged forward and slammed the orb into the machine’s screen. Electricity arced across the metal then exploded into flame, throwing KT back into the wall.

Golman picked himself up and stared into the billowing smoke. The chains were still unbroken but nobody was held within them. Then a figure materialised in front of him. He yelped and tried to run. The door slammed shut in his face. The room echoed with gunshots as he tried to empty his magazine into Ailia. Dusty holes riddled her body but she didn’t flinch.

“So, little man, you think that tiny growth between your legs gives you power over me? You’re so confident. Self assured. Arrogant. Let’s see how much is left once you’ve been neutered like the mangy dog you are.” She reached out for the man. He shot her in the face. The bullet glistened between her teeth. She spat it out then slapped the gun out of his hand. In the blink of an eye she had grabbed his crotch.

“No! God no! Please!”

Ailia yanked her arm back with all of her unnatural strength. A scream unlike anything that KT had ever heard, even in nightmares, erupted from Golman’s lips. Both she and Kai whipped their heads away from the scene only to see a bloody chunk of flesh and cloth slap into the wall. Kai threw up, clutching his own crotch as though the pain had hit him through proxy. Even as a woman, KT still felt the urge to cower in a quivering ball.

“Enjoy your business empire, you dickless wanker,” the vampire finished. Golman made a strangled noise then collapsed. She wiped her hand on his shirt then walked out as boldly as if she owned the place. 

Struggling up, KT and Kai followed her. She strode through the building then swung the door open and exited into the night. Guards turned to her and began to shout. Guns fired but she was already gone. She reappeared in front of the closest man and tore out his throat with one hand before vanishing again. KT watched in stunned shock as Ailia systematically slaughtered every guard. The dogs ran away squealing. She licked blood from her lips and arms with a wide grin. She left the compound through the main gates leaving nothing but blood and corpses in her wake. 

KT and Kai followed her with a numb, stumbling, pace. Kai clutched the back of his head and swayed dangerously with every step. KT’s entire body tingled, except for her hand where she had held the electric ball, which she couldn’t feel at all.

The SUV pulled up beside them a short way along the road. Déaþscúa threw Ailia his coat. “Try not to soak it in too much blood.” Seeing the state of her body, his voice grew warmer. “You okay?”

Ailia snuggled deep into the giant coat, offering Déaþscúa a toothless smile. “I knew that you’d come for me, Brambles. See, you love me really.”

“We did all the work,” Kai grunted sourly as they all climbed into the car. It was a tight fit in the back between KT, Kai, Elizabeth and Ailia but the SUV was more than spacious enough.

Ailia leaned over the seats to rest her head on Déaþscúa’s shoulder. “You saved me so you must have a job in mind. Where are we going?”

“To get my sword back. After that I guess we can give dear old Annis a visit to pay her back for all of her kindness over the years.”

“And we all know that you show kindness with brutal punches to the head!” Ailia chirped. Despite her chipper tone, KT noticed that the vampire was trying hard not to show her gums.

Déaþscúa nodded. “Damn right I do.”

Previous – Chapter 16.

Next – Chapter 18.

Chapter 16. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

“Déaþscúa…”

He tried to laugh good naturedly at the concern on KT’s face but it came out more as a painful sounding cough. “It takes more than an over-zealous firing squad to keep me down. Believe me. I’ve faced more than my fair share. Though I will admit that machineguns are far more effective than rifles. Annis knew that she had to be the one to finish me off. The cave-in might have done the trick, and who knows what I’d be like if I hadn’t been cared for, but you get the picture. I may be near immortal but that doesn’t that my body can’t be broken beyond repair. Drinking through a straw for the foreseeable future is no way to live.”

His body was still a mess. Cuts and bruises covered every patch of his skin and he was only standing with the aid of a walking stick. His movements were slow and deliberate and clearly brought pain to his face despite his laidback attitude.

He began to plate up the bacon, making well filled butties that he slid across to the two teens before tucking into one himself. Elizabeth joined them without a word, nodding to Déaþscúa as he handed her one of the sandwiches. They ate in silence until Kai, who had devoured the food, spoke up.

“How long will it be until you’re able to fight again? I’ve finally realised that we can’t find our dad without you.”

Déaþscúa frowned slightly, running a hand through his hair. “I can’t say. Whatever they were using in their bullets really messed me up. More than being shot hundreds of times anyway. My healing isn’t working properly. Again, not working properly in the sense that I am walking around a single day after said hundreds of gunshot wounds. I’m up but I feel weak as a baby. It’s tripped out my powers. I can’t use magic and can’t heal myself. That rules out relying on my bones as weapons and limits the damage I can take.”

“So we stay here until you’re feeling better?”

“Since I don’t know how long that will be, no. If Annis is trying to open of Heaven’s Gate then we have to act fast. It’s no longer about finding your family or my petty revenge. It just means we won’t be seeking direct confrontation with her or her followers. We need to be smart and luckily. That doesn’t require a strong body.”

“Everyone keeps talking about this ‘Heaven’s Gate’ thing as though we should know about it,” Kai said. “Why is it such a bad thing?”

It was Elizabeth who answered him. “In the early days of Earth, all life was magical. It was a time that you might think of as that of myths and legends. But as the years passed, the magic began to wane. The ruling body of the time decided to pump fresh magic into the world by opening a rift to the realm of gods. Nobody knows the exact details, but the plan failed.”

Déaþscúa picked up the story. “It turned out to be a disaster. Magic went wild. Seventy percent of the population was burned out in an instant. This was the birth of the powerless. It did succeed in greatly boosting the magic in the other thirty percent.”

“But why would Annis want to repeat that?” KT asked. 

“The theory behind the Gate was solid. Many believe that whoever performed it made a simple error. This was thousands of years ago. Scholars have spent lifetimes researching it. Maybe Annis thinks she has found the answer.”

“But wouldn’t that be a good thing?” KT asked slowly. “If it works, wouldn’t everybody become magical?” There was a faint glimmer in her eyes.

Déaþscúa shook his head. “I’m no expert but my understanding is that the Gate is tied directly to magic. It would forcibly pump magic into life. The powerless cannot process magic. Your bodies can’t contain it or guide it. Anyone without existing magic would likely die in agony.”

KT set aside the last bit of her sandwich, her appetite suddenly gone. “So what’s your plan?”

Déaþscúa hesitated. “I’m not exactly sure yet. I need time to think. Thinking tactically was not on my list of priorities last night. My body still needs a little more time too.”

“So when do we leave?” Kai asked.

“Tomorrow,” Déaþscúa answered. “I have a few things to organise and we have to wait for Jearl. Until then, there is a sparring ring down the corridor. You two should get some practice in. With me like this and Elizabeth burned out we need to rely on your strength.”

KT took a deep breath and steadied herself. “Déaþscúa… While you were unconscious you started to talk. You called out for Ava. Our cousin. Why did you never tell us?”

Déaþscúa’s face dropped. He didn’t answer and kept his eyes fixed on his scarred hands as they rested upon the table. KT was beginning to fear that she really should not have asked. Without looking up he finally spoke.

“I’ve hunted Annis for many years but she is the only being that continues to evade me. She had disappeared completely for a decade when rumours of her began to emerge from Scotland. I went to investigate the sightings and that is when I first met Ava Peterson.

“I was in a large town, skulking around alleyways in search of a way inside a building that I believed had been used by some of Annis’ supporters. Ava was a trainee in the police who saw me and thought I was suspicious. She followed me inside, expecting to catch me trying to steal something but instead she found me in a swordfight with a golem and a handful of goblins.”

“I expected her to scream and run. Instead she ran at the closest goblin and smacked it across the head with her baton. She had no fear and fought like somebody born into battle. I was quite frankly amazed. After the battle, drenched in blood, she grabbed me by the throat and demanded to know what was going on.”

“Her aura was out of control. It raged like a fire. If it flared up like that whenever she was worked up then she would be a target for any magical beings. I’d not seen anything like it. She fascinated me, so against my better judgement, I agreed to her demand to join me. She was a natural at everything she tried and took to our world like a bird to flight.”

He paused and the faint smile that had began to spread across his lips faded. “Then Annis found her. Ava had left me to return home for Christmas when Annis attacked her. She was in a car with her father. There was nothing that they could have done.”

Silence descended on the room. It showed no sign of abating so Déaþscúa shrugged awkwardly. 

“That’s all in the past now. Don’t get yourselves down about it.” 

“Why didn’t you tell us though?” KT pressed. “You knew from the moment that you saw me that we had to be related. You must have known about the lodge too. Why keep it a secret?”

“Why? Can you imagine stumbling into a situation where you come face to face with someone who looks identical to your dead partner? All those long buried emotions rushing back into your head, all those memories. How would you have liked me to bring it up? ‘Hey, you look exactly like my dead girlfriend who died horrifically because of me’. Every time I look at you it brings me unwanted pain, but I didn’t mention it because it isn’t your fault. Comparing you to someone else doesn’t help anybody. But that’s how it is. Does that answer your question?”

KT put down her cutlery and looked Déaþscúa straight in the eyes. She felt that strange tug on her mind, an alien feeling that she should drop the subject, but it slid off of her like rain on a tiled roof.

“I’m sorry. I’ve always been compared to her so don’t worry about it. I just need to know that you’re helping us because you want to and not because we are Ava’s family.”

Déaþscúa shrugged. “I promised her I’d watch over her family. Back then I only knew of her mother. So I’d pass by the lodge whenever I was in the area. That’s what led me to you two. It’s why I didn’t follow protocol and have your minds wiped. It’s why I put so much effort into freeing your dad and aunt. Her memory gave you an opportunity, but you have both proven yourselves capable on your own merits. I’m sorry that I wasn’t straight with you.”

Kai looked uncomfortable with the whole situation. Behind the discomfort was a growing curiosity. “Annis told us that our auras were different too. Is ours like Ava’s? Is that why you’re helping us?”

“No,” was Déaþscúa’s curt reply. “Her’s was golden fire. You two have something like quicksilver. Most folk have your more basic colours. Your blues, reds, greens, blacks. Silver is rare but not unheard of. They don’t reflect power though, only character. Now eat up. We have a busy day ahead of us.”

***

When everyone had finished, Déaþscúa showed KT and Kai to the sparring ring. It was a large room with a wide circle in the centre and several racks of weapons and training dummies. He grabbed one of the dummies and set it up in the ring. The dummy looked like an armoured scarecrow and was armed with a wooden club. Déaþscúa tapped a rune on its forehead and it jerked to life.

“This here is a Spartron. Half magic, half machine. Defeat it then turn up the difficulty. Rinse and repeat. Just don’t get hit as that club will break bones. That’s not even mentioning internal bleeding. My magic is out so I can’t heal you. My body needs it all to heal itself. Enjoy.”

Déaþscúa stepped from the ring, leaving KT and Kai to stare at the dummies with concern. He stood beside the door where Jearl joined him. They spoke in muted tones that were little more than murmurs to the teens.

“You sure this is a good idea, boss? You really want to push them this hard? Them Spartrons are right bastards if you don’t know what you’re doing. Not that I care much either way, ya know.”

“If they can’t protect themselves from a training dummy then what chance do they have? If they get themselves crippled then a sickbed is the best place for them until this all blows over. I have a feeling they’ll do just fine though.” He faced back to the twins and raised his voice. “Try not to die while I’m gone, okay!”

***

They watched Déaþscúa and Jearl leave. Kai finally shook himself and grabbed a training axe from one of the racks. The second that he stepped into the ring the Spartron jerked around to stare eyelessly at him. 

“Greetings combatant,” the dummy said in an echoey voice. “Please choose the level of skill between one and ten that you wish to train at.”

“Err…Level one,” Kai told the machine awkwardly.

“Level one is activated. Beginning training session in three. Two. One. Begin.”

The Spartron rushed forward with the whirring sound of gears. It raised its club and swung high to smash Kai’s head like a pumpkin. Kai crouched and spun, dodging the machine’s charge, and slammed his training axe into its exposed back. It stopped then sagged defeatedly.

“Level one training bout completed. Victory achieved. Would you like to spar again?”

Kai snorted contemptuously. “That was easy. How does Déaþscúa expect us to be ready for battle using this? Training level five.”

Level five is activated. Beginning training session in three. Two. One. Begin.”

The Spatron became a blur of movement that made straight for Kai. The teen smirked as he made ready to dodge but at the last second the dummy jolted to the side, right to where Kai was moving to. The club darted for Kai’s ribs and was only turned away by a hasty block from his axe. He span, swinging the axe low but the machine slid back easily before diving straight back into the attack. 

They traded blows for a while. What Kai lacked in skill he made up for with a brutal determination. His position changed, leaving himself open to a lunging attack. He took a glancing blow in the shoulder but managed to hook the club between the axe’s head and its shaft. He twisted it violently and the club wrenched loose of the Spartron’s grip.

Sweating, Kai stepped out of the ring and slumped onto one of the benches. He motioned for KT to take his place, a competitive light in his eyes. “The one who gets the highest wins?”

“Game on,” KT grinned. She grabbed the only doublesword in the room and took to the ring. “Level five.”

Retrieving its club, the Spartron took its place again then began its countdown. KT prepared for its initial charge but it surprised her by moving back then circling around her. She turned to keep it in view but it doubled back then zigzagged at speed for her. 

She jumped back and swung horizontally to meet any point it could attack from, spinning in the air with the swing to avoid smacking herself in the gut with the other end of the blade. The spartron blocked the attack easily and pressed on. KT parried with one blade then countered with the other before kicking out with her foot. She too was lacking in skill but where Kai used an animalistic passion, KT flowed like a raging river. The two blades of her doublesword never stopped and nor did her body. Her legs kicked in lunges and sweeps, assaulting any area the blades were not. The Spartron’s single club couldn’t keep up with the flurry and eventually slumped in defeat from the sheer number of attacks.

Kai took on level six and managed to beat it after a hard fought battle. He came out of the ring with several bruises and was breathing raggedly. KT matched his performance and came out of the ring a while later, battered but still standing.

They took a break to eat before coming back to take on level seven. The countdown ended and the Spartron wasted no time in striking out at Kai. The force of the blow was nearly enough to take the axe clean from his hands. He cursed as another swing followed immediately that jarred the muscles in his arm painfully. He hastily jumped back but was offered zero respite. The club cut up toward Kai’s face. He blocked but his axe was knocked high by the force of the impact. Before he could recover the Spartron swung low to take Kai’s feet out from underneath him. He hit the ground struggling for breath.

KT tried next and attempted to avoid the dummy’s attacks rather than defend against them. She dodged, ducked and spun but never had a chance to launch an attack of her own. Eventually she tripped on her own feet in her haste to backpedal and was rewarded with a club to the ribs. She dropped, gasping for air.

“Damn it!” KT said through gasping breaths. “How are we supposed to stand against Annis if we can’t even beat a stupid dummy? Before we were dead weights but now Déaþscúa expects us to be the muscle. Dad and the others are depending on us! Christ, the entire world might be!”

It was at that moment Déaþscúa returned to the room. He watched with a sly smile as Kai helped KT back to her feet. He stayed by the door and beckoned the teens to him. He took in their sweaty, disheveled appearance and nodded approvingly. 

“Wheels are in motion. Everything is as ready as it can be until Jearl gets here. Now we just have to prepare ourselves. What level kicked your ass?”

“Seven,” Kai answered sourly. “If I wasn’t injured I’d beat it no problem.”

“Seven is impressive, especially for two teenagers who aren’t fighters. I’d almost say miraculous. The Protectors train at level eight as a standard and they’re the trained soldiers of the Grand Moot. If you can both beat level six without any real training then what you could achieve with some guidance would be astounding. Something to note though, I never said you had to train one on one. You’re going to be fighting together when we leave so training together might be a good idea. Numbers can make up for individual power.”

KT and Kai looked to each other. They nodded in unison before both stepped into the ring once again. 

“Level seven,” they said as one.

Once more the Spartron whirred into action, lunging straight for KT. She threw herself back but at the last second the machine darted instead for Kai as he rushed to flank it. Club met axe then span to meet sword blade. The top half of the dummy moved like a spinning top to keep up with the attacks from two sides. 

KT tried to think ahead and plan out how the fight would go but the dynamics between the three of them were so different than in a simple two man duel. When it was just you and your foe there were only three factors to keep track of. There was your own movements, those of your opponent, and the environment and surroundings. By simply adding another person, everything changed. Even with that person being on her side she realised that she couldn’t simply focus on what she was doing and what the Spartron was doing. Her moves affected what Kai could do as his moves affected her. It was like a balancing act. Only, balance was not enough. They needed combat synergy.

She dropped back, leaving Kai to hold off the machine for a few seconds while she circled around behind him. She reared her arm back.

“Duck then uppercut!” she shouted to Kai. “Now!”

She threw the doublesword. It span through the air like an oversized shuriken. Kai heard her and ducked low. The Spartron battered the double sword away but had left itself open for the shortest of moments. Kai’s axe flashed upward and thudded into the dummy’s chest. While he was still half knelt, KT ran and used his back as a springboard. She kicked out in mid-air, slamming her foot into the Spartron’s head with enough force to snap it sharply to the side. She landed behind it and swept her legs low just as Kai stood and drove his axe into the machine’s side. Together they toppled it, watching in satisfaction as it hit the floor limply.

“Easy, eh?” Déaþscúa said, sharing in their satisfaction. “It’s all just a matter of practice. Except if you’re just born with unnatural talent. Then I suppose it’s not a matter of practice. The sentiment still stands though. Which on that note, I have the space of an afternoon to catch you up on everything you need to know about what may lay before you. A quick, well stocked brain is usually more useful than an abundance of muscle.”

They left the training room and walked along the wide corridor. KT admired the art and objects that they passed but came to a stop in front of a tall manikin between two cabinets. A black cloak was draped around it with the hood up over a smooth yellow mask with a smiley face carved into it. It looked like someone had taken the Grim Reaper, stood it in an alcove then covered the skull with a silly face. Something about it drew KT’s attention. She reached out to touch the mask and the head tilted to the side to look at her in a curious manner. She yelped and jumped back.

“Don’t mind old Fred,” Déaþscúa told her without any sign of concern. 

“Who the hell is it? Why is it just stood there in your house?” KT questioned shakily.

Déaþscúa paused and looked at the cloaked figure. “The question is more ‘what is it’ really. He, I call it a ‘He’ but I don’t really know, just kind of… appears every now and then. He’ll just stand somewhere and stare at me. I’ll look away and he’ll be gone again. When I first saw him I tried to kill him but I couldn’t hurt him at all. I’ve gotten use to him now I guess.”

“But what is he? Why is he watching you? It’s bloody creepy,” Kai said. He was keeping as much distance as he could from the creature.

“I don’t know really,” Déaþscúa admitted. “From what I can piece together, I believe that it’s a creature that lives outside of time. It’s akin to Death but instead of seeking out lives that are ending it follows people who fundamentally change the world. I think he feeds off of destiny, if that makes sense to you. Great heroes and despicable men and women have reported seeing a strange, black robed figure throughout history. He scares the hell out of me but then I started calling him Fred to make him feel more cute. I see him as a pet cat now. He wanders in and out without my knowledge, follows me but doesn’t talk. Just ignore him.”

He continued down the corridor, leaving the strange being behind, and took them to a small room with half a dozen armchairs circled around a large table that took up most of the space. Flames burned in a fireplace which gave the room a comfortable warmth. Books, papers and an assortment of objects were already laid out on the table. Elizabeth sat in one of the armchairs.

“You seem to have combat down already,” Déaþscúa was saying as they took their seats. “What you don’t know can kill you though so I guess this is Survival 101. Elizabeth,” he nodded to the woman.

Elizabeth pointed to an intricate diagram of the human body that was scrawled with notes. “As you both know, the human body can be toned and improved. A fat man and an athlete of the same age will perform very differently. This is also true of the mind. Powered humans train their minds to use magic and other abilities but the Powerless can also use their mind to achieve unbelievable things.”

“I am sure you have heard tales of mothers lifting cars to save their children or the like. Determination can be measured and does have a physical impact upon a body. If you two can sharpen your minds and learn how to focus your thoughts you can push your bodies past their natural limits. This will obviously be useful when fighting things that are beyond your scope. I can’t teach you much but this book should help,” she said, sliding a thick volume across the table.

Déaþscúa picked up where Elizabeth had left off. “As well as your bodies and minds, you can also use other people’s minds. Gadgets, enchanted items, potions, anything that can give you an edge. Always have tricks up your sleeves. Be unpredictable. Find what fits your style and integrate them into your plans. A lycan can smell you in the dark so use stink bombs. Goblins hate light so use flares. A ring that can shoot a laser once per charge can still turn the tide of a fight if used correctly. You two are weak by our standards but the weak have strengths of their own.”

He paused and studied the two teens. “What do you want to learn about first? A rundown of creatures is usually a good start.”

KT hesitated for a moment before asking “What are you? The real answer this time. You survived being reduced to literal pulp. You fought using your own bones. You’re like nothing I’ve ever heard of.”

Déaþscúa sat in silent contemplation. After a few seconds he sighed. “I am both many things and just a simple man. If you really want a label then I suppose I’m known as an Addonexus.”

“Addonexus?”

“In simple terms, I was born under the passing of Halley’s Comet. For reasons that would take too long to explain, the comet affects newborn babies at a genetic level. Rather than having a magical well that can be tapped into, our magic is infused into our very body. I can use magic but would be considered fairly weak by most powered standards. In return my senses and reactions are superior in every way and my body heals at a dramatic rate. I can also control my bones.”

“I don’t remember ever reading about an Addonexus,” KT said slowly.

“There aren’t many of us. Only children born in a one or two day span every seventy five years are Addonexus. Of those, many die when their body spirals out of their control. Puberty is when most realise they’re special because their bones begin to shift and fevers wrack their bodies,” Déaþscúa stated. “Puberty is hard at the best of times, let alone when it involves your bones shredding your own innards.”

“What’s so special about a flying space rock anyway?” Kai asked.

Déaþscúa shrugged. “No one knows yet. The comet has been in the skies for thousands of years though. Many believe that it was actually the star that the wise men followed to find Jesus.”

“Wouldn’t that make Jesus an Addonexus too?” KT said sceptically.

“All I am saying is that he was born under a shooting star, used magic and was nailed to a cross, stabbed with a spear and left to die yet walked out of his burial cave right as rain.” He shook his head to refocus himself. “But what I am isn’t important right now. What’s your next question?”

They talked over everything that could be remotely useful long into the night. When they finally retired to their beds, KT found her mobile phone and tried her luck at getting it to work. She hadn’t even looked at it in days. It turned on, a miracle in itself after all that the phone had been through. The battery was low but a wireless signal was available. This surprised her because of their remote location but she had hoped that Déaþscúa would have an internet connection. 

Tucked up in her covers she searched the term ‘Addonexus’. It took some looking but she found a few scattered mentions of the word but only one fragment told her anything beyond Déaþscúa’s own description. 

She read the line aloud in a whispered tone. “Heralded into life by the comet’s light, heralded into death when the light again is seen. Those of the Addonexus live but in the space of Halley’s passing, seventy five years of youth.”

She made a quick search of Halley’s comet, her brows furrowed in confusion. The last comet was in 1986. That would mean that Déaþscúa was only a few years older than her and Kai. He looked to be in his thirties or forties, not in his twenties. More than that though, he had known Ava. The dates didn’t add up with what he had said. She would have to fact check him in the morning. With questions still spinning in her head, she soon managed to drift off into a reluctant sleep.

Her fitful slumber was shattered many hours later by a thunderous blaring noise from outside the house. KT shot from her bed, grabbing her doublesword that was leant against the wall, and rushed to throw open the curtains. Her window looked out across the gardens and woods at the back of the house. She couldn’t see anything that may have caused that noise. 

Noting that her tailored clothes had been left on the set of draws, she quickly changed then rushed downstairs. The front door stood open and Déaþscúa and Elizabeth were outside, staring down the path out of the valley. Grumbling angrily, Kai stomped down the stairs and joined his sister. Together they left the house to see what was happening.

Parked a short way down the path was a giant, black SUV that was all sharp edges and angles that seemed to somehow flow, curved and elegant despite the deep lines. It had four doors, tinted windows and wheels that looked more at home on a sports tractor. KT had thought it impossible but it made the last vehicle look like an old lady’s mobility scooter. If the last SUV was a military vehicle then this one was from some demonic world of war.

The noise sounded again, coming straight from the car. It was the loudest horn that KT had ever heard. The driver’s door opened and Jearl hopped out, a smirk splitting his face from ear to ear.

“Mornin’ all. I thought I’d take the liberty to acquire a ride for us. This suit your needs, boss?”

Déaþscúa laughed aloud. “I think I’ll make do with it. Does it have a cup holder?”

“Oh yes, guv. And a mini-fridge.”

“Well then,” Déaþscúa grinned. “Let’s take her for a spin. Does a baptism of fire sound fitting to you?”

Jearl mirrored his childish excitement. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. Got a good first test drive for you too. How does a rescue mission sound to you?”

Previous – Chapter 15.

Next – Chapter 17.

Chapter 15. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

“Are ye sure this is wise, Miss Ailia?” asked the old man, Cathal. He watched the vampire storm around the store as she muttered angrily to herself.

“Wise? I’m one of the elder race. We’re naturally wise. It’s hard to be hotblooded when you’re dead,” she answered sharply. “No. What isn’t wise is some powerless bastard thinking that he can send men into my shop to kill me. I hunt mortals, not the other way around.”

Cathal shook his head but didn’t press the matter further. Ailia was impossible to reason with at the best of times. She had a superiority complex the size of a planet trapped inside a child’s body. Not that Cathal would ever point this out to her.

“Why the sudden worry anyway?” Ailia said. She gave him a withering glare that suggested bad things would happen if he doubted her ability. “I eat pathetic leeches like this Golman for breakfast. I know where he sleeps, how many guards he has and who he has been in contact with. This’ll be a walk in the park.”

Cathal sighed. “O’ course. Normally I wouldnae worry but ye said he’s in the pay o’ Annis. Nothin’ good comes when she’s involved.”

Ailia made a childish snort. “Golman is a nobody. I may not like Annis but I can respect her. She won’t give a damn about him. He is a pawn, a semi useful tool whose greed makes him easily manipulated. Anyway, if I know Bram then Annis already has her hands full.”

She stopped circling the shelves and finally grabbed a bubblegum pink minigun from a display case. She caressed it like a pet dog, her smile growing, then she returned to glaring at Cathal, challenging him to comment.

A bell rang, causing the shelves to slide and turn until the shop was once again a shrine to bright colours and fluffy teddies. Cathal hobbled over to a screen behind the counter that showed the front of the building.

“Hmm, a lovely wee lass coming for a new toy,” he said nervously. “Er, yes. Miss Ailia, ye should get goin’ now. Wouldnae want te keep that unfortunate man waiting. I’ll hold the fort here.”

Ailia walked over to him. Cathal tried to keep himself between Ailia and the screen until she grabbed his jumper and lifted him over her head. 

“You’re a terrible liar. Hell, everyone is a terrible liar to a vampire. Why do you insist on making yourself look like the old fool you are?”

She looked down at the screen then and froze. Her arms began to shake and Cathal braced himself. She dropped him, her eyes not moving from the screen. The image showed a young woman walking down the drive by herself. The woman glanced up to where the camera was watching her from and waved pleasantly. 

Cathal watched Ailia for a moment then retreated into the back of the shop. He had a quick turn of speed for an old man with a limp.

The door to the shop swung open and the woman entered. She was a redhead with messy hair that ended just above her shoulders. The last inch of her hair was black. She wore knee high cowboy boots, snug black leggings and a tanktop that was red, orange and yellow like fire. Her eyes were pink and her face beautiful. Tattoos ran down her exposed arms. A blue band graced each of her wrists. 

“Heya. It’s been a while, eh, Ailia.”

Ailia just stared at her. The girl’s fangs seemed very prominent and a faint red glow filled her eyes. It took her visible effort to calm herself.

“Glory Valentine. I thought I’d made it perfectly clear that I would tear your throat out if I ever saw you again,” she said, a dark menace in her voice.

The woman smiled at her. “I seem to remember that you actually said that the time before we last met. If memory serves me right, the actual last time we met I had you across my knee after a sound beating.”

If Ailia had still possessed a beating heart her face would have flushed bright red. Burning rage and shame warred across her features. She clenched her grip on the minigun.

“You need to learn to relax, eh. What’s a few sour moments between friends?” Glory said pleasantly.

Ailia turned away from the woman. “I’m not your friend and I never will be,” she muttered. She span back around, the fire returning to her voice in an instant. “Now what do you want? I have important business tonight.”

“Well, I’m not here for your wonderful company or to buy a new stuffed toy so take a guess. I’ll even give you three chances.”

Ailia placed the minigun down on the counter then jumped up beside it so that she was at the same height as the other woman. She leaned in slightly so that they were looking straight into one another’s eyes. 

“You have a job up here in Scotland just when Black Annis starts causing trouble. She is hiring an army. Tell me your morals aren’t so easily swayed that you would work for her?” Ailia asked. She spoke calmly but made sure that the woman had a full view of her fangs.

Glory also leaned in. Now they were basically nose to nose. “Don’t try and intimidate me with your pearly whites, Ailia. I’ve been closer to them than this and they’ve never scared me before.” She paused then straightened up. “But no, I’m not in Annis’s pocket. I do however know when chaos is gonna breakout, and where there is chaos there are people willing to pay for mercenaries. It was actually the local Moot that contacted me.”

Ailia sat down with her feet dangling off the edge of the counter. Relief crossed her face which she quickly suppressed. “Chaos is underselling it. I’ve been keeping my ears open and it seems you aren’t the only one who’s been drawn here. Annis has somehow bought the services of a blood-lycan and a man known the world over as the White Swordsman. She has the support of a powerless businessman too who is providing her with hired muscle. Or at least ‘had’ the support of a powerless businessman. After tonight she’ll have to find a new puppet.”

She toyed idly with the gun as she spoke. “The MacFeelan clan is already fighting against Annis’ forces and no doubt they’ll muster up the other clans before too long. Then there is Bra-, I mean Déaþscúa.”

Glory nodded. “Yeah, I’d heard about that. A bold move, going against the Moot to kill Christie. It seems they’re not happy with Déaþscúa. As an associate of his I wouldn’t be surprised if they have their eyes on you already.” She neglected to mention that it was Déaþscúa who she had been contracted to kill. 

“Yep. Looks like a real storm is brewing. It’ll be like old times,” Ailia said in her normal, childish voice. Then she seemed to remember herself and returned to her brooding. “Not the good old times though. They were long before you were even born. Everything for the last few decades have just been mundane distractions. Pleasant wastes of time.”

Silence hung between them for a drawn out moment. Glory removed a sheet of paper from her pocket and dropped it onto Ailia’s lap. 

“That’s all the ammo we’ll need and where to send it to. I’ve got a meeting with the Moot to attend to now. Something about them isn’t sitting well with me at the moment. Watch yourself around them, okay?” She turned to leave but paused after a few steps. “How long are you going to judge me by my childhood self? Ah, forget it. I know you don’t have an answer. I’ll be seeing you. Say hi to Cathal for me.”

And then she was gone. Ailia sat in silence for a while without moving. Cathal was showing no signs of resurfacing. Eventually she shook herself then slammed her fist into the counter. The wood shattered and split into two. Even as it collapsed she grabbed the minigun and jumped down gracefully.

“Cathal! We need a new counter! I want it sorted by the time I get back!” she yelled into the doorway. She didn’t wait for an answer, instead stomping straight out of the shop. 

The sun had slumped beneath the horizon but it was still not fully night. She knew that Golman had a compound close to the border where he had been spending most of his time of late. It was an hour and a half drive there but Ailia had a strong disdain for cars. She could manage it in twenty minutes.

It was widely held knowledge that vampires could turn into bats. This was of course ridiculous. All of that extra mass would have to go somewhere. Unless it was a very dense bat anyway. No, vampires were much more complicated than that. 

Ailia focused on her body. It was cold flesh and bone, varying constructs of carbon without the special element of life that all mortals possessed. Magic held her together rather than blood and nerves, and magic could be manipulated.

Carbon could be as hard as diamonds, as soft as chalk or even be a gas. Vampires were able to harness this property to dispel their bodies into a mist. This would be a fatal exercise if they had lives to lose but being dead did have its advantages.

She felt her body loosen. For something so destructive it was a pleasant experience, only comparable to an orgasm or a last breath of life. Her will extended outwards, encompassing her dress and the minigun. They too joined the haze of particles. Her mind, itself entwined with magic, gathered together the mist into a shadowy, wraithlike mass.

The shadow took off with the speed of the wind, swirling above the rooftops into the jetstreams high in the sky. From below, in the dreary gloom, she could have perhaps been mistaken for a swarm of insects. 

In this form she didn’t exactly think. Only the most basic element of her consciousness existed like this and all of its focus was spent on keeping the atoms that made up Ailia Vihart from drifting away forever. She was still able to feel though, at least in a loose sense of the word. She could feel the wind blowing through her, feel the clash of particles as she sped through clouds and sense the lightness of her form. It was the closest to true peace that she would ever feel.

Sensing that she was nearing her destination she willed herself down, spiraling through the clouds to gather together on a rooftop like liquid being poured into a mold. It was never a pleasant experience to leave the half-life of that existence to the worries that were intrinsically coiled around a physical form. At the end of the day, a body was little more than an anchor for emotions and pain.

Ailia sneered at the tiny village below her. She hated the countryside. It felt, well, too… dead. She laughed to herself at the bad joke. It was one of the many drawbacks to being in a child’s body. The moodswings, the tantrums, the sudden bouts of random joyfulness. It made being a powerful creature of the night who is feared by all rather difficult. She tried to focus herself. Vampires didn’t have emotions but they did have intense thoughts. The way Ailia saw it, thoughts were just emotions that spoke back to you. 

There were lights beyond the village, nestled into a divot of land a short distance away. A single road ran up in that direction. Ailia concentrated on it, pushing everything else from her head. She jumped down, switching to her shadow form for a brief second to appear on a hill between the village and the light.

She could see the compound now. It was a series of cheap warehouses huddled together in the shadow of the steep cliffs that surrounded them on three sides. The soil had been churned up by tires and several lights splashed the walls in unnatural yellow. The whole place looked weak and miserable except for the large amount of men that seemed to be guarding it.

She could sense their life, hear the pulsing of their sweet blood even over the electric hum of the lights. They were armed but none of them seemed tense or excreted the pungent scent of fear. It appeared that they weren’t expecting trouble. There were two things that nobody expects and one of them was an ancient vampire with a vendetta ripping their throats out with a little girl’s body.

Ailia moved closer. The prospect of a bloodbath honed her senses. Something was wrong. She had done her research on Golman. One didn’t reach Ailia’s age by being unprepared. He had risen up the ranks of business from his own cunning, entering the world as a penniless orphan to become a successful entrepreneur. He had outplayed his competitors at their own games until he was the only one left.

More than that though, he had discovered the secret of the powered community and had somehow gained enough influence within it to be notice by Annis. He knew the dangers of the world he had forced himself into and he knew that he would be stepping on the toes of many dangerous people. For him to leave himself so undefended just didn’t add up. There was no doubt that he had done his research on Ailia too after the failed attempt on her life so he should have been ready for her.

She extended her senses further. There were more men within the buildings but not enough to make any difference. Some of the men were injured. These men were tired too. Ailia guessed that they had recently been in a battle. Some of the men sent against the MacFeelans most likely. 

She shadow-stepped again, this time materialising on the edge of the cliff. No new threats caught her attention. There were dogs but they had trouble catching the scent of vampires and there were plenty of searchlights but she had no intention of been caught in them.

“What is your plan?” she whispered to herself.

She warped to the opposite cliff then walked its length back to her original position. Nothing revealed itself. Her options were to turn back for another day or continue blindly towards a potential trap. Ailia wasn’t one to back down from a challenge though.

There was a newer building built in the far corner of the compound. It had that distinctive new building smell but also had the scent of machinery cutting through it. The walls were thick, far thicker than any normal structure, as was the roof. Two men guarded the door. Her reports said that it was a safehouse built to serve as Golman’s home away from home as he conducted increased business in the area. A single heartbeat drummed within.

Another shadow-step brought her onto the roof of the building. Her footsteps were silent as she padded across the cement. There were sensors across the edges but nothing in the centre. The defences by human standards were impressive but Ailia was on a whole other level.

She moved to the roof of the closest warehouse so she could watch the guards. They held rifles and scanned their surroundings diligently. She’d only have one chance to get past them without the whole compound being alerted. 

Her eyes zoned in on the door. It was sturdy metal with a passcode lock. Without access to the code stealth wouldn’t be an option. Silencing the guards while ensuring that one survived long enough to tell it to her would be tricky with all of the other guards that were patrolling the grounds.

“Looks like I get to do things the fun way,” she said with a giggle.

She threw the minigun high into the sky then sprang off the roof at a sprint with her arms held out to either side of her. The men didn’t have time to react before her open hands impacted with their faces and drove their heads into the wall. Instantly she pivoted and kicked out so that her feet slammed into the door. There was a thunderous crash as it was torn from its hinges and flew into the room beyond. 

The momentum of the kick carried her back towards the warehouse. She span in the air, kicked off from that wall too and shot forward into the building, rolling as she hit the ground. Another guard ran to the door with his gun at the ready until the minigun finally succumbed to gravity and landed on his head with a gruesome crunch of bones.

Ailia picked the gun up and sauntered into the main room. A lone man in his late twenties stood with his back against the wall, a pistol clutched in his hands. He was dark haired and tall and would have been considered as handsome if not for a slight pudginess. 

“Mr Golman, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you in person,” Ailia announced in her sweetest voice. She licked her lips with a slow deliberation.

His posture was that of a cornered animal, all fear and tension, but he couldn’t hide the confidence that burned in his eyes.

“Cut the act. I can see that you aren’t in the least bit scared. You can feel pride in the fact that you’ll die like a real man at least.”

Golman shrugged and stood up straight. He now held the gun casually at his side.

“Ailia Vihart, a local arms dealer and a vampire of over three hundred years young. Ye live up te yer reputation. I’m still nae impressed though. Ye see, ye have a stranglehold on the UK armament market within the powered community. Trouble is, that is the direction I want te expand my own business in. I have been given the opportunity te remove ye and increase my sphere of influence among the powered. I’d be a fool nae te take it.” His voice retained an accent but he spoke clearly and professionally. 

Ailia laughed aloud. “That’s funny ‘cos I’m the immortal vampire with a minigun.”

Golman tapped his watch without looking away from Ailia. There was a sharp click then he bounded to the side and opened fire with the pistol. To Ailia it was as though they moved in slow motion. She swayed to the side and levelled her minigun. 

The walls around them juddered then suddenly slid down into the ground to reveal giant lights. They clicked on, blazing ultraviolet light lancing from all sides into the room. Alia cursed. The light instantly blinded her, overwhelming her heightened vision. She could already feel a stinging sensation crisscross her skin. Vampires didn’t burst into dust in sunlight but staying inside a giant suntan booth wasn’t a good idea.

There was the sound of running feet from the door. She span and fired in their direction and was rewarded with brief screams and an overwhelming smell of blood. She turned to spray the lights with a hail of bullets when more clicks sounded around her. Gaps in the wall opened and more guards piled in. 

She heard the slight scrape of triggers being pulled and the bang and whistle of bullets. She could smell the gunpowder and heated metal. Even without the use of her eyes she danced around the bullets, dropping the gun to gain mobility. Guided by the smells of sweat, fear or excitement, she ran at the men. Her fingers tore through flesh with childlike ease. 

Something was wrong. It didn’t feel quite… real. Ailia tried to ignore what her ears and nose were telling her and look beyond them. There! Just on the edge of her hearing was a faint, high-pitched screech. How had she not noticed it? The smell of blood wasn’t quite right either. There was a chemical edge to it. 

She stopped moving and cleared her mind. Dizziness was creeping over her. Before she knew it she had fallen to her knees. The lights suddenly shut off, replacing the blinding light with dazzled darkness. As her vision cleared she could see Golman standing over her. The rest of the room was empty, devoid of any corpses. She tried to stand but her body felt beyond her control and an ungodly migraine racked her brain.

“I’ve been told that nobody is as arrogant as vampires,” Golman explained matter of factly. Ailia struggled to follow his words. “They tend te underestimate their foes because of their clear superiority. If ye can get inte their head though then they donae know that they’re losing. Ye vampires are lords of a dead age. Against peasants with iron ye were gods but in this age, against modern technology, ye are nothing. We have easy access te portable daylight, machines that can create unhearable sounds that affect the mind and man-made gases that can damage cells while smelling perfectly innocent.”

“You bastard…”

Golman laughed then pushed her to the floor. She could feel her consciousness slipping. It was a strange sensation for someone that never even slept. Golman spoke as she faded, his words cutting through the mental fog to etch into her brain.

“Yer just jealous that ye have been surpassed by a weaker race, like the brutish neanderthal outpaced by the brains of the homosapien. My plans extend far beyond Annis. She is but a means to an end, as are ye. The age of legends is ending, bringing forth the true age of man.”

Previous – Chapter 14.

Next – Chapter 16.

Chapter 14. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

KT screamed at the top of her lungs. It was a soundless scream compared to the primal crashing of rocks all around them. She was expecting splitting pain, bones to break, blood to spill, her body to contort as she was crushed into a pulp by rubble. None of this came.

KT risked opening her eyes. A blue dome covered the group that formed a barrier between them and the certain death beyond. As debris hit the dome, the rocks fizzed and broke away, dissolving like sugar cubes in water. Elizabeth stood at the dome’s centre, her hands splayed and sweat drenching her face. Her body shook and her eyes were tightly closed.

The shield grew darker, sliding rapidly into a bruised purple colour. Elizabeth dropped to one knee. Her teeth were clenched and her clothes were already drenched. Her face was flushed red with effort. Then the purple light grew flushed too, turning to a deep red. As the shield turned red, it was as though it drained the colour directly from Elizabeth. Her face was now deathly pale.

Then the explosions stopped. Rubble still fell and everything continued to rumble and shake but gradually it all faded to a still calm. Only the dust moved, obscuring the view of anything more than a few feet ahead of them. The dome spluttered then blinked out of existence. It’s disappearance left a circle of clear ground amidst a sea of carnage.

“Damn it,” Niall growled. He surveyed the damage with dull eyes until they fell upon Elizabeth.

She was on the ground now, as pale as a corpse. Blood flecked her lips and her breathing was shallow. Friseal’s body was beside her, as were a few other fallen MacFeelans. And what was left of Déaþscúa.

“Lizzy, ye alright?” Niall asked as he knelt beside her.

She breathed heavily before managing to muster words. “I’m spent. It’s all gone. Gone.” She stared into the middle distance and spoke as though to herself.

Niall cursed before signalling to the few unharmed MacFeelans to carry the dead and wounded. He once again lifted up his brother’s limp frame. “We need te get back te the camp.” He started forward without another word.

KT helped Kai to his feet then they both supported each other as they limped the short distance to the camp. Jearl joined them from a hiding spot up a tree and immediately took the place of one of the Scotsmen who carried Déaþscúa. His usual cheerful, carefree demeanour was gone.

Smoke was what greeted them first as they neared the camp. Then fire. Then strung up bodies. At a shambling run the group entered the camp to find it recast in the likeness of Hell. Burned out cabins, shattered possessions and corpses were all that remained. 

KT stared in dull horror. It was like returning to the lodge all over again only worse. The only body present there had been her mother’s, and she had still clung to life. Here, women, children and the elderly and ill, lay butchered in the mud, hacked to pieces where they had fallen. Scores of goblins, lycan and other humanoid shapes were present in the litany of death where the MacFeelan’s had fought. For how few had stayed behind they must have fought like demons of war.

She wandered a short way into the camp, drawn by the horror like icy fingers pulling at her soul. A mound of goblin and hired guns marked the area in front of the main hall. Maridia lay at its peak, her jaw missing. She had fought hard to defend the door but had ultimately been overwhelmed. The door behind her had been torn from its hinges. The sobbing of men and a low wail of a woman within confirmed KT’s fears.

Howls of grief and anger tore from the warriors’ throats. They scoured the camp searching for loved ones, their cries only increasing when they were found. KT, Kai and Jearl stood at the settlement’s edge, out of the way of the distraught clansmen. Déaþscúa and Elizabeth lay by their feet.

KT couldn’t bear to watch the men roar at the heavens. She turned her attention onto Déaþscúa and was amazed at how he looked. His body had regained much of its form, the gaping wounds and shredded flesh having faded to smaller holes that were already scabbing over. She noticed that his lips were moving slightly so she leaned in, placing her ear just above his mouth. He was mumbling something. The words were unclear at first but he was beginning to speak louder.

“Ácennicge! Géoc mec! Hit earfoðe! Cwéman! Ácennicge!”

“It is Old English,” said Elizabeth as she slowly sat up, surprising KT. Her voice was weak and her eyes still looked dazed but that keen intelligence still shined through. “I don’t know much but I can tell he is calling for his mother.”

“You’re right there, miss,” Jearl told her. “He must be feverish. He’s calling out like a sick child. It’s good to see his throat’s healed enough to speak though.” The untidy man looked to Elizabeth. “And what ‘bout you?”

“There is nothing to be healed,” she answered tiredly. “Magical energies can be a cruel mistress. You can deplete your magical stores and yet push further and draw more. It takes energy from your health, your very life. I had to push far to keep up that shield. My body will recover, minus a few years, but my magic, that is lost forever.”

“I’m real sorry about that. I know how rough that must feel.”

“Are you magical too, Jearl?” KT asked.

He gave her a strange look then smiled his cocky smile. “Me? Nah, can’t light a candle without a military-grade flamethrower. I’m just good ol’ reliable Jearl.”

Kai finally tore his eyes from the suffering and came to KT’s side. He was bloody and bruised but was still the picture of wrath. 

“They killed them all. Women and children. Babies. All of them dead. Is this what she plans to do to Dad and the others? Is this supposed to help save the damn world?” he said. KT had no answer. “I just want this to be over. To go home and see Mum and Dad again.

“Your mother is safe,” Elizabeth told him soothingly. “She is in a Powerle… a regular hospital with a fever.” She had stumbled over the word ‘Powerless’, a term that now likely referred to her too.

Déaþscúa was still calling out weakly. His words changed constantly, slipping through languages like gears on a car. KT didn’t understand any of it until the words transitioned into English.

“I’m sorry. Why? Why does everyone die? I tried so hard but failed you all. Dead. So much death. Ava…”

KT frowned. “Did he say Ava?” Maybe it was a coincidence.

Elizabeth nodded sadly. “Yes. She was his accomplice. They were very close. Her death hit him very hard. He hasn’t been the same since.”

KT’s mind was working overtime. Almost scared to hear the answer she asked the question that blazed in her head.

“Ava Peterson? A dark haired woman who died almost twenty years ago here in Scotland?”

Now it was Elizabeth’s turn to frown. “Did Déaþscúa tell you? He speaks of it to nobody.”

“No. She was our cousin. She died before we were even born. It was her mother who we were here visiting. Déaþscúa never said… That’s why he always looks at me like I’m a ghost. What really happened to her?”

Kai looked shellshocked. “We were always told that it had been a car crash. That Ava and Uncle Frank had skidded off the road during a storm. It was Annis, wasn’t it? We were told that this wasn’t the first time that Déaþscúa has been here hunting her.”

Elizabeth waved them away unsteadily. “It is not my place to tell you. It is Déaþscúa’s story to tell or keep locked away.”

“But she is our family!” KT said.

“Ask Déaþscúa once he has healed,” the witch told them again flatly. “Now quieten down. We have company.”

From the flames emerged Niall. He addressed them bluntly. His face was a mask of thinly veiled wrath. “We will lay the dead te rest now. As soon as we’re finished, we march te war. I will take ye te a nearby faegate that will see ye te safety.”

They all nodded. Kai and Jearl manhandled Déaþscúa off the ground and the group followed Niall through the woods. Daylight still shone down but the sky was growing darker and the wind was bitterly cold. Another hour and it would be dark. Nobody spoke. Niall kept his eyes forward and walked with a brisk speed that the others struggled to match.

It was only a few minutes of walking until Niall stopped beside a circle of mushrooms. KT knew it as a fairy ring. It was about two metres wide and was made up with hand sized white mushrooms. Nothing else visible looked any different than the rest of the forest they had travelled. 

“Take Déaþscúa someplace safe. When he’s back on his feet, tell him that Annis has gone tee far this time. If he doesnae git his arse straight back here then we’ll take her on alone.” Niall told them quietly. His voice dropped even lower. “Some of the bairns are missing. They’ll like as nae taken them te eat. We’ve lost everything except our violent nature. That has grown. Stubbornness and rage is all we have.” He left them, tears threatening to fall from the corners of his eyes.

Elizabeth watched him go sadly before turning to the others. She was already looking better, other than a loss that lingered in her eyes. 

“Everyone into the ring,” she ordered them smoothly, ushering the group forward like a mother hen. “Faegates are easy to use if you know how, deadly if you don’t. I’ll take us as close to my house as we can get. I may not be able to use magic to heal him but I still know my herbs and potions.”

“No,” said Jearl, surprising them all with his firmness of tone. “Your house is compromised. Annis knows where you live. I don’t know much but I do know she is plannin’ somethin’ big. She won’t want any loose ends lyin’ around to trip her up. We should take him to his own house. Nobody knows where that is other than Déaþscúa himself and me.”

“You know how to use the faegate?” At a nod from the scrawny man, Elizabeth stood to the side. “Lead on then.”

Once everyone was inside the ring of fungi, Jearl knelt down and began to tap mushrooms like keys of a giant computer. As he worked he explained his actions to KT and Kai lazily.

“You see, faegates are, like, natural computers that are all kinda connected to each other. Just like the internet. You hit a mushroom that sits in the direction you want to travel, another as an indicator of country, area of said country and so on. Pinpointin’ a rough destination that should match you with the closest faegate to where you want to be. Then it, you know, emails us to our chosen gate. Simple.”

He was drawing worried looks from the two teens. He shrugged dismissively. “Meh. You don’t need to understand. Just be glad we have computers and internet now to compare it to. You try describing faegates to a medieval peasant without simply sayin’ ‘Magic’ and givin’ them a flashy jazz-hands.”

KT opened her mouth to comment when a wave of nausea rippled through her. Her vision blurred and bright colours swam across her eyes in shifting patterns. Her entire body tingled. She bent double, feeling on the verge of throwing up, when suddenly the colours and tingling was gone. When she straightened up she realised that they were no longer standing in the dense forest where they had been but instead were in the centre of a small cluster of plain hills. 

The air was warmer here. By normal standards she would have been frozen, but compared to the Scottish winter on her skin only seconds ago, it felt almost tropical. The mist that formed with her every breath suggested that the cold would get to her again soon enough.

“Where are we?” Kai asked. He was having serious trouble standing now but masked it as best as he could. Déaþscúa’s weight was not helping in the slightest. 

“Good ol’ Blighty,” Jearl answered happily. “The Peak District to be precise. It’s not far to the ol’ gaff.”

They took up a steady walk again in an uphill direction. Kai grumbled at this angrily. The terrain was rugged but beautiful. Mountains formed vast borders on the horizon, framing a picture of woods, green hills, rivers and small villages. Frost hung in the air, but if anything this simply added to the serene effect.

“Couldn’t you have used a faegate uphill of his house?” Kai grunted. “Even if it’s further away, a nice downhill stroll is always better.”

“Déaþscúa understandably didn’t want people to materialise on his doorstep. There’s only one active faegate in this area.” This answer only brought more angry muttering from Kai. 

“Well, if these faegates teleport you instantly from one to another and they’re everywhere, why have we been driving from place to place?”

“‘Cos driving is fun. That and the ‘orrible sickness. Oh, and the fact I wouldn’t trust a fairy to piss on me if I was on fire. They’re basically magical vermin with god complexes. Utter bastards they are.”

Jearl led them up the slope of a large hill until they crested it and looked down upon a small valley filled with evergreen trees. The sound of flowing water drifted to them and birdsong filled the air. None of that registered with the two teens though. Even Elizabeth looked slightly surprised by the building that sat nestled into the valley’s centre.

It was a giant building of light coloured stone with large windows, balconies and carved hedges in the shapes of animals clustered around it. It was so grand, completely different to how KT imagined Déaþscúa to live. She had expected a gloomy shack or cave, or maybe a regular house like Elizabeth, but this building was fit for a lord.

Walking through the wooded valley was almost enough to cleanse the weariness from their bones. The place felt peaceful, like peace had a physical presence that bathed the body inside and out. They followed a thin stream of fish filled water that ran through the valley then entered into the small clearing where the hedge animals stood like leafy guardians.

The closer they got, the more details KT was able to pick out. It was a three story building with a grand arched entrance carved to look like two trees holding the darkwood door in place. To either side of this were tower like sections that bulged out from the flat wall slightly and rose up beyond the main building. It was gothic in design yet somehow looked elegant and fit with its surroundings. KT had never seen anything like it.

They stopped in front of the door and marvelled at the intricate carving of an ancient battle that was cut into the wood. Each slight movement of the head seemed to make the warriors move, giving the illusion of life to the scene. Standing there, KT felt like an ant with the building towering over her like a personal cathedral.

Jearl took an iron key from a chain around his neck and slotted it into the ornate lock. It clicked and the door swung open without a sound. Lights flashed on, lighting up a wide corridor lined with paintings and statues. 

“Welcome to Éadnes,” Jearl proclaimed proudly. “Here Déaþscúa should be up and about in no time. There’s no place like home after all, eh.”

The others just stared in wonder. “How can he afford a place like this? He looks like a homeless man and wanders around the world. Why have a dirty great palace?” Kai asked. His eyes drifted between Déaþscúa and the house.

“People pay a lot for his skills,” Jearl answered noncommittally. “Been payin’ him for a good few years too. The place is off the grid. A little secret between friends that should never be repeated in the presence of a copper: He ain’t exactly payin’ taxes on it. Nobody alive knows of it’s existence, you see.”

KT and Elizabeth followed behind Jearl and Kai as they moved through the house with Déaþscúa slung between them. KT stared at everything like a child. The statues showed great heroes and terrible monsters, the paintings ranged from battles to scenic vistas and everywhere there were stained glass windows and shining lamps. Small tables or cabinets were placed against the walls every so often with strange or beautiful items on display within.

“Some of these objects are categorized as lost or destroyed by the Grand Moot,” Elizabeth said with wide eyes. “Is that a shard of Osiris? And there, that looks like Archlord Tibrill’s famed shadow-eater dagger. If the Moot knew that Déaþscúa had these items they’d be furious. More so than usual.”

Jearl shrugged. “He ain’t much for art but most of these pieces woulda been destroyed without him. In war zones and revolutions, art is often the first casualty.”

The two women lagged behind slightly when Elizabeth stopped to examine a palm sized disc of black and white. When they caught up they found Jearl and Kai lifting Déaþscúa onto a narrow bed in a white room filled with cupboards and cabinets. Jearl unlocked one cupboard with another key and took out a single bottle filled with a thick silver liquid. He stripped the bloody rags from Déaþscúa then unscrewed the lid and began to pour it onto his body. Steam rose from Déaþscúa’s skin as though the liquid burned him. Even unconscious, Déaþscúa thrashed and groaned.

Elizabeth nodded approvingly. “Silver Devil. Clever. It heals fast but leaves the victim dead after the next sunrise. Since Déaþscúa is basically immortal he only gains the benefits. It’s a good job too if Annis truly intends to open Heaven’s Gate. We can’t let that happen.”

Jearl nodded. “Yup. Now if you three don’t mind, I have some business to take care of. Look after him until I get back. There’s plenty of food so help yourselves.”

“Where are you going?” Elizabeth shouted at his back as he left the room. “The rules are you cannot leave Déaþscúa without his permission.” He didn’t respond. There was the dull thud of footsteps, the clicking of a door, and then he was gone. “Arrogant man,” she huffed.

Elizabeth began to search through the cupboards, taking out bottles and boxes that she examined with a knowing eye. She took bits and pieces then moved to a nearby workbench where she set to work grinding herbs and mixing liquids.

“Is that it?” Kai suddenly demanded into the quiet. “We just stand around here waiting while Annis does who knows what? I want to be out there with Niall tracking that bitch down.”

“Watch your language,” Elizabeth told him without looking up from her work. “You’re injured and would only slow down the search. We need to regroup and reassess the situation. I have no magic, you two are injured, Jearl has gone off alone and Déaþscúa is in a weakened state. Maybe if I could use magic to heal him it would be a different story. But I can’t so it isn’t. As soon as we’re all ready we’ll be back out there.” She held out a dish filled with a green paste. “Here. Apply this to your wounds then find where the bedrooms are in this place. KT, stay here a moment.”

Kai took the dish and left the room without a word, a sour expression on his grimy face. KT stepped closer to the older woman nervously. She remembered all too well punching the woman in the face the last time they had been in a quiet room together.

“I’m sorry about hitting you,” KT began but Elizabeth cut her off.

“Forget about that. You saw a threat and dealt with it. It is linked to why I want to talk with you though. You realised that I had been drugging you. You were able to fight against the magical effects of my tea. That’s no easy feat. I thought little of it at the time as some people are less susceptible to such things but when I saw you run straight through a fireball it became clear. I believe that you may be a Resistant.”

KT blinked. “Resistant?”

“Yes. Someone who is immune to the effects of magic. Magical energy touches you and dissipates instead of achieving its intended purpose,” the witch explained. “Your clothes took some of that blast but you should still have been knocked back and burned.”

“Wait, isn’t that the same as what happens with bacon? Déaþscúa told us that bacon is resistant to magic.”

“That is…true,” Elizabeth said slowly. “Bacon is known as a resistant material.”

“So I am bacon? Is that why everyone I meet keeps trying to eat me? Because I will taste like bloody bacon?”

Elizabeth shook her head. “No. You have been dealing with some very evil people. People who draw power from the energies of life and death. Annis is so much stronger than I was because she used a far stronger source of power to draw from. Most of us use our own energies to create magic. Druids can draw energy from plants and animals, taking small amounts from nature to increase their power without damaging the providers. Necromancers use the energies of death. When creatures die a burst of energy is released that lingers around the bodies. The younger the life, the more energy is released. As you know, Annis usually consumes young children who’re brimming with life energy. She absorbs that energy directly unlike most necromancers who draw it from the air around them.”

KT turned away, her brain working overtime to process this information. She tried to push Annis from her mind. “Does this mean I’m like you? Magical?”

“Not necessarily,” the woman said with a soft, motherly smile. “Resistants can come from any species. It is more a genetic mutation than a magical ability. Only time will tell for you.”

“Was Ava magical?”

Elizabeth scowled at her. “I told you. I will say no more about her without Déaþscúa’s consent. The wounds in him left by her death still bleed deeply. Worry about yourself for now,” she told the younger woman softly. Her features turned serious. “On that note, don’t think that you are shielded completely from magic. Think of your potential ability like a suit of armour; it will protect you but enough force will break it and it will have weaknesses.” The soft smile returned. “Now, find your brother and get some rest. I’ll keep watch on Déaþscúa.”

With a final lingering look toward Déaþscúa, KT left Elizabeth to her work. Finding Kai in the massive house was easy enough. He stamped around and muttered harshly to himself loud enough to be heard from several rooms away. He had wandered upstairs and was moving from room to room in search of a bedroom that suited him. When KT found him he was prodding a bed to test its softness and studying the room carefully. Finally he shrugged and threw himself onto the bed. 

“Here,” he said, throwing the half empty bowl of paste to her. 

She caught it easily and after a pensive sniff applied it to the larger of her cuts. It burned for a second before leaving the areas numb.

“What have we gotten ourselves into?” she said softly. “Nothing seems to be getting any clearer, does it?”

Kai remained quiet. He was running his fingers along a gash in his arm that the lycan had caused. “We do what we have to do,” he answered after a while. He fell back into silence until he abruptly asked, “Do you think we’ll see Dad again?”

“We have to,” was all she could think to say. 

“She burned the lodge, crucified Mum, turned some of the guests into zombies and massacred women and children. What chance do we have?”

KT clenched her fists and nearly snarled at him. “Don’t you dare start talking like that! We’ll see both Dad and Aunt Susan again and never say otherwise.”

Kai chuckled to himself, drawing a sharp note of anger from his sister. He held up his hands placatingly. “Chill. I’m not seriously wallowing in self pity or anything. Think of it as pre-emptive self-defeatism.”

“What?”

“Bad things are going to happen. We’re going to be worn down and told that we aren’t good enough. We might start believing it when we’re in that worn down state. I’m simply getting it out of my system now while I can still think straight. It’s therapeutic.”

KT smiled. “You always come up with the weirdest sayings and ideas. Are you really okay with everything?”

“Elizabeth was right. We’re hurt and our key players are out of action. Niall and the MacFeelans won’t rush out before their dead are buried and their wounds are healed. We have no option but to wait. We can’t risk running off alone again. I don’t like it but that’s the way it is.”

“I meant are you okay personally. Forget everything else for now. Are you coping? You usually bottle everything up until you explode.”

Kai shrugged. “I don’t know how to do anything else. Mum is hurt, Dad is locked away in God knows what state, the one guy who can help us is a pulpy mess who’s crying for his family, and we’re so far out of our league that we’re insects in a nuclear war. We can’t run, we can’t fight and we can’t sit back and wait. How am I supposed to feel? When I felt trapped by Mum I dyed my hair and got tattoos. When I hated college I dropped out. When I started playing against better teams at rugby I swapped to less competitive hobbies. There isn’t an easy move to make here and now. I hate not knowing what to do. What about you? You were always the calm one.”

“I’m not sure,” KT answered. She searched herself and found fear and anger, but more than anything else, she just felt numb. 

“Maybe I’m just shell-shocked. I feel…terrified. I want things to go back to the way they were before but even if I was given the choice I think I’d still keep fighting. I hate it but it feels somehow right. I want to save Dad and the others but I also want to watch Annis die. I want to save those who can’t defend themselves like those women back in Glasgow.”

Kai nodded. “I think you’re right. The danger. The rush. I can’t explain it. Maybe it’ll all be clearer in the morning. I doubt it but who knows? I’ll keep you safe though. That’s a promise.”

“I know. The same goes for you too.”

KT left and took the room next to Kai’s before collapsed straight onto the bed. The room was a good size and held an expensive looking double bed and several shelves, wardrobes and draws. The design was outdated like what would be in old manor houses and palaces but was filled with modern conveniences like lights, a kettle, a radiator and a handful of spare plug sockets. 

She fell asleep easily and whether it was exhaustion or the comfort of the bed, likely both, she dreamed pleasant dreams at first. Blood gradually filled them though, shattering the peace with faces of the dead. Those that she had killed haunted her, as did the butchered corpses of the MacFeelans. When she finally woke up she was left wondering if she would ever have pleasant dreams again after what she had seen.

It was upon waking that she realised that her body and clothes were sweaty and covered in muck and dried blood. The room had its own en suite bathroom which she gratefully used, washing herself down in the small shower within.

There was a knock at the door followed by Elizabeth’s voice. “I guessed you would want a shower. I scoured the house and couldn’t find anything close to your size but I have something that should make do. I’ll take your other clothes and get them washed and ready for you.”

Elizabeth’s find consisted of a white t-shirt that had the word ‘Relax’ printed across the front and long sport socks. There was nothing else. She slipped them on and was relieved when the t-shirt went down to her knees where it met the socks. Taking a spare belt from a draw she fastened it around her stomach to give the top some form.

She ventured downstairs and followed her nose into a large kitchen. Kai was already in there. He too wore scavenged clothes that were far too big for him. He had jeans and a plain black t-shirt that hung from him in every possible way. KT was glad in hindsight that she hadn’t been given trousers. She was a good bit slimmer than her brother.

Bacon sizzled in a frying pan but to KT’s surprise it was not Elizabeth who stood over it. Déaþscúa offered her a smile. She was taken aback by the fact he was already on his feet again but also with how faded he looked. His skin was pale and his scarred face looked tired and gaunt. His right eye was covered by a simple eyepatch and his left arm was in a sling. He leant against a good quality walking stick and it seemed to be the main thing keeping him up.

“Sorry about yesterday,” he told her as casually as a man might comment on the weather. “I made you breakfast to make up for it. ‘Arvina omnia vulnera sanat’ is my motto after all.

Previous – Chapter 13.

Next – Chapter 15.

Chapter 13. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

Déaþscúa cursed and flung himself at his gun. The men opened fire. KT and Kai dived to the floor as the chamber filled with bullets and a constant roar of echoing gunshots. Bullets tore through Déaþscúa and he screamed out in pain but still managed to grab hold of Aeternum Nox. He rolled back to his feet and opened fire in return even as holes were blown out of his body. His shots blasted through men like paper but there were so many of them. The gun fell from his hand as a bullet shattered his fingers. More and more slammed into him, jerking his body wildly. Blood splashed all around him in a chaotic fountain of crimson. 

The shooting stopped and the room fell into silence. Déaþscúa stood swaying for a moment, his body barely recognisable as human, then fell to the ground in a mound of tattered flesh. Blood pooled around him and bone was visible through clothes and meat. 

Annis’ voice cut across the deathly silence. “And so a legend ends. Pathetic really, that these crude mortal weapons can cut even the strongest of our kind down. You did well, Golman.”

One of the gunmen gave an oily smile to the room at large. “You’re welcome. I always keep my word, witch.”

“As do I,” Annis answered coldly. “You will receive what we agreed upon.”

“And what of the wee kiddies?”

“They have no use without Déaþscúa to taunt but I suppose their energy can be put to use. Take their weapons and wait for me. I’ll be there shortly to finish Déaþscúa once and for all.”

There was a sudden shout then a storm of motion consumed the chamber. From the still open doorway charged the entirety of the MacFeelan clan, their melee weapons held at the ready while their guns already reaped the lives of men. They looked grimy and worn but their spirits weren’t even slightly diminished. Waves of magic flashed, throwing or burning men with contemptuous ease.

Then Elizabeth ran in too, sending jets of air into the gunmen or knocking bullets away from the Scottish warriors, alternating between offence and defence without thought. She rushed to the teens’ side, weaving between fighters without slowing. 

“Come on!” she told them, grabbing each by the arm and dragging them through the battle toward the door forward. “We have to push on. This is our chance to stop Annis once and for all. Stay close to me.”

Elizabeth batted away any attackers with great gouts of air until they were safely in the tunnel with the sounds of combat at their backs. She didn’t let them slow though. There was another door ahead made of wood but Elizabeth reduced it to splinters with a wave of her delicate hand. 

They ran into another chamber much like the one that they had left only smaller. There was no other exit visible. Not that KT spent any time assessing the room. Her eyes were drawn instantly to the woman who stood calmly in the centre. She was tall and slim, her body wrapped in a thin black material that looked like a strange cross between a cloak and a clinging shift. Raven black hair descended down her back while brilliant blue eyes stared out from a youthful face. The only real feature that betrayed her identity was the pale blue tinge to her skin like that of a recently dead corpse. She smiled revealing fanged teeth.

Beside the woman was another lycan. This one was bigger than any of the others that KT had seen, its entire body a great mass of muscle. Its fur was a dark red and its teeth and claws looked razor sharp. A constant low growl rumbled from its throat.

Above them was a sphere of darkness that pulsed and writhed with a twisted energy. The air in the room was cold and prickled at the skin. A faint wind pulled upwards in a spiral towards it. A stretched line connected it with Annis.

“And so the cavalry arrives,” the woman observed mockingly. “I expected Déaþscúa to come prepared with more than a few brutish Scots, a woman who thinks herself a witch, and some children who believe themselves to be adults. I suppose the fact that he actually asked for help is miracle enough. I half expected him to stick to his stubbornness and come alone again.”

“Enough,” Elizabeth said, cutting the other woman off sharply. Without waiting, she held out her hand and air began to spiral around it in a maelstrom of crackling power. The air shot out in a roaring beam straight for Annis’ heart. 

Annis held out her own hand as the beam struck. The air hit her hand and split into two halves that sped to either side of her before carving great gashes into the stone behind her. The entire room shook with the impact. The woman in black shook her head almost regretfully.

“See? Nothing but a girl playing at being a true witch.” She clenched her hand and Elizabeth rose from the ground with a choking noise. Elizabeth struggled against invisible bonds and shouted in silence. “Stay there while I have a word with Déaþscúa’s little friends. I’ll deal with you later.”

Annis took a step closer to the teens. Without thought they both took a hasty step back. The line between her and the sphere was thicker now and a similar dark glow surrounded the witch. She smiled at them as her eyes took in their every detail. She was beautiful, completely opposite to how she was described in the stories. Now that she was closer though, KT could see long talons tipping her fingers like the legend said.

“I can see why Déaþscúa has taken an interest in you both. You have a most unusual aura. One I haven’t seen in many years.” She paused and her focus sharpened. “You’re from Aife’s Lodge, correct? I assume that I hold people close to you? You don’t seem overly distressed so they were not one of my thralls. Good. It is always nice to have leverage.”

Kai took a defiant step closer to her, his teeth bared almost as fiercely as the lycan’s. “Damn right you have our family! It was our mum you decided to crucify and leave for dead! I don’t give a shit who you are! All I know is that I’m going to kill you!”

Annis laughed. “How cute. If you killed me though, how would you know where your loved ones are? They clearly aren’t here, are they? Claine, show him why mice shouldn’t pick fights with tigers.”

The lycan made a single short grunt then sprang at Kai before the young man had even registered the movement. He managed to manoeuvre his axe between them at the last second so that the beast’s claws clashed against the weapon instead of his flesh. The force of the blow still knocked him from his feet and sent him sprawling backwards. Kai had to roll and swing the axe instantly when the lycan dived straight after him. 

KT started towards her brother but another step from Annis halted her feet. She locked eyes with the woman, her hands shaking as she readied her weapon. Annis ignored the blade as though it didn’t even exist. 

“You look so alike his last companion. He clearly has a thing for dark haired beauties. She died because of him you know. Now you will too.”

“You killing innocents is not Déaþscúa’s fault,” KT hissed. She wrangled her emotions into control and steadied her hands. “You are nothing. You didn’t dare to even be in the same room as him when you had him murdered!”

“Oh, he isn’t dead. Not yet. It will be my hands that end his life, not hired muscle. They couldn’t kill him even if they tried. I think that I’ll personally kill you too. I do love to kill those that attach themselves to him. You’re so young and full of life as well.”

Kai screamed out, causing KT to turn her head for a split second. Annis used that time to dash at her, the metallic claws flashing out. They lunged for KT’s throat like vipers. KT threw herself onto her back and kicked up with both feet, catching Annis in the gut with her heavy boots. The witch staggered back and KT swept her leg at the other woman with the intention to trip her. Annis jumped her leg and landed gracefully a few feet away. She watched KT stand without moving.

“You appear to be a natural fighter. And your aura shines so brightly. Interesting. Killing you would be such a waste. I could use someone like you. I wonder how far your inherent talent can be pushed.”

Fire sprang up in Annis’ hand. KT jumped to the side as she threw it, narrowly dodging the splash of flames that cracked the ground where she had been standing. More fireballs came at her that she clumsily hurled herself away from. Annis was keeping her on the defensive, keeping her from getting close. KT couldn’t win if she couldn’t get close. She skidded to change directions and with a scream ran straight for Annis. The witch gave her a cruel smirk then sent another wave of flames directly at her.

The flames struck KT and washed over her entire body. The heat was intense but she didn’t feel pain. The silver threads on her clothes glowed crimson then disintegrated. She pushed through the fire and swung the doublesword at Annis’ head. Annis blocked with her talons but a look of mild surprise flittered across her face before she reset her features. 

Behind her, Kai roared a curse as another cut opened up his skin. His left shoulder had already taken a blow from a clawed hand and now blood gushed from a single line that ran down the side of his ribs. The lycan was faster, stronger and more experienced than him in every single way. 

He risked a glance over to KT but was forced to ducked low, almost falling as claws swept above his head. Before he could straighten the lycan kicked out at his chest. All air was knocked from his lungs. He collapsed to the floor. 

KT swung wide and Annis grabbed her arm with both hands, halting the sword completely, just as KT had planned. She drove her fist into the witch’s jaw and felt bone break. It was her fingers that had snapped though. Annis’ skin was hard as stone. Her head had barely moved at the impact.

Annis’ grin was almost animalistic now, her sharp teeth glittering in the weak light. The orb above her was smaller now while the glow that surrounded her was growing in intensity. “I don’t suppose you’d willingly join me?”

“Fuck you,” KT said through laboured breaths. She was trying to keep her cool but her fingers stung painfully and she was beginning to realise that she couldn’t win against this woman. How arrogant had she been to ever think she could have?

The lycan appeared at Annis’ side once again, this time with Kai held up by the throat in one giant hand.

Annis waved her hand and a hammer of air slammed into KT, sending her flying into the wall. It was an effort for her to open her eyes. KT tried but couldn’t move anything. Kai still hung helplessly. KT didn’t even know if he was conscious or not.

“What you don’t understand is that my goal is to save the world. As soon as I have enough power to open the Gate then the world will know peace once more. Lives have to be lost but none of them are wasted. Déaþscúa, and those like him, can never understand this. But that’s okay. He is prophesied to die to the woman of black. His power is the last thing that I need. It’s inevitable. So, I will ask you again. Will you join m-”

A hammer smashed into the side of Annis’ head. Her face distorted horribly in the split second before she was sent flying across the room. KT’s eyes flickered to the side and rested upon Friseal. He gave her a big, goofy grin then offered her a hand. She took it gratefully and was pulled to her feet as though she weighed nothing. 

“Friseal doesnae like seeing pretty lasses get hurt. Annis is pretty outside but very ugly inside. KT pretty everywhere. Friseal protect KT from ugly witch,” Friseal said in that slow, gentle way that he spoke. When his eyes turned back to Annis though, they burned with a fire that was at odds with the rest of his face.

Annis was back on her feet now, a snarl firmly set upon her face. Her pale cheek was red as though she had been slapped. There was no other sign that she had just been hit with a giant chunk of metal with enough force to shatter a human skull.

“You will regret that,” Annis said quietly. “I’ll wipe you and your entire family from this sorry land.”

“Annis talk big but Friseal doesnae think she has strength te back words up. Friseal think Annis should stop eatin’ people and try haggis. It make Annis big ‘n’ strong like Friseal.”

Annis took a deep breath then let loose a barrage of fireballs. Friseal didn’t move. His hammer swung to meet the flames and batted them away like tennis balls. The lycan had thrown Kai to the ground and now charged the Scotsman. Friseal fought him off easily, even the werewolf didn’t want to get acquainted with the fearsome hammer. Then Annis rejoined the fray, her metallic nails and the lycan’s claws moving with lightning speed.

Friseal grunted with effort, his burdensome hammer moving with speed and finesse that should have been impossible. He was holding his own, but only just. The lycan struck high and Annis hit out low. Friseal managed to block both but in the process had his weapon knocked from his hands. He staggered back and clenched his fists, showing no sign of fear or doubt. 

Then there were swords, axes and hammers all around him. Niall placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder. His entire body was drenched in blood. None of it looked to be his own. 

“What did màthair tell ye about wanderin’ off alone?” the clan head said with mock sternness. 

Friseal gave him a sheepish grin. “Everyone else was busy. Hadtae keep the young ones safe.”

“Well, we’re all here now. Let’s show this blue-skinned bitch why no one messes with the MacFeelan family.”

Annis swept her gaze over the assembled warriors with weary contempt. The lycan stood ready at her side, dwarfing her. The sphere was almost gone now but the effort of absorbing it seemed to be taking its toll on her. A sheen of sweat was beginning to show.

“It seems,” she began, “that the powerless are still no match for our kind. That is good, I suppose, if inconvenient. I didn’t want to resort to this. Enjoy your tomb.”

She clapped her hands and the walls shook. Energy cracked across her body and spread to the stones around them. Dust rained down and a deep, reverberating rumble filled the air. The MacFeelans ran at Annis and the lycan with a loud battlecry. The witch raised her hands and fallen rocks began to float around her. They shook, shedding chips of stone until all had a sharpened point. She thrust her arm out and the rocks flew forward. Niall and the others went into defensive positions but the spikes went around them, aimed straight for KT. 

Before KT had even registered what was happening blood splashed against her. She cried out. Friseal stood before her, his back to Annis. The points of the spikes jutted out from his chest, gut and limbs. Despite the horrendous injuries, Friseal showed no sign of pain on his face. 

“KT…unharmed?” he asked. Blood dribbled from his mouth with every word and his breathing was a laboured gurgle. KT couldn’t muster her voice so she nodded faintly. 

“Good.”

He swayed then tumbled to the ground. Niall and the other MacFeelans rushed to his side. Niall collected Friseal’s hammer and handed it to his brother reverentially. Friseal took it slowly, using it like a staff to keep himself standing.

“Did ye git her?” Friseal rasped. 

Niall shook his head. “The second we were distracted she teleported away. Had a matterlink. Took the walking carpet with her. Damn cowardly bitch.”

“She got me real good, didnae she? KT safe though so witch lady missed.” Friseal chuckled at that. The room was still shaking, making it all the more difficult to stand. His knees shook then gave out. Niall caught him and lowered him gently to the floor. “I feel tired.”

“Hold on, Fri. We’ll fix ye up, okay,” Niall told him as he grasped his brother’s hand. He rounded on Elizabeth. “Can’t ye do anything, Lizzy?”

Elizabeth shook her head softly. “He’s already lost a lot of blood. To heal him I’d need to remove the spikes which would spill more blood. His internal organs have all been pierced. He shouldn’t even be alive after that.”

Friseal curled up as much as he could, wrapping his free arm around the hammer in a childlike embrace. His eyes were closed but his grip on his brother’s hand tightened. “I don’t want te go, bràthair. I never liked the dark…” 

His voice grew quieter as he spoke until it was barely audible above the shaking of the walls and falling rocks. His hand grew loose and his breathing slowed. With tears in her eyes, KT leaned in and kissed his cheek. A warm grin spread across his face as one final, long breath left his lungs, then he was still.

Niall bent down and picked Friseal up like a father would pick up a sleeping child. Rocks fell around them and the earth shook and crashed but for a few moments, everyone was still. “Màthair would be damn proud of ye. Ye are a true hero, Friseal MacFeelan.”

It was a young MacFeelan who brought everyone back to the danger of the situation.

“This place is goin’ te fall in around our ears real quick. We have te go. Now.”

“Agreed,” Elizabeth said. “Annis has rigged this entire structure with runes. When she clapped she triggered them, starting with those furthest away to block all the exits. She’s drained the magic from the stones, leaving the whole place unstable.”

As if to emphasise their words, louder explosions rocked the ground, threatening to throw them all off of their feet. Giant cracks split the stones on every surface. Kai was slung across one of the warrior’s shoulders and they ran back into the first chamber. Bodies lay thick on the ground and blood drenched everything. They found Déaþscúa’s shredded form and two of the MacFeelans carried him between them. It didn’t matter as the door back into the tunnels was already blocked by a thick layer of rubble.

“We’re trapped!” roared a twin axe wielding MacFeelan. “That murderess built this entire network just te cave in on us.”

More crashes shook their eardrums and the cracks in the walls and roof finally gave way. Fires and explosions flared into the room, firing rock fragments like hail. Everything was crumbling with a noise that became life and death itself. The earth caved in upon their heads.

Previous – Chapter 12.

Next – Chapter 14.

Chapter 12. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

So let me get this straight,” started Kai from the backseat of the SUV. It was daylight now but the trees cast a constant gloom across their view. “We’re going to take down the main entrance alone? I get that you want a distraction, but surely having a few of the giant Scottish blokes with us would help?”

“Nah. It’ll be fine. We can handle the front door no problem,” Déaþscúa nodded.

“And how do you plan to do that?”

“I have my ways.” 

Out of the shadows of the forest emerged towering stone. The fort was not overly large but it still loomed. Greening stone blocks rose up from a circular mound to form a bulky rectangular shape with a single curved tower at the back corner. There was a small clearing around the structure but it was obvious that the forest had slowly been reclaiming it until recently. The door was heavy wood with crisscrossing iron beams. 

“So why is this fort so important?” KT asked. It didn’t look particularly impressive. 

“It’s the ancestral home of the MacFeelans and served as their seat of power for centuries. Then Cairan MacFeelan took over as head of the family during the reign of King Henry the Eighth. The powerless were eroding the ancient lands of us magic folk, but we were unable to act because of our laws. Cairan wanted to bring back the glory days so called upon dark magic that drew power to the fort. All residual magic within a hundred miles gathered here. He intended to summon a god to punish the powerless, only, what emerged was something warped with pure hatred. The magic became corrupted and it took a lot of lives to banish the being. Even to this day the dark magic still hangs on the old stones.”

The SUV continued down the overgrown path. Jearl stopped the car and everyone disembarked. They gathered around the driver’s side door as Déaþscúa addressed them. 

“Those doors look pretty sturdy,” he said lightly. “It would take some real force to break through.”

“Indeed it would, boss,” Jearl agreed in an equally jovial tone. “On an unrelated note, have I mentioned that there is a newer model of your SUV? Pretty little thing it is.”

“Oh really? How wonderful.”

“Yeah, it has a bigger cup holder and everything.”

“Such innovation. This car is looking a little bit faded, isn’t it?” Déaþscúa observed in the same overly happy voice as he indicated the lycan created gashes and dents. “I mean, is there even any point keeping this one when bigger cup holders wave at us from the horizon?”

“But it has served you so faithfully, ain’t it guv. To simply leave it here to rot would be a gross disservice.”

“Agreed. We should give it a fitting send off. Being as we’re in Scotland, a Viking funeral seems appropriate.”

KT frowned. “Vikings weren’t Scottish. They were Scandinavian.”

Déaþscúa’s face dropped for a moment. “They were big fellows with axes and beards. They were kin of the heart if nothing else.”

“Too true, boss,” quipped Jearl supportively. 

“So as I was saying,” Déaþscúa continued. “We should give it a Scottish take on a Viking funeral.” He gave a sharp salute to the SUV then turned and saluted Jearl, KT and Kai before climbing into the vehicle. No sooner had the door slammed shut, the engine roared to life and the wheels span. 

The SUV shot down the narrow path toward the fort’s door, gaining speed with every passing second. Déaþscúa showed no sign of slowing or of jumping out. Then there was a spark. Fire suddenly blazed across the metal body, turning the car into a flaming missile. The SUV crashed into the door at full speed. At the second of impact the car exploded, the fire finally having reached the petrol tank. Wood, stone and twisted metal flew through the air in every direction. 

KT and Kai ran through the smoke calling out Déaþscúa’s name desperately. Jearl followed behind at a more sedate pace, his face as cheerful as ever. They reached the car in coughing fits, the smoke filling their lungs as they drew nearer the flaming wreckage. The SUV was little more than a bent frame that still blazed fiercely. It was halfway through a very apparent wound in the fort’s wall where the door had once stood. The site was sheer carnage. Nothing natural could have survived.

There was a loud click that drew both of their eyes. The feeble remains of the driver’s door swung open then clattered to the floor. Déaþscúa stepped out and brushed himself off nonchalantly. The effect was slightly ruined by the fact that he was on fire and was missing quite a lot of skin. He pulled at the tattered remains of his clothes disapprovingly.

“That was fun. I do believe that they heard my polite knocking and have thus allowed us entry into their proud establishment.”

“You’re on fire,” KT pointed out.

“Indeed. It appears that I am.”

“Doesn’t it hurt?”

“Like an absolute bitch,” he answered calmly. As he spoke his skin began to knit itself back together. “Shall we continue?”

“What the hell are you?” Kai asked.

Déaþscúa studied him for a moment before replying. “A very messed up individual who takes pleasure in blowing himself up.” Kai sighed but didn’t press him further.

“Excellent,” the man smiled. “Onwards and upwards. Though in all probability we will be going underground. That doesn’t quite have the same optimistic ring to it though, does it?”

He strode through the flaming rubble without a care. After a simple hand gesture the fires left his clothes and were blown away on the wind. All this achieved was to highlight how little of his clothes remained. He looked at himself with a frown.

“Is this too revealing?” he asked as he turned to face the twins again. 

KT’s blush said all it needed to. He nodded then knelt down. Kai quickly covered KT’s eyes only to receive a swift punch to the gut. Déaþscúa pulled at the sole of his boot to reveal a hidden compartment. He took out a folded length of cloth that he shook out to reveal a full-sized poncho that he quickly slipped into.

“Wait, you carry backup clothes in your shoes?” Kai asked.

“You don’t?” Déaþscúa answered. “And they call me reckless and insane. Ha!”

He turned his attention back to the fort. Distant sounds of battle floated just on the edge of hearing. As he stepped fully into the structure it was as though a switch had been flicked on his personality. His face became serious and his hand rested on the handle of Aeternum Nox. KT and Kai followed cautiously, both clutching their weapons with nervous hands. Kai opted for the shotgun while KT stuck with her pistols.

Déaþscúa waved his hand and the flames parted enough for them to clamber past the wrecked car. The corridor that they entered was a dark, narrow space of heavy stone blocks. There was no source of light beyond the flames and weak daylight that shone faintly at their backs. Every footstep echoed noisily.

Fear clutched painfully at KT’s chest like a frozen hand. The dark and the tightness brought memories of the butcher’s basement racing back to her head. She spat out a curse and forced herself to move deeper into the gloom. Kai held out his hand but she shook her head furiously. She wasn’t about to let her own stupid psyche get in the way and make her look weak. Forcing every emotion down beneath a suffocating layer of focus she continued through the dark. 

“I don’t know what will be in here,” Déaþscúa told them in a low voice. Even so it filled the length of the corridor and continued for several seconds after the words had left his mouth. “This fort is ancient and its corruption is strong. Annis has been gathering forces here but the place is a danger all by itself. Move slowly, keep your eyes on your surroundings at all times and never lose sight of each other.”

As they walked, Déaþscúa held out his hand with two fingers pointed upwards and had a look of concentration on his face. Whenever there was a branching path he picked his direction without even a cursory glance down the differing passageways.

“What are you doing?” Kai asked.

“The way air moves can tell you a lot about an area. What directions are breezes coming from? Is the air dense or free? Humid or dry? Hot or cold? If you know what to look for you can read a space like a book. By opening my senses I can use the air almost like a sonar to map out the building.”

“And what does it tell you?”

“It tells me that we’re in the original fort’s subterranean level. It is a fairly small cluster of basements, dungeons and tunnels. Around that is a whole warren of newer passageways that were dug over the course of centuries.”

“But how does that tell you where you need to go?” Kai pressed curiously. “We could still be wandering around for ages without any clues.”

Déaþscúa gave a faint laugh. “This place is crawling with creatures. We’d find the way soon enough by finding the largest group of things to kill. As it stands though, I can sense a new chamber that’s been created within the last few weeks. The dust is still fresh and the air full with the stench of sweat. Chances are that is where we need to be.”

This didn’t placate Kai by much. “But how do you know? They could have just built a new set of toilets to cater the sudden influx of inhabitants or something like that.”

“I can assure you that goblins don’t use toilets for a start,” Déaþscúa muttered, annoyance tinging his voice at the constant questioning. He paused for a moment then sighed. “Annis is a very smart, cunning woman. Perhaps the most cunning woman alive, and that’s saying something. She clearly wants me to find her. The fact that a new chamber is completed just before my arrival only cements that in my mind. She has a plan and knows that I’ll follow it.”

“So you’re leading us into a trap then?”

“Essentially, yes.”

“Why did you bring us with you? Wouldn’t it make sense for us to fight with the MacFeelans?”

Déaþscúa considered the question for a moment. “I want you to see what you are up against. Anyway, I see some potential in you. Maybe it was fate that led me to you, or maybe not. Either way, I want you both where I can see you. Trust me, I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

KT tried to focus in on Déaþscúa and Kai’s discussion but no matter how hard she tried to keep it down, panic bubbled to the surface of her mind with every step further into the fort. Her vision began to go tunneled and cold sweat beaded on her skin.

“H-how far is it?” she asked. It took all of her effort just to keep her breath calm. 

Déaþscúa gave her a concerned look but elected not to mention anything. Instead he simply said “Not far now. It’s just around this next corner.”

Kai tried to keep the conversation going to avoid the heavy silence of the fort. “Do you think Annis is trying to summon that god thing again then?”

“I don’t know, but I doubt it. Something like that can’t be controlled and she knows it. She has something big planned but with the way her mind works it could be absolutely anything.”

They turned the corner with their weapons raised and ready. It was a dead end with no sign of life. The only thing that stood this section out from the others was that the wall before them was of a smooth, single slab of stone while the rest was either dugout rock or the stone blocks of the fort. At chest level of the slab was a single slit that was thin and just long enough for a child to fit their hand into.

“You’re kidding me,” grunted Kai. “Their new construction was a bloody wall?”

Déaþscúa didn’t answer. He moved closer to the wall and inspected the long hole. He looked it up and down then gazed within the slot. Placing his hand over the gap he closed his eyes. Light emitted from his hand like it did when he healed. He made an impressed sound after a moment.

“It’s a door. That gap is the keyhole. There’s no way to open it without the key. Clever.”

Kai slammed his fist into the wall. “Damn it. We wasted all the time coming here just to be stopped so close! We’ll never find the key. What now?”

“Calm yourself,” Déaþscúa told him softly. “Annis wants me to find her. She crafted the lock knowing that I already possessed the key. This door is simply a measure to ensure that no others enter before me.”

KT stepped to Déaþscúa’s side and looked over the slot with a frown. “But the key would have to be huge. You aren’t carrying anything that big unless you have enchanted pockets or something.”

“I do have enchanted pockets but the key isn’t in them,” Déaþscúa said airily. He moved his hand to his sword hilt and drew the weapon. The deadly metal blade shone even in the gloom. “What better a key is there than something I carry at all times?”

He slid the blade into the slot until the guard rested against the stone door then turned it with a sharp twist of his wrist. There was a click, followed by the clunking sounds of turning gears. He tugged at the weapon but it didn’t move at all now. He shrugged and let go with a rueful glance. The stone shuddered then began to raise until the sword hilt hit the ceiling. The gap beneath the wall was narrow but could easily be passed through on bent knees.

“Clever women indeed,” he chuckled dryly. “Ensure I’m the first one to spring the trap while simultaneously removing my primary weapon. Her plan is flawless once again.”

Déaþscúa made to step into the room but KT caught his arm. “You can’t be serious. You know it’s a trap. Why walk into it?”

“Don’t worry. She’s smart but I’m better in every way. I expected something like this, hence why I brought along backup. Annis can sense magic but two powerless individuals might just pass under her radar.” With that he slipped under the door and into the chamber beyond.

KT and Kai followed close behind after a quick glance at each other. Kai simply shrugged and held his shotgun tighter. The room beyond was a circular space with a single shut door opposite the one they had just entered through. Lights were dotted along the stone wall, filling the area with a dim, yellow light. A large television hung above the shut door. It showed another room filled with chained up men and women.

“Dad,” rasped KT as her eyes took in the TV’s footage. “And there’s Aunt Susan.”

A burst of static broke the silence of the room then a harsh female voice thundered from unseen speakers.

“Déaþscúa,” the voice sneered, contempt dripping from the word. “You’re getting sloppy in your old age. I expected you days ago. And you have brought company too. Two children. How lovely.”

Déaþscúa cleared his throat. “Annis, you’re under arrest. Come out now and surrender to avoid any unnecessary harm to yourself.”

Cackling laughter split the air, rising to a crescendo after several seconds. Déaþscúa shook his head sadly. “There has to be another way, damn it, Annis. What you’re doing is unredeemable.”

“Unredeemable, maybe. But unavoidable.” 

“Well, I tried. The hard way it is.”

“You’ve hunted me for more years than either of us would like to remember and have failed every time. What’s different now?” Annis’ disembodied voice snorted. “You’re out of tricks while my arsenal grows by the day. Just give up and let me do that which we both know is necessary.”

“I don’t know your intentions but wanton murder is never necessary.”

“I have watched you kill. Both of us remember the slaughter that you’ve committed in cold blood. Yet here you are claiming the moral high-ground. You who killed in fits of emotion would judge me? They say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions but nobody likes to be reminded that the road to Heaven is paved with corpses.”

There was the creaking of a hatch opening above them and two brown shapes dropped between them and the door forward. Kai cursed loudly. The figures were those of lycan. 

Déaþscúa rolled his shoulders and raised his Aeternum Nox with a small laugh. “I expected more from you, Annis.”

The beasts leapt into blurred movement, their muscles pulsing and straining with unimaginable strength. Déaþscúa pulled the trigger and thunder crashed through the chamber. A giant hole opened in the first lycan’s chest, splashing blood everywhere. Before the blood even hit the ground Déaþscúa had altered his aim and blew away half of the other’s skull in an explosion of brains.

A third werewolf appeared behind them and barrelled through KT and Kai, sending them skidding across the room as the beast jumped at Déaþscúa’s back. He spun and fired, the bullet entering through the monster’s gaping mouth and exiting somewhere just above its tail. Déaþscúa side-stepped and the carcass crashed to the floor where he had been standing. 

“Oh hell the fuck yes!” he grinned, admiration of the gun almost glowing from him. “Bring on your best, Annis.”

In answer to his taunt, black mist began to seep into the room, forming into dark tendrils that snaked through the air to wrap around the dead lycan bodies. The corpses twitched then started to rise, jerking erratically as the dark magic flooded their veins in place of blood.

At the same time the door opened and a swarm of bodies scrambled out. They were human, or had been at least. Now their skin was white and their eyes showed no spark of life. Their limbs moved stiffly but there was a ferocity to their slow steps that struck fear to the heart.

“Zombies!” Kai shouted.

Even as he said this, KT stared beyond the dead appearance of the once-humans. Most had tangles of greying hair and their pale skin was wrinkled. Their ripped clothes and dead faces tugged at KT’s memory. “Oh God. I know them. They were guests at the lodge.”

Kai’s face tightened as he too recognised the lumbering men and women. His hold on the shotgun faltered. 

“Destroy them,” Déaþscúa told them simply, never taking his eyes from the reanimated werewolves. “They aren’t the people you knew anymore. They’re not people any more. Just empty shells, puppets to Annis’ will. Give them peace.”

Tears welled in KT’s eyes but she knew his words were true. She took aim at an old man who she remembered had offered her a sweet from a tin that he always kept in his breast pocket. Judging by the lump on his chest he still had it, even in death. She tried to clear her mind as she fired. Her first bullet clipped the old man’s shoulder, causing him to stagger. There was no spray of blood, only a slight dark red ooze where the life-giving liquid had congealed. She fired again, this time blowing the undead’s jaw off. Still it limped forward undeterred. A final shot took it in the forehead, shattering its skull and sending brains scattering across the floor. 

Kai looked at the zombies then at his sister then back again. He cursed then pumped his shotgun and started forward. The undead swarmed in his direction now that he was the closer prey but Kai set into them with a merciless barrage of rounds. Limbs flew and bones splintered with every shot. KT continued to pepper them from further back.

The shotgun clicked empty. There was no time to reload before the zombies were at him so he slid it back into its strap and drew his axe, setting into the rotting flesh with animalistic brutality. Their flesh parted easily but devastating wounds did little to slow them. They clawed and bit at him but anything that came within his axe’s reach was severed. Tears stained his face.

Unable to shoot now, KT holstered the pistols and swung her doublesword from her back. It felt cumbersome in her hands but she didn’t have time to worry about it before the zombies closed in. Slowly she inched closer to Kai so they could watch each other’s backs.

Meanwhile, the undead lycan had all charged at Déaþscúa. He fired round after round at them, blowing gaping chunks of flesh and bone away with every shot. Unlike their human counterparts, they didn’t stay down after a single shot to the head. Black magic seethed beneath their skin, keeping them moving whatever damage they took. 

One tackled him from behind, its arms and legs wrapping around him while fanged teeth sought to tear at his throat. The other two crashed into him from the front. Déaþscúa beat one down with the butt of his pistol but the other bit into his wrist. His hand opened and the gun skidded away from him. 

“Déaþscúa!” KT shouted as she batted away a slavering old man with peeling skin. She knocked away another and ran at the werewolves. She threw the doublesword ahead of her like a javelin and it hit home, sinking deep into the back of the lycan that held Déaþscúa. Without slowing she slung the mini-launcher into her hands and fired at the monster who Déaþscúa had fought off. The beast exploded in a spray of gore and bloody chunks. 

She continued on, reaching out to reclaim her blade. The lycan whipped around, slamming Déaþscúa into her. She hit the floor and rolled back into the midst of the zombies who swarmed over her until Kai barreled into them. 

Déaþscúa dislocated his own arm, allowing him to fall loose of the lycan’s grip. He span and drove his fist into the monster’s gut. Blood and darkness spilled out from a large stab wound in the creature’s leathery hide. White bone stood out against Déaþscúa’s tanned flesh, rising from the back of his wrist and extending over his hand to end in a vicious looking point that stuck out a few inches past his knuckles. In a heartbeat he was turning again, this time jabbing an elbow into the Lycan’s side. Mid swing a spike of bone tore through his sleeve before burying deep into the lycan. 

The werewolf howled through a shattered jaw and Déaþscúa cut the sound off when more sharpened bones tore through his arms to slice at the beast’s throat. Its head came loose and hit the floor with a thud. Its body quickly followed.

The final lycan sprang into the air to take Déaþscúa from above. Bones erupted from Déaþscúa’s fingers and he stabbed out, his hand smashing through fangs as it entered the beast’s maw before exiting the back of its head in a shower of brains. With a single quick movement, Déaþscúa grabbed the still falling body and threw it to the side like it weighed nothing.

A bellow of rage drew his attention back to KT and Kai just in time to see Kai cave in the head of the final zombie with a mighty swing of his axe. KT stood with slumped shoulders, her breath coming in ragged gasps. Blood covered them both.

“See, that wasn’t too hard, was it?” Déaþscúa said airily. Kai shot him a withering look.

“I see that life hasn’t dulled you too much,” cut in Annis’ voice. “I wanted one final show of your skill before your death. You know the prophecy. ‘Death’s shadow will die at a woman’s touch when black reclaims the grave’. It’s so poetic. Yet you still chase me. I sometimes fear that you seek your death, like a lover seeking a lost embrace.”

Déaþscúa shook his head. “I seek justice for your crimes. I never was one to put faith in prophecy anyway. You can ask your buddy Christie that. Now are you going to open the door or am I going to have to do it?”

Annis barked a laugh. “I’ll almost be sad when you’re no longer in this world. But, like a fool, you rushed into my trap. It’s a shame. I think you would have been happier with this world once Heaven’s Gate is opened. Farewell Déaþscúa.”

There was a sound of grinding all around them. The walls dropped away to reveal a hidden ring of space filled with hundreds of men. Each was armed with a large gun that was aimed dead at Déaþscúa.

Previous – Chapter 11.

Next – Chapter 13.