Chapter 28. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

Darkness faded into light. Black became white. Numbness clouded thoughts. A sense of disembodiment flooded into the void then flared into awareness. Comprehension followed shortly after.

KT was laid in a bed staring up at a white ceiling. White walls surrounded her. Another bed was at her side. Her mother was propped up on her elbows and stared across at her happily. She looked pale and bruised but full of life. On chairs between the two beds sat Kai and their father. They too bore bruises and small cut. 

Memories clicked into place. She remembered being at the lodge. There had been a strange smell, then an explosion. During brief moments of consciousness she could recall hearing people talk about some kind of gas explosion that had killed several of the lodge’s guests and injured the others. Everything was alright now though. She was safe and well.

“You’re finally awake. How are you feeling?” her mother asked her softly. Everyone was looking at her.

“Good. Tired and sore but good.” It hurt to speak. 

“You’ve been out for a few days,” her father told her. He reached out and held her hand. “You were declared stable two days ago and have been drifting in and out of consciousness since.”

“Well I’m back for good this time,” KT smiled. “Kai, how are you?”

“Me?” Kai shrugged. “I was only thrown around a bit. This head’s too thick to take damage. You almost managed it though. You drove me mad with worry. Where would I be without you there to keep me on the straight and narrow?”

KT closed her eyes again for a moment. “I’ll always be there to keep an eye on you. You wouldn’t last a day without me.” She suppressed a flutter of a frown. It seemed that he remembered the explosion. For KT, other memories had started to overlay that inferno.

She looked around herself slowly and noticed Ava’s necklace on the table beside her. With unsteady fingers she picked it up and stared into the mesmerizing swirl of silver. Resolve filled her soul like a tsunami. 

Black Annis still lived, Déaþscúa was imprisoned and Heaven’s Gate was severely weakened. The red haired woman’s parting words loomed at the back of her mind too. Big changes were in motion and she needed to be strong enough to face them.

For Ava and Uncle Frank, and now Aunt Susan, and for everybody that the witch had ever taken from this world, KT would see her dead. This she vowed to herself.

It would appear that the Grand Moot was not informed of your resistance to magic. That is a mistake that I feel will come back to bite them. This will prove to be an interesting lifetime…


The end.

Thanks for reading. Hope you had a kick-ass time with Thorns of the Shadow. Feel free to leave your thoughts or feedback in a comment. 

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Previous – Chapter 27.

Chapter 27. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

Kai roared. Adrenaline coursed through him like liquid fire. Everything was a blur. He rode atop Arteeru and used the spear like a lance to stab at any enemy that he could reach. Arteeru trampled goblins underfoot and swung powerful paws at anything too big to crush. His fangs bit at men and monsters alike. 

From Arteeru’s back, Kai could see most of the battlefield. Niall’s force had retreated to a large helicopter that had barbed wire fencing set up in a ring around it. It was hard to tell faces in the flurry of snow but the simple amount of figures showed that the battle hadn’t been going well up to that point. Judging by the strange shapes in the sky, things weren’t going too well against Annis either.

The spear wedged itself into a furred creature that was slightly bigger than a man and snapped in half. Kai threw the remaining part away and swung his shotgun around, blasting at a particularly ugly goblin. They were fast approaching Niall’s warriors now.

Kai could make out Ailia up ahead. She chased after goblins who fled from her in terror, ripping off their limbs like a sadistic child torturing insects. Close to her was a woman who fought with a staff. Kai had noticed her for her looks back in the camp but had been too occupied to pay much attention to her. He thought that he would rectify that now. 

He jumped from Arteeru’s back, landing on a goblin whose bones shattered under the weight. He ran toward the woman, gunning down anything in his path before skidding to a halt at her side with a charming grin on his face.

“You need a hand?” he offered.

“Nah, I’m good,” the woman replied as she grabbed a man and rammed her staff up his arse. The weapon glowed for a second then fired a laser that shot up through the man’s body and exploded his head. Kai gulped. “Feel free to help the western lines. Me and Ailia have this side covered.”

Kai moved to do as the woman said when he hit another invisible wall. He looked around in confusion. A similar look passed over both Ailia and the red headed woman. The shield cut off the majority of Annis’ forces. It looked as though it encompassed the entirety of the battlelines. 

Magic and gunfire rained down on the army outside of the shield. Men and women in suits or cloaks appeared from every direction. Annis’ minions ran screaming. The newcomers didn’t stop killing but nor did they bother with those that fled. It was only a matter of minutes until there was only the new force and a sea of corpses beyond the magical barrier.

“Shit,” Kai heard the red haired women exclaim. “The Grand Moot’s found us faster than I thought. Déaþscúa better have dealt with Annis already.”

The shield started to fade from the top down to the ground. The Grand Moot soldiers advanced on them with the same severe looks that they had worn against those working for Annis. They surrounded the ragtag group. 

“You are all henceforth in the custody of the Grand Moot,” announced a magically amplified voice. “Lay down your weapons now or you will be executed. This is your one warning.”

“Fuck me sideways with a flaming bargepole. We were so close to winning,” the woman huffed. She dropped her weapon without argument though. The staff beeped angrily as it hit the dirt. Seeing everyone else comply, Kai dropped his shotgun. 

From then on there was a lot of being herded around like cattle and plenty of arguments. Kai tried asking after KT several times but never received a reply. If he did manage to get one of the stern faced guards to speak it was usually to tell him to shut up. He was getting sick of being shoved around too. He was tired, half frozen and ill with worry. 

Another guard ignored him when he tried again and he finally snapped. “Are you fucking deaf you ignorant prick?” he shouted. Grabbing a stone he hurled it at the man’s head.

The man rounded on him in a fury. He swung a thick truncheon into Kai’s ribs. His arm pulled back for another attack when a boot caught him in the head and he dropped like a sack of potatoes. The boot belonged to the mercenary woman. 

A crowd had quickly gathered. A dozen of the guards were advancing upon them which caused a handful of mercenaries to stand at Kai and the woman’s side. Men and women were taking fighting stances all around them on both sides.

“Break it up. Calm yourselves. We are rational adults who should be on the same team, not squabbling children,” boomed another magnified voice. 

It belonged to a large, greying man with an aura of leadership about himself. Scarlet robes were visible beneath a warm cloak. He walked through the men and corpses with no concern for anything. His steps were directed toward Kai and the mercenary. 

“Glory Valentine. I see that you haven’t lost any of that fiery spirit. That’s good. We need passionate people in the world. I only wish your passion didn’t lead you to break into restricted areas and steal dangerous information. It is a very serious thing that you’ve done,” he said to the woman. Even without magic, his voice was clear and strong. Next he looked to Kai. “And you must be Déaþscúa’s companion, Mordekai Redthorn. It seems that you too are a passionate individual. Do not allow yourself to burn out due to too fierce a flame.”

“Where’s my sister?” Kai asked again, his anger only just in check.

“Your sister is being taken to our Scottish Hall to recover from the injuries she received from Annis. Nobody here seemed able to heal her. I’m afraid her fate is in the hands of science rather than magic,” the man answered. “You will all be taken there shortly so you will be able to see her for yourself soon.”

“And Déaþscúa?” 

The man patted his shoulder reassuringly. “Déaþscúa is alive and well. There is no need to worry about him. Now, I must go and attend to business. Annis didn’t fully break the seal but she has left it paper thin. It could crack at any minute, and none of us want that. If you need anything then ask for Arch Councillor Forenine.” Then he vanished into the snow.

“Look at you, making friends in high places,” Glory smirked. “Your new buddy is the leading member of the English branch of the Grand Moot. That makes him the most important man in the country. With the recent actions the Moot’s taken recently, it also makes him very incompetent or completely untrustworthy. Keep that in mind.”

“Lucky him. I don’t much care for important folk. In my experience, the more important you are the bigger dick you are. It’s all pretty correlative,” Kai muttered dismissively. 

“Oh I like you,” Glory laughed. “I’m Glory Valentine, by the way. Leader of the world’s largest international mercenary cartel. That’s about as important as you can get without corrupting yourself with politics.” Her smile unnerved Kai slightly but she only laughed again.

True to Forenine’s word, it wasn’t long until the remaining warriors were led to a line of vans. They were loaded into them then had no option but to sit and wait as they were driven to the Scottish Hall. Time dragged inside the confines of the van. It was only an hour or so journey but Kai felt every second of the time. Glory brought out a set of dice and invited Kai to a few games with the other mercenaries but none of them seemed focussed on it. 

When the van’s engine cut off it was still several minutes until the doors opened. Kai stepped stiffly out into a large courtyard surrounded by brown stone walls topped with towers and spires. Patterns and sculptures were carved across the surfaces. It looked like some grand manor house or something similar. 

Soldiers in black and red uniforms came to guide away Glory’s mercenaries and the remaining Scottish warriors after clamping them in chains that suppressed their magic. Kai was taken aside by another soldier who led him into the building through a separate door. His feelings that the building was a grand house were confirmed by the interior. Old looking paintings covered the walls while more carvings worked their way up columns and across skirtings. The place even smelled old. Despite all of this, every room was flooded with light and warmth. 

Kai tried to pry some information from the soldier. It was a fruitless effort. The man kept a stoic silence. He led Kai at a brisk march through the corridors to a set of double doors. The soldier opened one door and ushered Kai inside. It was a long room filled with half a dozen beds. Only one was currently occupied.

“KT!” Kai was at her side in two great strides. She opened her eyes and winced.

“Geez, keep it down. I feel like I’ve been through a meat grinder,” she said weakly. Dozens of tubes were connected to her body. “A doctor told me I should be dead. I’m getting tired of people saying that. I’ll heal perfectly fine but I’ll have some pretty nasty scars. They tried to use magic to save me but it didn’t work. I think the fairies did something to the wounds. The doctors had to rely on potions and stitching. I look like Frankenstein’s monster.”

“I’m just glad you’re okay,” Kai breathed. A smile slid across his lips. “I’m going to have to stop letting you out of my sight. Every time I leave you alone I find you injured in a sickbed afterwards.”

“Only because I actually do things. I make myself useful.”

“Yeah, as a practice dummy apparently,” Kai countered. They both laughed, almost deliriously despite the pain it was clearly causing KT.

The laughter stopped when the doors were opened again to admit a small group of men into the room. Kai only recognised Arch Councillor Forenine. He greeted them both kindly. The other men stood behind him without expressions. They weren’t in soldier uniforms but white robes.

Forenine spoke gently but his voice was still official sounding. “Katherine and Mordekai Redthorn, you both have my formal apologies for being wrapped up in all of this. You should never have been aware of our world and you certainly shouldn’t have been placed in the danger that you were. As a rule, we try to keep regular, powerless humans from any knowledge of us. It is better for everyone that way. As such, the Council has voted to wipe your minds of any events linking to magic and monsters.”

Kai choked. “You what? We fought tooth and nail for your world. We chose to be a part of it. If you think that you can mess with my brain you’ll get a nasty surprise.”

“I am afraid that you don’t have any choice in the matter,” Forenine informed them. “It has been deemed a matter of security risk. Whether you try and fight or willingly comply, the results will be the exact same. You will have no memories of the time since first meeting Déaþscúa. New memories will be given to explain your injuries. It will not harm you in any way.”

Kai was about to argue until KT placed her hand on his arm. She shook her head weakly. 

“This is a battle we can’t win. I don’t want to see you get hurt needlessly,”

Forenine nodded approvingly. “You are a wise young woman. I’ll be sad to see you go.”

“Can we at least say goodbye to those who helped us before we forget them?” she asked.

Forenine ran a broad hand through his beard thoughtfully. “I think that that would be acceptable. You may say your farewells to all except for Déaþscúa. He is currently being debriefed. If you can walk, I will show you to where the others are.”

“Thank you,” KT told him. She tried to stand but needed Kai’s help to get out of the bed. She was in a regular looking set of checkered pyjamas. “What happened with Annis and Heaven’s Gate? Did we stop her in time?”

“I’m afraid that information is classified.”

Kai snorted. “Classified? You’re about to delete our memories. Does it really matter if you tell us?”

“Rules are rules, young man. Suffice it to say that everything is in hand.”

It took a fe4w minutes to fully unplug KT from her bed. With Kai’s assistance, she shuffled across the room and out of the door after Arch Councillor Forenine. As they walked, Forenine would point out pieces of art or architecture and explain its history. He seemed to know everything about the building. Men and women moved purposefully everywhere. A sense of urgency and near panic seemed to be fueling the torrent of activity.

It wasn’t long before they entered into a vast chamber that looked even grander than the other rooms. A large fireplace stood at one end and a heavenly fresco was painted on the ceiling above. A dark-wood dining table had been pushed to one side to make room for all of the people who loitered frustratedly within the room. 

Kai could see Ailia, Arteeru and Glory but there was no sign of Niall. That observation was pushed from his head when he spotted Jearl and Elizabeth. Anxiously, they edged through the crowd to the two. Elizabeth rushed to them and immediately began to check on KT’s health. The girl weakly brushed her off once she had made it clear that she was okay.

“Your father is in as good health as can be expected. He is here too somewhere, as are the other survivors from the lodge,” Elizabeth said. She was the only person present who did not look dishevelled other than the Moot’s soldiers.

Jearl had not been anywhere near the battle yet still managed to appear as though he had been out in the wild for a week. He always looked like that. What did look out of place on him though was a scowl. It was the first time that KT or Kai had seen him look angry. 

“You’ve not been told, ‘ave you?” His statement drew blank stares from the teens. “They’ve arrested Déaþscúa. Got him locked up tighter than Annis. She’s tucked away somewhere nice and cushy, safe from harm. Half the Council want Déaþscúa executed.”

“They can’t kill him!” KT exclaimed. “He’s only ever fought to protect people.”

“They know that,” said Jearl. “Only, Déaþscúa scares ‘em. He can’t be stopped or controlled by them and that leaves a nasty stain in their underwear. Don’t worry about him though. Déaþscúa has never been held against his will for long. Hell, he’s been executed more times than I’ve had hot meals. It’s the name he mentioned as they dragged him away that’s set me on edge.”

“Yes, Déaþscúa and the rest of us will be fine,” Elizabeth soothed loudly, overriding Jearl’s sentence. She glanced at him then returned her eyes to the twins. “We were told what is to happen to you. I’m sorry.”

KT hugged her. “Don’t worry. It’s alright. You and Déaþscúa wanted to do the same to us. It’s the sensible thing to do I guess.” She sighed sadly. “Well, this is goodbye then.”

Kai didn’t speak but offered Elizabeth and Jearl a nod of his head. He and KT moved across the hall to say farewell to Ailia too. Arteeru and Glory joined them. 

“You were both funny,” Ailia grinned. “You’d have both made excellent thralls.”

“Cheers,” Kai muttered. 

Arteeru clapped him on the shoulder. “You are a good man, Kai Redthorn. It was an honour to battle at your side.”

Kai grabbed his hand like an old friend. “Same. I could have gotten used to my own personal werewolf war mount.” Arteeru gave a sly grin at that and Ailia snorted. He then turned to Glory who headbutted him.

“What the hell?”

“It’s how we show respect,” she told him as though it were the most logical reason in the world. A black collar encased her neck. Glory noticed his look. “I know things that the Moot don’t want other folk knowing. I say certain words and my head explodes like an overripe melon being body-slammed by an obese elephant with the shits.” 

She drew closer to them and lowered her voice. “Listen. I won’t sugarcoat things. The Moot is behind some real questionable things and all of us here are in very real danger. It is only a matter of time until they try to consolidate their power by removing dissenters. That means everyone who supports your mate Déaþscúa. Things are going to kick off. Try to stay safe, okay?” 

A looming presence behind them caused them to turn. Forenine and the white robed men stood with eyes fixed on the two teens. “It is time,” the arch councillor announced. He motioned for them to follow.

They began the walk to leave the room with the slow footsteps of the condemned. Jearl stood beside the door. “Mind wipes aren’t too bad. They used to do it to me every other week. It never stuck long on me for some reason. Apparently it takes a great deal of skill and power to do though. They got sick of repeating it. Never did me any harm. Probably.”

Then they were out of the room and away from any form of comfort. The doors shut behind them, cutting off sound to a dull murmur. Forenine walked at the head of the group while the white clad men penned in KT and Kai. The arch councillor stopped in front of a door that looked like any other.

“Through here, if you please. We will begin as soon as you are both settled. Don’t worry. You won’t feel a thing.”

Previous – Chapter 26.

Next – Chapter 28.

Chapter 26. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

Time didn’t seem to move in the fairy glade. Anything electronic didn’t work either so the hours passed by at a sluggish pace. Déaþscúa sat with his back to a tree and his eyes closed. He could have been sleeping but KT could see the tension that had a hold of him. She sat nearby and no matter how hard she tried not to, she couldn’t help but to keep staring at him as a new memory cascaded through her aching mind. Ghodot’s constant attempts at conversation were not improving her mood. 

Kai had been pacing for a while now. “How much longer do we have to stand around here waiting?” he asked. “I can’t even tell how long we’ve been here. My watch has been going backwards for at least an hour.”

Déaþscúa didn’t move. KT had no idea either but Ghodot’s voice pushed its way through her thoughts with an answer. 

“Twenty three hours, twelve minutes and forty seven seconds,” she relayed passively. 

“So we still have another hour to stand around, twiddling our thumbs? The battle has probably started already. People are out there dying while we prance with bloody fairies! We don’t even know if Annis will still be in that village. This could all just be wasted time.”

“She’ll be there,” Déaþscúa’s voice cut in. “Trust me on that.”

Kai grunted noncommittally. 

Silence returned. Each kept to themselves as time meandered by. It felt like several hours passed until a fairy fluttered over to them. It directed them to the newly formed faegate. Hundreds of the portals dotted the area regardless of the fact that a single gate could take you to any other.

Allow me, Ghodot said smugly. KT felt a tugging at her limbs. She signed and allowed the fairy king to direct her hands to input the correct coordinates into the mushrooms. The fairies stood watching them with expressionless faces. KT would be glad to be away from them. For such cute creatures, they instilled a strange fear in her which was not helped by Ghodot’s constant presence. The three stood in the centre of the ring and waited for the warping rush.

“Draw your weapons and be ready for anything,” Déaþscúa told them. “A cornered beast always fights hardest.”

KT tapped the last mushroom and the world folded in upon itself. Teleporting usually made her feel sick to the core but this time she felt nothing. Kai still retched so she could only assume that her steady stomach was Ghodot’s doing.

Unaffected by nausea, KT could actually see what was happening for the first time. Blinding light flickered and streaked in a rainbow of swirling colours. Images flashed into existence for a split second then distorted and disappeared. It was beautiful yet inexplicably hellish. Then, like a stretched rubber band snapping back, everything was still and darkness masked their surroundings. KT’s eyes adjusted quickly to the dark but Déaþscúa was faster. 

He scanned the room they were in then moved to the door by the time that KT could differentiate objects through the darkness. Kai had always had the better eyesight but he took several seconds longer to move.

“Keep together and make no unnecessary sound,” Déaþscúa ordered in a low whisper. He splayed his hands. “Five humans in a room below us. Nobody else is in the building.”

“So Annis is gone,” Kai growled. 

“We’ll see,” he said. He took out a bottle from his coat and downed it. It smelled familiar. Elizabeth had used it on Déaþscúa’s wounds after the battle at the fort. Silver Devil, KT recalled.

“This’ll give me a short term boost to my healing but I’m still far from my peak. I’m relying on you two, okay?”

Déaþscúa motioned for the two teens to stand at either side of the trap-door. He tried the handle but it was locked. He took a step back then blasted it with a hammer of compressed air. The door shattered into splinters. KT and Kai jumped down into the room with guns at the ready.

The room was exactly as Kai remembered it, or would have been if there were more huddled figures in the corner. The group had been diminished since then. He ran to them, noticing that each had a blindfold wrapped around their eyes and a gag in their mouths. KT and Déaþscúa were with him a moment later. Picking his father from the group, Kai pulled the blindfold from his head then began to work on the gag. 

The gag loosened enough for Bob to force out words. “Run! Annis is next to me!”

Flames and spikes of rock materialised before the words were fully spoken. They slammed into Déaþscúa and pinned him to the wall. A woman beside their dad stepped forward, flickered, then took on the appearance of Black Annis. The teens tried to react but Annis had them in invisible bonds before they had fully registered the attack. KT could feel the pressure around her but it was more like water than anything physical. 

“Your stupidity never ceases to amaze me, Déaþscúa,” Annis said slowly. Power radiated from her. She stepped up to him. She had to look up since he was impaled to the wall several feet from the ground, but it was clear who had the power. “Did you really think that such a feeble plan would work? That you could sneak up on me when an army suddenly marches against me without you at its head? I expected so much more.”

“Sorry to disappoint you,” Déaþscúa wheezed faintly. “I do have a few tricks up my sleeves though.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah.”

KT’s doublesword slashed into Annis’ throat from behind. Her head should have been severed but instead she was thrown across the room. The younger woman didn’t let that deter her. She sprang after Annis. Kai found himself able to move again and rushed to help KT. Déaþscúa called to him.

“Take your dad and the others to the faegate. Get them to Jearl and Elizabeth. You remember the coordinates?”

Kai nodded. He cast another worried glance at KT but obeyed. He grabbed his father’s arm and shepherded the other three out of the room and back to where the faegate had grown. Déaþscúa watched them go then struggled to force himself off of the spikes. 

KT attacked Annis relentlessly but the older woman dodged and spun with an agility that would put gymnasts to shame. The slashes that the woman could not dodge she parried with her metal claws. Ghodot worked inside her head, scanning through memories to throw out techniques that KT would never have thought of alone. He saw Annis’s movements before KT could register them herself. It was like having a computer in her head.

A wave of flame knocked KT back. Both women stood staring at one another. Tension hung thick in the air. There was a loud thud as Déaþscúa dropped face first to the floor. He laid there groaning for a moment then pushed himself up. Both Annis and KT had turned to watch him. 

“Don’t mind me,” he coughed. “Just need a second to catch my breath. I’m getting too old for this.”

“You’re too late. The battle above is almost over. Your excuse for an army has been all but destroyed,” Annis told him. She clapped her hands together, causing the ground to crack. Earth shot up, tearing up the walls and ceiling in a geyser of dirt and stone. Déaþscúa was caught in the centre of it. When everything had stopped, the basement and the outside had become one. Déaþscúa was laid in a pile of rubble in the middle of a churned up street.

Bodies were everywhere. The weather was a raging blizzard but even that failed to cover the blood that seemed to soak everything in sight. Annis stood amidst all this like a proud queen. She watched amusedly as Déaþscúa climbed out from the rubble and brushed himself down. 

He reached for his sword but it was his gun that fired. The bullet hit Annis square in the forehead, jerking her entire body back with the force. She was flung through the air only to meet with KT’s doublesword which threw her in a different direction. Before she landed, Kai came charging up the ramp from the basement and slammed his axe into her spine, smashing her to the ground. Déaþscúa was on her in a heartbeat, his sword positioned with the point between her breasts.

“You don’t want to do that,” broke in a new voice. Déaþscúa glanced to the side to see the white swordsman standing behind KT with his blade to her throat. “Step aside or I’ll make sure that the girl dies this time. I don’t make the same mistake twice.”

Déaþscúa looked from KT to Annis and back again. Then he stabbed down. Saint had seen that brief flicker of his eyes and reacted by throwing KT straight at the man. The two collided and went sprawling across the debris. Annis was back on her feet in an instant. 

“This is my fight now,” Saint directed to Annis. “That was our deal.”

“I am a woman of my word. Deal with him quickly. I need to open the gate now. I can’t hold this power much longer,” Annis answered.

“Like hell I’ll let you!” Kai roared. His axe made a vertical arc at the witch’s head that she blocked with her nails. They glimmered as they moved, slicing across the shaft of his weapon. The axe fell to the floor in a dozen separate pieces. 

“You’re brave but outclassed. Go, run away now. You know that nothing you ever could do would even slow me. My next attack will kill you,” Annis sneered. She advanced on Kai until KT stepped between them.

“Nobody picks on my brother, bitch.”

Annis ran her nails together. Sparks flared around them. “You don’t know what you’re involved in. You don’t understand. This must be done! Standing against me will only add another corpse to the pile and another sin to my conscience.” 

Power crackled across Annis’ body. A great pressure seemed to surround her. Through all of that though, KT could see that the woman was sweating. KT certainly hadn’t pushed her that hard yet. 

Annis has absorbed a lot of power, Ghodot’s voice cut into KT’s thoughts. She wishes to open Heaven’s Gate but her body is not capable of holding all of the power required. She is unstable.

None of this registered with Déaþscúa. He and Saint had begun to circle one another with their swords out before them. Pain already consumed his entire body. He still hadn’t recovered from the shooting and any strength that he had recovered had been spent by been used as Annis’ ragdoll. 

“You’re a legend among legends,” Saint said praisingly. “A hero and villain in equal measures, a god of death to all. You’re the height of battle, the ultimate warrior. You’re the bar that every swordsman strives to overcome.”

“Wow, you must really want to get into my trousers with all this verbal dick sucking. I’m truly flattered,” Déaþscúa mocked with more cockiness than he felt. “Feel free to work the shaft some more next time.”

Saint’s face soured. He readjusted the grip on his blade then dashed at Déaþscúa. Déaþscúa blocked with his larger blade, kicked Saint in the gut and hurled a ball of magic at his face as he doubled over. The man recovered quicker than should have been possible and jumped at Déaþscúa with renewed vigour. His blade was a silver blur that appeared to be everywhere at once. It took everything that Déaþscúa had to keep pace with the onslaught.

KT was suffering under much the same predicament. She had hoped that Annis’ ability to fight relied heavily on her mastery of magic but that was not the case. The witch was stronger, faster and had better reflexes. Ghodot offered suggestions but she shut out his voice angrily. 

***

Kai watched the two sets of fighters to see where he should help when a flurry of movement behind a levelled building caught his eye. He took a few steps to get a better look and saw two hulking shapes that clawed fiercely at each other. One was the dark furred Arteeru while the other was the blood lycan, Claine. The two werewolves were bloody messes. Chunks of fur and flesh were missing while blood ran freely. 

Kai’s thoughts raced. He knew that he couldn’t help both Déaþscúa and KT but with a lycan at his side things would be different. Shotgun in hand, he climbed up the devastated building until he could see the two brawling beasts below him. He gulped in a lungful of air then sprang from the roof. His fist connected with Claine’s jaw, the added velocity from the fall trebling the force of the blow, and sent him spiralling into the snow. Kai rolled to his feet and opened fire. Bullets ripped leathery skin like paper.

The red lycan howled. Its jaw hung at an angle but the injuries were not keeping it down. Arteeru came up behind Claine and delivered a vicious punch to the spine. Claine reared back with its body bent almost double. Kai ran at him, pumping his shotgun, and blasted the beast in its now exposed throat. Arteeru grabbed the other lycan’s head, his claws gouging into eye sockets, then pulled. Blood sprayed and the head was ripped free from its body. The body spasmed briefly then began to morph back into its human form. The head too shrank and became that of a man. Arteeru cast it away contemptuously. 

“You have my thanks,” Arteeru said in a thick, gravelly voice. Now that the adrenaline of the fight was fading he looked barely able to stand.

“Can you still fight?” Kai asked.

Arteeru chuckled, a strange sound coming from a giant, black werewolf. “While ever I still breath, no battle shall I leave. That is a saying of my order.”

Kai nodded. “Déaþscúa and my sister are in trouble. I haven’t even seen anyone else.”

“The battle was not going well. We must finish this quickly,” Arteeru agreed. 

They ran around the building. KT and Déaþscúa still fought on but both were flagging. Kai charged straight for Annis and hit an invisible wall that knocked him back. He reached out and felt a solid barrier. Beyond it, runes were beginning to appear in concentric circles across the floor. Arteeru ran a claw across the unseen surface and shook his head. 

“It is a shield. So long as Annis has the strength to maintain it we will be unable to pass. Not without another magic user to counter it.”

Kai cursed angrily and hammered at the wall with his fists. “Let me in!” he raged.

“Find Niall and the others,” Déaþscúa shouted. His voice sounded distorted through the shield. “Help them rally and get them back over here.”

Arteeru nuzzled his hand, indicating for the young man to climb onto his back. “Déaþscúa is right. We can do nothing here.”

Kai cursed again. “Don’t you dare die on me, KT!” he shouted before clambering onto the lycan’s back. Arteeru padded over to a discarded spear and flicked it up for Kai to catch. Then, in a burst of motion, they were off.

***

KT watched her brother leave from the corner of her eye and was repaid by gaining a sliced cheek. Annis looked distracted though. She had begun to chant under her breath. Even so, the witch was still more than a match for KT.

Annis lunged her talons at KT’s face. KT let herself fall back and rolled away, kicking up at the witch as she did so. The kick did nothing. Annis slashed again, opening up cloth and skin along KT’s collar. The necklace that her Aunt Susan had given her came loose and tangled in Annis’ nails. The woman looked down at it and a smile grew. 

“Well, isn’t this just divine? I’ve held this very lump of metal before. Do you remember when I told you of another dark haired girl who had been Déaþscúa’s pet before you? This belonged to her. Tell me, what are the chances of that?”

Pain stabbed at KT’s brain. Memories throbbed in her head. She had been forced to skim through hundreds of memories that involved women but now, with the necklace as a focal point, a specific face resolved itself at the front of her mind. It was a face eerily similar to her own. Ava Peterson. 

She could remember Ava fighting against Annis at Déaþscúa’s side. She remembered Déaþscúa’s pride at unlocking her magic and teaching her to master it. She remembered the love and passion on nights beneath the stars and the crushing sadness as he looked helplessly at the crumpled wreckage of a car.

It was strange to remember memories that were not her own but it was stranger still when the memories involved someone who could have been her double. She struggled to shrug off the residual emotions and her own discomfort from them.

She shook herself to dispel the haunting memories. Annis had used her distraction to carve a symbol into the dirt with her foot. It was only now that KT noticed the glowing runes around them. Annis and her symbol were at their centre. KT’s lip was twitching. She realised that her entire body was quivering with rage. There was her own rage, Déaþscúa’s rage and the rage of everyone who had had their lives affected by the woman who stood before her smirking.

“DIE!” she screamed. The white hot anger was her fuel. It burned in her head and in her muscles. She slashed and stabbed at Annis then threw her doublesword into the air to punch and kick at the woman before catching it again like a cheerleader’s baton. 

She felt different. Ghodot’s power merged with her own and a sensation like a thousand heartbeats bubbled through her. Light blazed from her, each thin beam heralding the appearance of a fairy. They jibbered in their own strange language as they dove at Annis like a swarm of hornets. 

Annis’ smile was wiped from her face. A seriousness settled across her features. No longer did she rely on her metallic nails alone but instead wove small shields of magic and cracked the earth beneath KT’s feet. While KT was resistant to magic, she was not invulnerable to it. Fire joined the earth, forcing her back. The fairies skittered around the attacks, obscuring Annis’s vision and blasting her with tiny bolts of magic. 

“Your efforts are futile, girl. I am the prophesied one who will end Déaþscúa’s life. It is my destiny. No matter how strong you are or what you do, fate cannot be changed,” Annis snarled. She was starting to lose her composure.

Déaþscúa took note of all of this as best as he could while fighting for his life. His breath was rasping now and his body protested his every movement. His sword was beautiful and powerful but it was also twice the size of Saint’s and so took twice the effort to swing. The other man was faster than him, there was no doubt in that. Even if he had been at his prime this would have been a hard fought duel. 

As it was, it was taking all of his effort just to stand his ground. Increasingly he was having to rely on parrying one handedly with his sword while his other hand jabbed at Saint with spiked bone. The pain was unimaginable as the bone tore through his skin without his healing factor working to counter the damage. Bone ripped through his knee for a kick. Against a normal sword he could have used the bones to block attacks but Saint’s blade would slice clean through them.

“You disappoint me, Déaþscúa. I expected so much more from the one known as the shadow of death,” Saint told him in a sad tone. He was not even breathing heavily. “I lived my life to become the greatest swordsman yet only feel anger that my crowning achievement is so mundane.

Déaþscúa was forced to keep moving backwards. He made sure to direct his steps where he wanted to go though. His body might be damaged but his mind still ran laps around the younger swordsman. He was almost back to back with KT.

“I am not known as the shadow of death because I am a killer. I have killed more than my fair share of people but the name is more passive than that. Anybody within my shadow dies, be they friend or foe. Unlucky, eh?”

Saint glanced around as he realised that the light from a burning building was casting Déaþscúa’s shadow across his own body. Déaþscúa smiled at him pleasantly.

“Now!” he shouted. He locked arms with KT and they both span. KT’s doublesword sliced deep into Saint’s gut while Déaþscúa’s blade lunged for Annis’ heart. She dodged nimbly, the sword only biting into her ribs instead. Guts spilled from Saint’s wound. He staggered, the sword falling from his fingers. His eyes were already glazed when his body finally collapsed. 

A look of pure wrath twisted Annis’ face. Blood oozed around the sword. She howled with pain then lashed out with magic. Her own blood rose up and solidified into daggers that plunged into Déaþscúa’s exposed chest. She grabbed the blade in both of her hands, slitting open the palms and fingers, and yanked it free. More blood flowed from Annis to stab into Déaþscúa. She threw the sword behind her and it clattered out of sight.

KT dashed at Annis. The witch splayed her fingers and Saint’s body convulsed. Blood tore from it as a dozen razor-tipped tendrils that stabbed into KT’s back. Pain lanced through her and she came to an abrupt stop. The fairies came to a sudden halt then swarmed around her. Blood gushed from her mouth. She struggled for breath, her body becoming limp, held up by the spikes alone.

Annis cast KT from her mind instantly. She raised her hands into the air and swirling energy surrounded her. Her body began to glow with a blinding light as the power lashed out in every direction. The runes on the floor shone back with equal vigour. The very air crackled. Shapes began to form in the sky above. A deep droning noise hung at the edge of hearing. The light around Annis started to fade as the shapes in the sky grew brighter.

“It’s done,” Annis panted. The first seal of Heaven’s Gate is almost broken. Another few minutes and the magic will begin leaking out.”

She took the few steps to stand toe to toe with Déaþscúa and grabbed him by the throat. Her metal nails drew blood as they dug into his skin. She pulled his head down to her level so that she could look him in the eyes.

“It’s been a fun few centuries but it ends tonight. Skara’s will shall be done and your death will herald the dawn of a new era. An era of peace.” She leaned in slowly until their faces were an inch apart. “One final kiss, for old time’s sake.”

Her lips pressed against his and Déaþscúa’s mouth opened slightly. Then blood splashed his face. Annis stood staring at him with wide eyes. Their lips were still locked but crimson leaked from their mouths and from Annis’ nose. She pulled away, her hands moving to clutch at her own throat. A sharp, white spike formed from bone stuck out from Déaþscúa’s mouth. It too was drenched in blood. It shuddered, then retracted back inside of Déaþscúa’s body. 

Neither spoke. Annis dropped onto her back making choking noises. The magic around them spiralled erratically. Déaþscúa was breathing heavily. He limped and swayed with every step but slowly made his way along the battlefield to where Annis had thrown his sword. He recovered it then returned to her, using it like a staff. She stared up at him as he stood over her. 

“Why did you say that name? Skara is dead. I watched him die.” His voice was hoarse and his face was set into a snarl. He placed his sword tip against her throat and prepared to force it down. “Tell me!”

Lightning blew a hole through his chest. Annis hadn’t moved. A hammerblow of magic slammed into his head, knocking him away from her. Suited men suddenly jumped at him, pinning him down as magic and metal wrapped around him. The ruined village began to fill with important looking people and more suited men and women.

One old man with grey hair wearing a pale blue robe laced in gold strode towards Déaþscúa. His face was contempt hidden behind a mask of grim indifference. 

“Déaþscúa the nameless, you are under arrest for the murder of Andrew Christie, the disobeyal of direct orders issued by the Grand Moot, the raising of an unregistered army in a time of peace and the severing of an essential thread for our race’s very survival. Do you have any words of defence for your actions?”

Déaþscúa stared at the man incredulously. He half sighed and half snarled. “You’ve got to be shitting me? One more second and all of this would be over. At least finish her. Do what you should have done long before now.”

The man wagged a crooked finger at Déaþscúa. “I’m afraid that is out of the question. Aevumancer Protellious Avus spoke new words of prophecy a short while ago. Annis is needed alive.” He smiled at Déaþscúa cruelly. “There was no mention of you being a necessary thread of fate.”

“You scheming bastards! Everything truly is a corrupted mess. How long since you officials abandoned your morality and pride?” Déaþscúa spat. The old man backhanded him without a flicker of emotion. 

“As we speak, your surviving followers are being rounded up. They may escape major punishment. That depends on your cooperation.”

Déaþscúa struggled to move so that he could see KT. She was still slumped limply nearby. As he watched, the last fairy touched her and dissolved into lights that glistened against her skin then faded. The old man followed his gaze and chuckled dryly. 

“Another young woman led astray by your supposed charm. You really must learn to control yourself. We’ll see to that. It’s no matter through. She’ll be dead soon.”

“Help her,” Déaþscúa growled. “She’ll only die if she’s left there to bleed out.”

“I think not. She is a loose end that needs tying. Her death is the simplest way to deal with that particular problem.”

Déaþscúa’s bonds, both physical and magical, strained. The men pinning him cried out in surprise as he struggled to his knees. His eyes contained pure murder. His guards redoubled their efforts but Déaþscúa was still able to force himself onto his feet. Black fire flared around him.

“You will help her or I will slaughter you all like the worthless curs that you are. There’s a lot of strong people here. You might find a way to kill me. How many can I cut down before that? Help her and I’ll go quietly. Your choice.”

The old man snorted. “You are in no position to threaten me, mongrel. You’re at my mercy.”

Déaþscúa sprang, headbutting the man square in the nose. Once more, bone jutted up out from his mouth to brush against the old man’s throat. The black fire grew, forcing back the men restraining him.

A new voice cut into the sudden silence. “Stand down Déaþscúa. We both know you don’t want to unleash that power. Of course we will heal the girl. Isn’t that correct, Councillor Lokstone?”

The voice belonged to a tall man who looked younger than the man before Déaþscúa but still bore a greying beard and hair. Both had once been black and still contained dark patches. He too wore elegant robes, although much of it was covered by a thick cloak. The bits that were visible were a lush scarlet colour.

“Of course, Arch Councillor Forenine,” stammered the old man. 

Reluctantly, Déaþscúa took a step back from Lokstone and slid the bone away. The fires receded back into his body, leaving him looking gaunt and broken. The guards clustered around him, doubling the chains and magical restraints. 

“You have my apologies for all of this, Déaþscúa, but laws are laws. You knew that killing Christie would land you in trouble,” Arch Councillor Forenine told him solemnly. 

“He was about to kill the girl,” Déaþscúa said blandly.

Forenine shook his head. “You are a skilled man, Déaþscúa. You could have dealt with him in a hundred different ways without resorting to lethal measures should you have chosen to. It was your bloodlust that pushed you to these events now. You will have a tough time getting out of this grave that you have dug for yourself.”

“We’ll see,” Déaþscúa grunted sourly. “Make sure that the girl and her brother are cared for.”

“You have my word,” Forenine said as Déaþscúa and Annis were led away. “Councillor Lokstone, find somebody to see to the girl. I have a mountain of paperwork to fill out and no doubt a horde of very angry people to speak with. That isn’t to mention how we will deal with that,” he said, pointing at the sky.

Previous – Chapter 25.

Next – Chapter 27.

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

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

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

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

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

“Ditto.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Aye,” Athair nodded. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bastard!” roared a youthful voice. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Roger.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Roger that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous – Chapter 24.

Next – Chapter 26.

Chapter 24. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

The sun was showing no sign of rising yet, but KT’s phone told her it was early morning. Déaþscúa had gathered herself and Kai a few minutes ago after a handful of hours worth of sleep. Niall was already up, directing activity as the camp was deconstructed. 

“You all set?” Déaþscúa asked the Scotsman.

Niall ran his fingers along his weapon’s hilt. “We will move out at sunrise and journey down te a few miles from this village. We’ll make our final preparations there before attacking at dawn tomorrow. That gives ye just over a day te git yer wish from the fairies.”

“That should be enough time,” Déaþscúa said. He held out his hand and Niall clasped his wrist. “I’ll see you on the other side. Try not to die.”

“Ye donae need te tell me. You’re the reckless one. Telling ye te be careful would be a waste of me breath.” They both nodded then turned away from each other. 

“Good luck to you all!” Déaþscúa roared at the gathering as he walked away. He slowed as he passed Ailia and Elizabeth. “Look after yourselves. Try not to have too much fun,” he told them then strode away from the fire. KT and Kai had to jog to keep up with him.

Jearl met them at the edge of the camp. Déaþscúa didn’t slow. His face was set in a grimace though as he pushed his body through the pain. The SUV was parked a short distance away but Déaþscúa showed no signs of getting in. Jearl opened the boot, revealing a small pile of weapons. 

“That’s all the gear I could recover and a few replacements for y’all,” he told them in his usual cheerful manner. He personally handed over Déaþscúa’s sword. KT and Kai grabbed everything that they could practically carry while Déaþscúa waited patiently. 

“You know what to do, Jearl. We can’t have any mistakes,” Déaþscúa told the scruffy man.

“Course. There’ll be no issues at all, boss. Scout’s honour.”

Once they were ready, Déaþscúa walked away from the SUV, going deeper into the forest.

“We’re not driving?” Kai asked when they caught him up. “Are these fairies nearby then?”

Déaþscúa shook his head. “I couldn’t tell you where they are. For all I know, they could inhabit an entirely different realm of existence. The only way I know how to get to them is by using the faegates.”

“Are they really as horrible as everyone was making out? I mean, in the stories they’re little magical people with wings. Mischievous but kind.”

“Worse,” Déaþscúa answered grimly. “They’re foul creatures. Not evil but certainly not good or kind. They look down on all other forms of life. Nastiness and greed are their biggest traits. You could say that they suffer under a delusional god complex. Never underestimate them though.”

The air was bitterly cold as they made the short trek through the forest to the closest mushroom ring. The glimpses of sky between the branches were clear blue. Their breath misted and KT’s skin quickly became a flushed red. Each day felt colder than the last.

Déaþscúa moved between the trees with a confidence that even his limp and rattling breath couldn’t dampen. It still amazed KT how he could navigate his way through the masses of trees to find something as small as a circle of mushrooms. She had never known him to get lost or even hesitate on direction since she had met him. She asked him how he managed it.

“Depends,” he answered dismissively. Some places I’ve been through before. I’m a hunter so I can follow trails and have a keen eye for details. In this case, I’m following the faegate’s aura. They’re places of power so emit energy, just like living creatures. The closest is about thirty yards more that way, behind a large tree,” he finished, pointing off ahead. 

Sure enough, there was a ring of pale mushrooms just behind a wide tree where Déaþscúa had indicated. Knowing what to expect from their last journey through the magical portal, KT and Kai stepped inside of the ring while Déaþscúa moved around them. He touched the mushrooms in a seemingly random pattern. 

Déaþscúa stepped inside and tapped one final mushroom. KT braced herself for the wave of nausea that she had experienced the last time she’d used a faegate. It made no difference. If anything, the sudden sickness hit her harder than before. The tingling across her entire body felt more like a million hands pinching her and her vision was not just blurry but completely warped like a nightmare acid trip. 

The feelings stopped abruptly but it took KT several seconds to recover. She could hear Kai throwing up somewhere nearby. He’d always had a weak stomach. Breathlessly, she managed to look around. There was no snow and the air was pleasantly warm. Colourful flowers grew everywhere while grand trees surrounded them, lush leaves forming a roof above that allowed through the light of the sun.

“This is the fairy’s domain. Watch your step and don’t agree to anything without thought, and then only if you must.”

Before they could move away from the faegate, a gong sounded from seemingly everywhere all at once. Tiny shapes fluttered into sight from the trees, swirling around them and tittering in high, musical voices. The creatures were just like KT had always imagined fairies to look. They were small, angelic beings with glimmering, transparent wings, who wore beautiful dresses and decorative suits. All of them had feminine frames and androgynous faces.

One hovered just in front of her and she reached out, mesmerised by its beauty. When her finger neared it, its mouth suddenly opened wide like a snake as it beared several rows of thin fangs that looked to go down its throat. KT pulled her hand back fast as it snapped at her. The fairy hissed at her then returned to the others in their swarming mass of colours.

“I am Déaþscúa and I come seeking a deal,” Déaþscúa announced in a clear voice that filled the air.

We know you, reaper of souls.” The reply was haunting, the words coming from every fairy in perfect synchronization. “We know what deal you seek. We want to know more. Enter. Ghodot awaits.

Déaþscúa began to walk forward through the spinning wall of fairies. They parted around him like water. KT and Kai reluctantly did the same. No sooner had they passed beyond the fairies than the creatures reformed as a single long line that extended through the trees. Déaþscúa followed them.

Just ahead of them was a golden tree that stood slightly apart from the others. A tiny balcony was built into it just above head height. A circular door about the size of a human fist led from the balcony into the tree. They approached it until the fairies once again circled around them, blocking their path.

Kneel,” the thousand voices told them. They obeyed.

The only sound was the fluttering of the fairies’ wings like a plague of locust. Their pace seemed frantic, ever increasing toward a grand crescendo, but nothing visible was changing. Then, the fairies came to a sudden stop, hovering in place around them as a vast halo. Slowly they descended until their feet rested on the ground and their wings became still. All was now silent.

Deep blue smoke rose up from the grass until a strong wind blew it all high into the sky. Now, the balcony on the tree was occupied by another fairy who had appeared under the smoke’s cover. He stood slightly taller than the other fairies and carried himself with a grave nobility. His beauty made the others look plain except for dark, angry eyes, and a cross-shaped scar that ran across his mouth. The other fairies were now chanting the word “Ghodot”.

“So the son of Arkaei’ra has come to my realm for help on his ceaseless quest of death,” the fairy said in a thunderous voice at odds with his tiny stature. “And with him are two children with no concept of the true harshness of the world. You should not have brought them,”

“If you know why I’m here then you know why I need them,” Déaþscúa answered simply.

“Indeed,” Ghodot said in a slow, cold voice. “They are your soldiers, your current instruments of death. Poor choices, I fear.”

“Enough small talk,” Déaþscúa said, standing up to stare the fairy ruler in the eyes. “Will you create the faegate for me?”

Ghodot laughed. The sound was musical yet sinister. “We will do anything for a price. The question is not will we comply but will you pay?”

“What is your price?”

Ghodot’s lips split and curved into a smile that revealed the front row of razor-edged teeth. “For you? People say that you know more than every other living being. I simply want your memories. All of them. Copies of course. They will be delectable. I will gain weeks of amusement from them at the least.”

“Deal. You’re welcome to them so long as I don’t forget a thing.”

“Deal,” Ghodot all but purred. 

The fairy removed a small scroll from a pouch at his side and quickly scrawled across it with a quill. Once he was finished, he handed it up to Déaþscúa who took a moment to read through it before signing. Satisfied, Ghodot returned the scroll to its pouch. He rose slowly into the air to hover an inch from Déaþscúa’s face then held out both arms to place his hands over Déaþscúa’s eyes. Nothing outwardly happened other than both men visibly flinching, but after a few seconds, Ghodot moved back to the balcony with a dazed expression.

“The rumours did not exaggerate. This is wonderful yet oh so bitter. It will take me days to process all of this information. I will start at the beginning to see what makes a man such as yourself tick. Tell me, how do you live with yourself? So much guilt and grief. It is beautiful,” Ghodot whispered.

Déaþscúa’s voice was hard as steel. “Answers weren’t part of the deal. Open the gateway.”

“Not just yet,” the fairy said melodiously. “These two are wanting access as well, correct? Then they will need to make payments too. Also, you only made a deal for me to create a faegate. You never added in that you wanted to pass through it yourself.”

“You bastard!” Déaþscúa growled. He looked on the verge of lashing out at the tiny man.

“Now now,” Ghodot chuckled. “Calm yourself. Remember that you cannot leave this realm without my express permission. To strike out at me would mean never returning. What I want is simple. I want her body,” he said, nodding to KT.

“You what?” KT blurted out. “You damn midget pervert. I’ll grind your bones to dust then set the remains on fire if you even think of touching me.”

Ghodot held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Not like that, my dear. You see, we fairies are creatures of the ethereal. You are mostly water while we are mostly light. As such, we are not exactly physical. I want your body to be my own.”

“You’re crazy. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I’m kinda using it. I don’t plan on giving it away,” KT told him testily. 

“That is my condition for anyone to pass through the faegate. Your options are to accept and carry out your plan or to go back home having failed.”

“This is bullshit,” Kai snapped. “Think about it, shrimp. Do you really think you could stop us from finding a way out? Déaþscúa knows everything and we wouldn’t be afraid to butcher you all until we succeed.”

Ghodot laughed dryly. “That would be a good bluff if Déaþscúa hadn’t just given me his memories. I can tell you for certain that he does not know of any way to escape. Look, you get to kill Black Annis and I get a nice new body. Everybody is happy.”

“Except for me!” blurted out KT angrily. “What the hell happens to me in this scenario?”

“You become a fragment of mind locked away in the back of your own head. At least until I can transfer your mind into a different body. I could give you any body you want. That would be part of the deal of course.”

“Forget it,” Déaþscúa said. He turned his back on Ghodot and began to walk away.

“Annis will win if you leave. That is fact,” Ghodot shouted after him.

Déaþscúa held both his middle fingers up and pointed them back at the fairy. “Take your deal and shove it up your arse-”

“Deal.”

Déaþscúa froze in place at the word. Kai looked dazed as though he had just been struck in the head. Ghodot smiled a smile of pure triumph.

“Don’t be stupid,” Déaþscúa finally managed to blurt out. He faced her with an intensity in his eyes that would have stunned her into silence when they had first met. “There’s no going back from that kind of deal. We’ll find another way, mark my words.”

She shook her head determinedly. “No. We don’t have time. You said so yourself. If you don’t stop her now she may never be stopped. Who knows how long it is until she plans to open this Heaven’s Gate thingy and kill all of us powerless.” Before Déaþscúa or Kai could argue she placed her attention on Ghodot. “I agree to your terms. Let’s do this.”

Déaþscúa ran back to get between KT and the fairy but hit an invisible wall. He hammered at it to no avail. Kai moved to grab his sister but was stopped too when the host of fairies circled around him like a tornado. Ghodot fluttered over to KT without hurry. The smugness on his face permeated from him like heat. He took another scroll from his pouch and handed it to KT once it was complete. She signed it without hesitation. After sliding the scroll home, he placed his hands on the centre of her forehead.

“This won’t hurt a bit. You have my word. It may be very uncomfortable though.”

“I’m ready.”

“Good.” 

Ghodot started to make a low whistling sound almost like wind through leaves. His body was faintly glowing with a pale white light. Slowly but steadily, his hands sank into KT’s head, followed soon by his arms then the rest of his body until he was gone.

KT stretched her limbs, a joyous look upon her face. She shivered violently then relaxed all of her muscles.

“This is wonderful,” she said. It still sounded like her voice but the inflection of the words was all wrong. “The things I could do with a young, supple body like this.” Her hand tugged at her clothes, stroked her hair and groped her breasts. “The things I will do with this body.”

The other fairies returned to their prior positions and the invisible force holding Déaþscúa back disappeared. Both he and Kai rushed forward but stopped before reaching KT.

“KT?” Kai said unsteadily. His sister’s face smiled up at him but those eyes were cold.

“She is gone,” Ghodot replied simply.

Kai’s lips twisted into a snarl. “You bastard. What do you want from me, eh? My eyes? My kidney? My awe-inspiring sense of humour or my stunning good looks? My damn soul?”

Ghodot stepped up to Kai then kicked him in the groin without warning. The young man made a strangled squealing sound and toppled over like a felled tree. The fairy looked appraisingly at the heavy boots on KT’s feet.

“Consider that payment,” he told Kai’s quivering body. “These are nice boots. This girl had good taste.”

“Indeed she does,” Déaþscúa said quietly. His voice grew louder. “She is also smarter than people give her credit for and is reckless beyond belief. Do you want to know the most important point in regards to her that you really should have knowledge of?”

Ghodot eyed him, suddenly suspicious. “And what would that be. She is a powerless girl whose mind and personality have no bearings on me now.” Despite this, a look of concentration suddenly appeared on KT’s face as the fairy began to search through Déaþscúa’s memories.

Déaþscúa flashed him a smile of his own. “You see, KT is more than likely an accipere resistant. I have no real idea how that would work with a fairy possession but I’m willing to bet she was confident that you wouldn’t be able to take over her. It did work against vampirism.”

“I already control her,” Ghodot snapped. “I feel brilliant. Undefeatable. She can do nothing. She IS nothing.” No sooner had the words left KT’s lips then she flinched. A frantic look crossed her face. Her eyes darted around wildly. 

“What’s the matter, King of Fairies?” Déaþscúa asked mockingly. “It looks like you’re suffering from a bad case of indigestion. Maybe you should learn not to bite off more than you can chew.”

“Impossible!” roared Ghodot. It came out as more of a screech in KT’s voice. “No! No, no, no!”

A hoarse scream tore from KT’s throat and then there was silence. Déaþscúa, Kai, and all of the fairies stared at the girl’s body with held breath. 

“That guy wants his brain washing out with soap.” The voice and inflection both belonged to KT. “That was a horrible experience. I-” her words cut off with a yelp. She clutched her head in both hands and fell to her knees screaming.

“KT!” Kai shouted as he ran to her side. 

“It’s too much!” she screamed. “My head! It can’t take it! Too many! So much pain…”

“Do something!” Kai pleaded to Déaþscúa. “What’s happening. Is Ghodot taking control again?”

Déaþscúa shook his head. “She has processed Ghodot. His thoughts and memories are hers now instead of the other way around. He had just taken all of my memories. Between the both of us, there is too much information flowing through her brain for a normal human to take. I can’t do anything. Once they’re stored away the pain will fade.”

The screams continued for a few seconds then came to an abrupt stop. KT took huge, gulping breaths of air to steady herself. Sweat covered her and her body shook. Her muscles gave out on her and she fell fully to the floor, panting. Déaþscúa stepped up to her and offered a hand to help her up. She looked up at him and her eyes widened. She moved away from his hand.

Memories coursed through her head like molten magma. Her own memories swam like tiny fish in a raging ocean of Ghodot’s memories, but both sets were dwarfed by those that could only belong to Déaþscúa. He was old. Older than KT could have ever imagined. She could remember both world wars as though she herself had fought in them. She could see bullets flying, shells exploding and bodies everywhere. There was so much death. She fled from those memories, delving deeper but she couldn’t escape the death. Battle after battle flooded her mind. The chain of memories continued back through time, through the Napoleonic wars, the Civil War and beyond. 

She watched helplessly as hundreds died at Déaþscúa’s hands. Most were in battle but innocents dotted the memories. More death surrounded those who stood at Déaþscúa’s side. Every single death evoked an overpowering pain within her. She watched friends and family scream and cry as they fell to blades or bullets. Images flashed from caressing smiling women to seeing them covered in blood. Laughing children flickered to broken corpses. Through every memory, blood stained Déaþscúa’s hands.

Déaþscúa sighed and moved away from her. “Most of the memories will be forgotten once they’ve settled.”

“How can you still smile after everything you’ve seen? After everything you’ve done?”

Déaþscúa smiled softly at her. “If you don’t laugh then you curl up and cry in a corner until there’s nothing left. The pain wells up and drains you of emotion until you’re hollow and crave pain just to know that you can still feel. That’s no way to live.” 

He’s a monster, said a voice inside KT’s head. The surprise of hearing it jolted her from the memories. It was Ghodot’s voice. Can you really put your faith in a man like him?

How are you talking to me, KT thought at the voice angrily. I was nothing but a mindless essence.

I am a powerful fairy. You may have trapped me in here but you could never snuff out my existence. I can feel what you feel. I see through your eyes and can read your thoughts like a book, the voice answered. As such, I wish to direct you to a particular memory.

Images flashed through KT’s mind once more but quickly came to rest on a small village made up of muddy paths and hovels. She watched through Déaþscúa’s eyes as he walked between the tiny homes. Men and women nodded their heads respectfully at him. His arms were strong but not nearly as muscled as they were now. He looked younger, less worn.

He came to the largest house and opened the door, stepping into a small room with a lit fire. The air smelled of stew. A young child played with hand-carved wooden animals while a woman stirred the pot of stew that cooked over the fire. Both looked up at Déaþscúa’s entrance and smiled lovingly at him. Now that the woman was facing Déaþscúa, KT could recognise her features. Her skin was not blue and her eyes were not cruel but the face was beyond a doubt that of Black Annis. Déaþscúa scooped up the child with a laugh and hugged Annis with his other hand, bending in to kiss her on the lips. 

Déaþscúa began to speak in a garbled language. KT didn’t know the words but was somehow able to understand them all the same, her new memories filling in her ignorance. 

“We won a great victory today, my wife. They are strong fighters but we are stronger. A few more victories like that and we will be able to drive them from our land.”

The memory slipped back into the recesses of her head. She realised that she was staring blankly at Déaþscúa. He had a sad look on his face and his eyes were locked onto hers.

“You were married to Annis.”

Déaþscúa nodded his head reluctantly. 

Kai’s fists whitened as they clenched. “You were what? You didn’t think that was something you should have told us?” he spat. 

The man turned his back on them. “That was a long time ago and Annis is no longer the woman I loved. Cliché I realise but that’s all there is to it.”

“Bullshit! Tell us what the hell is going on!”

Déaþscúa turned back to them but not because of Kai’s order. The fairies had begun to make a high-pitched whining noise that was growing louder and louder until it felt like a physical wave in the air. Each fairy drew back their lips and snarled, their narrow fangs bared. They started forward, enclosing around the humans from all directions. 

KT held up a single hand and the fairies stopped. “We paid your price and have done nothing that goes against our deals. Obey me and meet your obligations. Construct our faegate and allow us to pass through it in peace.” Her voice held a strange resonance. 

The fairies were still as they listened but the wailing had faded away. When KT had finished speaking they looked at her impassively. Then, as one, they flew to a nearby patch of dirt and began to busy themselves around it.

Interesting. They listen to you now. Having you in charge of this body could prove to be infinitely more amusing than I imagined.

Get out of my head, damn you.

I’m afraid that you are stuck with me from now on. You might not like it but I feel like I will love it.

Her mental argument was interrupted when Déaþscúa walked away from the fairies.

“Where the hell are you going? Oi! Answer me!” Kai shouted at his back.

The man didn’t turn. Instead, he slumped into a sitting position with his back to a tree. “Faegates take a full cycle of the sun and moon to be completed.”

Kai stood over him, his face still cast in anger. “Great. That’s plenty of time for you to explain to us what is really going on. Hell, I don’t even need to hear it from you. KT?”

KT tried to dredge up memories relating to Annis but there were so many that trying to navigate through the images and emotions was near impossible. Just trying was reviving that stinging migraine. She shook her head.

“Fine,” Déaþscúa relented. “It’s no big secret. Everyone knows, I just don’t like talking about it. Sit down. It’s a long story.”

KT and Kai sat against trees facing Déaþscúa. The man seemed reluctant to start so KT prompted him.

“You told us you were an Addonexus but you’re clearly older than that would allow.” She tried to fill the information in herself but could summon only pain from her mind. Having so much knowledge yet being unable to access it was frustrating. 

“I was born in the year 607 AD in a small English village. My mother, a witch, gave birth to me while Halley’s Comet flew through the sky above. It was after the Romans had left the island. This had left a power vacuum. Kingdoms were formed while barbarians and bandits wandered the land. It was a dangerous time to live through.”

“It quickly became apparent that I was not normal but it wasn’t until my village was razed to the ground by an invading army and I was run through by a spear that I realised my true abilities. I was taken in by another village where I worked for the chief doing odd jobs. He had a witch daughter who I grew to be close with. She was called Annis and was the greatest healer in a hundred mile radius.”

“The chief was killed in a barbarian attack but I rallied the men and fought them off despite suffering wounds that would have killed normal men. I was given leadership of the village and married Annis. We had a child and I worked hard to make the village a safe, secure place for him to be raised.”

Déaþscúa slowed, his eyes staring into nothingness. “I had won several battles against different armies and thought that I could consolidate my power and create a kingdom of my own. I led my men to battle against two forces that had allied with each other but a third had joined that covenant and attacked the village while we were gone. We won but when we returned home we were greeted by nothing but flames and corpses.

“There was an old man who’d managed to hide who told us what had happened. It was a tale of bloodletting and rape. Even the children and babies didn’t escape it. Once the warriors’ lust had been fulfilled, every soul had been put to the sword. The old man had run at the first opportunity.”

As Déaþscúa spoke, the words flowed through KT and she could see the burning village and the distraught old man. She could feel sorrow and hate coursing through her. Kai looked on, his features unmoving.

“I couldn’t find the bodies of my son or Annis. The old man told me he had watched as she was raped and her throat slit and then raped again. He pointed me to the very spot but nothing was there but blood. Several bodies were missing though. Some were burned to an unrecognizable black husk while others were hacked to pieces. I had hoped with all my heart that they still lived and that the men had taken them captive. With pure rage filling our hearts we hunted down the murderers to seek our revenge.”

“We found their camp a few days later but everyone within was already dead. There were no other bodies to indicate a battle but the horrendous blade wounds could not have been caused in a stealth attack. For months we had no idea what had happened there.”

“After a while, we began to hear rumours of similar massacres all across the land so I decided to try and track down the killer. It took a long time but when I did catch up I was confronted by none other than Annis. She told me that she had fought the warriors at the village with one of my swords but it had been shattered. After the attack she had lain there, choking on her own blood with the shards of metal all around her. She had burned herself out to keep herself alive, merging her hands with the sword fragments in the process. She then hunted the men down, killing them and stealing their life energy to fuel herself since she no longer had any power of her own.

“I tried to convince her that she had done what she’d set out to achieve and that we could both return and try to rebuild our lives but she wouldn’t listen. She’d become convinced that evil must be removed from the world and that she would be the one to do it. I agreed and joined her until she grew more and more radical. When she finally started killing children under the belief that seeds from corrupted trees grow into corrupted trees themselves, I couldn’t follow her any longer. I tried to stop her but she had grown stronger than me because of all of the life she had drained from her victims. From that day we have played this game of cat and mouse. She disappeared for a long time and I thought she was dead until she resurfaced a few decades ago. Are you happy now?”

KT and Kai said nothing. KT was lost to the memory. She could feel Déaþscúa’s heart breaking as his sword clashed with Annis’ metallic talons. Kai looked troubled, the anger gone from his face.

Déaþscúa addressed them both. “None of that will stop me from doing what needs to be done. I’ve had a long time to come to terms with it.” He looked to KT. “How are you doing?”

“Fine,” she answered. “A few stray murmurs but that’s all.”

“Good,” he said with thinly veiled relief. “Kai, go help the fairies at the faegate. They’ll need to know where to open the other end. KT, get some rest. The last thing you want is memories to overpower you during the confrontation with Annis. Seeing her will likely trigger my strongest memories of her.”

Both teens left him sitting there alone. He closed his eyes and let remembrance wash over him, memories that he had long since locked away in the depths of his past burst out to fill his mind.

“I’ll give you peace, and maybe someday find peace myself. All the pain has to end someday, right? Tomorrow, one of us will die.”

Previous – Chapter 23.

Next – Chapter 25.

Chapter 23. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

It felt as though just about everyone in the camp had told KT to rest. Sure, she was exhausted and every inch of her hurt, but how could anyone expect her to sleep when the next day would be the most important of her life. The very air around her was charged with anticipation and fear.

Her first port of call was food. Elizabeth had offered her soup but the growling in her stomach demanded something more substantial. She could smell roasted meat, so with Kai hovering nervously around her, she made her way through the tents to an open fire where men and women were sitting around eating and drinking.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Kai asked. “No offense, but you look like hell.”

“Cheers. I feel like I’ve gone twelve rounds in a boxing ring with a gorilla. It’s okay though. I remember something that Déaþscúa told me on the night he saved us from the succubus. He said ‘always remember, it’s when we don’t feel pain that we’re most vulnerable to death’. I’m hurt but I’m still alive. I intend to keep it that way.”

 “It’s just, I was scared, you know. More scared than I’ve ever been in my life. I thought I’d lost you and I had no idea how to cope with that.”

KT offered him a smile. “Since when have you ever been sentimental? I’m touched you think so highly of me.”

“Hey, don’t make fun of me. It’s hard for a pillar of blazing masculinity such as myself to express all this emotional crap. Just don’t do it again, you hear.”

“It’s not on my list of experiences to relive. I can’t make any promises though.”

She grabbed a plate and began to eat. Between mouthfuls she craned her neck to look around in every direction.

“Look at us, Kai. We’re sat surrounded by warriors and magic and nobody is trying to send us away. We’ve fought against the odds and come through the other side still breathing. Maybe this is who we are.”

“And maybe they just have more pressing issues on their minds than some nobody teenagers. I’m happy that you feel useful but don’t forget we’re here to save dad.”

“Yeah, don’t worry. I haven’t forgotten. We’ll save dad and Susan, beat Annis, and get revenge on that over-dressed swordsman.”

“Susan is dead.”

The words cut through KT, taking the wind from her sails. She placed her plate on the floor by her feet, her appetite suddenly gone. 

Kai stared at the stars above. “Annis killed her as me and dad stood by helpless. She killed her as though it was nothing. She’s stronger than before.”

A new voice made KT jump.

“Black Annis is powerful but you must have faith in your own strength, Mordekai Redthorn.” The voice belonged to the dark skinned lycan, Arteeru. He turned to KT. “You must be Mordekai’s sister. I have heard much about you both.

“Did you decide to stay and fight with us?” Kai asked the older man.

“As I said, our objectives align. The blood lycan will partake in the battle so I shall too. He is too dangerous to be left to kill those around us.” 

KT felt like she was missing something. “What is your objective? If you don’t mind me asking? Are you here just to kill that red furred lycan?”

“Yes. Members of my clan seek to erase the sins of our curse. Perhaps you should think of me as a policeman for lycans across the world. Policeman and carer. Our curse is a violent one. It takes time to control the beast inside. We try to find newly turned lycan to protect them from their own actions, and to kill those that choose violence once they have gained control.”

“What is it like, being a wolf?” she asked.

Arteeru struggled for words. “It is hard to explain. There is an all consuming bloodlust and a heightened sense of everything. Most don’t even have memories of the wolf form until the human mind can conquer the beast. This is why we try not to judge lycan on their initial actions. Too often they judge themselves for this. Many lycan are burdened with causing the death of loved ones.”

“That’s terrible,” said KT. The lycan smiled at her sadly.

“That is life. It is why those like myself seek redemption. We try to give back when we have taken so much.” As he spoke, his fingers ran along a deep scar on his throat.

KT turned at the sound of approaching footsteps. Déaþscúa joined them, collapsing into the seat beside her. He looked worn down. Pretending to act strong and confident for the others when he should have been healing was taking its toll on him.

“Jeez, I feel how you look. Utter shit.”

“Thanks,” KT muttered.

Arteeru stood and bowed his head to them respectfully. “Forgive me but I must go. Good luck for tomorrow. You will need it if you have dealings with the fairies.” He left quickly.

Déaþscúa laughed softly. “The damn fool needs to lighten up. He still can’t bare to look at me.”

“You know Arteeru?” Kai asked. “He’s a bit formal but seems a cool enough dude.”

“We had a run-in a few years back. I gave him that scar on his neck. Not a bad feat against one of his kind. He’s top tier lycan. I mean, he literally tore out my liver, but I’d say it was a fair tradeoff.”

“What happened?” KT said.

Déaþscúa shrugged. “It’s not my place to say. Put it this way, we all have dark moments in life. Arteeru reached a crossroad and needed reminding that he was free to choose which path he took.”

“Christ. Is there anybody here that you haven’t tried to kill?” Kai asked.

Déaþscúa frowned and looked around the camp. He was silent for a moment. “Do you two count?”

KT started laughing. Here they were on the eve of battle, with the entire world potentially in the balance, yet she was enjoying herself. It was surreal. Tomorrow’s problems were for tomorrow. This last week had taught her that life needed to be lived in the moment because you never knew when it would be gone. She was in pain and was terrified but the laughter cut through it all. She laughed until tears streamed down her cheeks with Kai and Déaþscúa looking on in concern.

***

Ailia stood at the edge of the camp, her back against a tree that was thicker than she was. The night was a vampire’s ally, but it was also a lonely place, a place where quiet contemplation came all too easily. 

She ran her tongue along the scarred gum where her fangs had been. It had become a habit lately. She’d expected them to have grown back by now. The cuts on her body were still visible too. Whatever Golman had done to her hadn’t been overwritten by her powers yet.

As a child, this prospect was upsetting. She was hurt and the wounds weren’t going away. As a vampire it was an insult to her dignity. What was a vampire without fangs? She was like a declawed cat. As an intellectual though, the whole situation interested her. How had he done it?

She turned and slammed her hand into the tree. The wood split and groaned as it collapsed to the ground. She looked at her hand. No damage.

“We have a global warming crisis on our hands, you know? Hardly the time to be killing trees. Not that you should be killing something centuries old because you want to throw a tantrum.”

“That’s rich coming from someone who flies everywhere in a house sized helicopter. You’ve never been one for nature.”

Glory stepped out from the light of the camp to stand beside Ailia. She grabbed her chin and looked her up and down.

“Man, they did a real number on you.” Her tone was light but her eyes looked concerned.

Ailia batted her hand away. “It’s nothing. Why are you here anyway?”

“Lotsa reasons. Annis needs to be stopped and Déaþscúa offered me a fair price. That and I may be wanted by the Moot for breaking into the Heart. I needed to see some things for myself.”

“Fair enough. That’s not what I meant though. Why are you here talking to me?”

“That? No reason. Just wanted to see how you were. You put on your childish persona and most people accept that as who you are. I know better though.”

“You think you know me better? I’m over three hundred years old. You’ve known me fifteen years. Ten of which we’ve barely spoken in. You are nothing to me.”

“Maybe,” Glory said softly. “I’ve grown up but that doesn’t mean I won’t fight to protect you.”

“Protect me? I’m a motherfucking vampire! I could kill half this camp before anyone even noticed. I don’t need protection from someone like you. In another hundred years when you are dust, I’ll still be alive and just as strong as ever.”

“Yup. You’ll still be a three foot tall vampire without fangs, friends or family. Makes the cold embrace of death seem kinda comforting, don’t it?”

Ailia reached up to rip the woman’s throat out but stopped herself. She lowered her hand and turned away.

“Just leave me alone.”

“Fine. You’re no fun to taunt when you’re like this. Just know that I’m here for you. I might not be that same girl but you’re still important to me. Got that?”

She walked away, leaving Ailia alone with her thoughts. Ailia stayed there awhile until she finally reached into her pocket and took out a small case. Inside was a set of fanged dentures. She stared at them for a moment then fixed them into her mouth.

It was only something simple she’d put together in her free time while others had been planning. She had felt naked without her fangs but acknowledging that she wasn’t coping without them felt nearly just as bad. She practiced smiling a few times. They weren’t very strong but hopefully they would do.

She tried to cast the negative thoughts from her mind and focus on tomorrow’s bloodshed. This improved her mood no end. Death always made her happy. It was what had drawn her to Déaþscúa. They were both cold-blooded killers who hid behind playful veneers. 

Yes. That was why she fought. Because she enjoyed it. Plain and simple. What side she was on didn’t really matter, so long as she could kill. 

She smiled a genuine smile this time. The night was still young. She might as well enjoy it. She shadow-stepped away, her twisted giggles rising through the cold night air.

Previous – Chapter 22.

Next – Chapter 24.

Chapter 22. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

Déaþscúa walked through the clearing with the aid of a walking-stick. His breath misted in the frosty morning air. Tents were quickly filling up the space around him. He had sent out messengers to gather in those he could trust. Niall had already brought together the various Scottish tribes but the numbers hadn’t been enough. 

He’d had to be careful. Too obvious a show of force would have brought the Grand Moot down on his head before he could act. They were probably searching for him already. He had to gather in his forces and strike before anyone could interfere. He would not lose Annis again. 

Alongside the Scottish clans, Ailia and Elizabeth, there were now a mercenary group known as the Blue Bands and a handful of individuals that Déaþscúa had worked with over the years. Annis had gone too far in having the MacFeelans slaughtered and those who had stood back in the past were now set on her destruction. He hoped more would come soon. No matter the circumstances, he couldn’t wait much longer.

He stepped inside a small tent and was greeted by Ailia and Elizabeth. At the tent’s centre was a bed where KT lay unmoving. She was pale but was breathing, though very shallowly. 

“How is she?” he asked quietly.

“She is stable but is showing no signs of regaining consciousness. She might never wake up. For all we can tell, while her body is alive, her mind might have faded away,” Elizabeth explained in a soft voice. “Only an expert could do anything from here. If I still had my powers… nevermind that. There is no point in dwelling on it. For her, only time and care will tell.”

Ailia spoke up then. “You’ll be happy to hear that the vampirism was fought off before it could take hold. If she wakes she’ll be just another boring young woman. Well, aside from all of the scarring, possible paralysis and mental trauma of being that close to death.”

“Good. I wouldn’t wish that upon anybody.”

“Nor would I,” Ailia smiled. 

Déaþscúa slumped into a seat beside Elizabeth with a sigh. He spoke to the two women but his eyes never left KT’s sleeping form. 

“I plan to move out at dawn the day after tomorrow. I can’t wait longer. That’s too long already for my liking.”

“Do you still intend on visiting the fairies?” Elizabeth asked. She failed to keep scorn from her voice. “You know they’ll never help anybody without asking a lofty price. For something like what you intend to ask, who knows what they will want in return.”

Déaþscúa shrugged, tiredness showing in his every movement and feature. “Annis will be expecting an attack and will have planned accordingly. She can outmanoeuvre me in her sleep. I can’t fight as I am now. I need some advantages from somewhere but I just don’t have the damn time to get them.” 

He rubbed a hand against his temples. “Glory Valentine tells me that the Grand Moot have a warrant on me for killing Christie and are narrowing down my location as we speak. They’re searching for her too after she had the smart idea of breaking into the Lion Heart so no doubt they’ll track us down pretty fast. They have ignored Annis for too long. It doesn’t make sense for them to not pull out all the stops in her capture. For centuries they have let her run wild. The more I dwell on it, the more suspect it seems.”

“You think that the Grand Moot is supporting her?” Elizabeth asked, taken aback by the accusation. “What would they have to gain for protecting a psychotic witch with a taste for human children? It’s not like she’s tied to any prophecy like Christie was.”

“Hell if I know. It just doesn’t add up. The fact that someone as evil as she is can still be alive after all this time is troubling enough but now that she suddenly has an army gathering around her and is openly moving against innocents, she should be fleeing from the Grand Moot’s combined forces. Instead they move to arrest me, the one person who’s actively trying to stop her.”

The tent fell into silence as the three considered this. Their contemplation was broken when Jearl stumbled into the tent looking as dishevelled as usual. 

“Arteeru has just pulled up outside, boss. He wants to speak with ya.”

“Arteeru? I didn’t expect him to accept. His people never get involved in wider issues. The message to him was more to keep them up to date,” Déaþscúa said. He stood and followed Jearl back outside.

It was a short walk to the edge of the camp. Déaþscúa could see the dark skinned Arteeru fussing around his motorbike. Beside him was the last person Déaþscúa had expected to see. He had to walk closer just to be sure that his exhaustion wasn’t playing tricks on his eyes or brain.

“Kai?” Déaþscúa asked aloud. The young man looked over to him, a wide grin on his face. Déaþscúa returned the grin. “You tricky little bastard. Too annoying even for Annis, are you?” he laughed. 

Kai shrugged amusedly. “What can I say? I’m like marmite, the best thing ever but some people just can’t handle me. Dense people. With no taste buds. I mean, who doesn’t like marmite? It’s awesome.”

“Yeah, if you’re trying to torture people. It’s bloody disgusting stuff. You’re right though, it definitely suits you.” He turned to Arteeru. “Thanks for getting him back here. I didn’t think I’d see you.”

“Fate weaves as fate wills,” Arteeru said with a shrug. He didn’t meet Déaþscúa’s eyes. “Your friend stumbled into my hunt. He has much spirit.”

Kai chuckled but his eyes were suddenly tense. He hesitated for a moment. “Where is KT?”

Déaþscúa ran a hand across the back of his neck. “She’s in a tent back there. I’ll take you to her. She’s alive but not in a good state.” He turned to address the lycan. “Arteeru, Niall and the other representatives are over in that big tent there. I don’t know if you intend to help us but please at least speak with them. Right, come on Kai.”

***

Kai sighed with relief, a great burden lifting from his shoulders. She was still alive. That was all that mattered. He followed Déaþscúa through the camp to the tent that housed his sister. The flap opened and he saw her laying there. Ignoring Elizabeth and Ailia, who had both risen with surprised looks at his sudden appearance, he rushed straight to her side.

“Will she get better?” he asked, unable to hide his nervousness. She looked so frail in that small bed. So unlike the sister he knew.

“I don’t know,” Déaþscúa replied. “Her body is stable but she suffered massive trauma. Nobody here can tell the extent of the damage.”

Kai grabbed KT’s hand tightly. It was cold. “Come on, damn it,” he hissed at her. “I made it back here from Annis’ own hands so you can damn well make it back from a little scratch. I’m the one who’s supposed to spend all day in bed. You yell at me for it too, you hypocrite.”

KT remained still. Kai’s grasp on her hand tightened. He had always hated being helpless. He had done everything in his life to never feel it but more and more it seemed like he could do nothing for anyone. Tears filled up in his eyes that were quickly suppressed with angry self-admonishment. He took a steadying breath to calm himself.

“What is the plan then?” he asked. His voice sounded emotionless in his own ears. “Is it still the same as before?”

“There’s a meeting tonight to lay out the final plans,” Déaþscúa said. “It will be close enough to what I said before. You should come too since you have seen Annis’ current lair.”

Kai nodded. Déaþscúa took one last look at KT then left the tent. Kai didn’t move. Elizabeth brought him a foldout chair and set it up at the bedside. She moved her own chair and sat beside him.

“Don’t worry. She’ll be alright. KT is a strong young woman. She shouldn’t have even survived that kind of injury but she did. She just needs time to recover her strength after such a fight for survival,” she said as soothingly as she could.

“I know. It’s just… we fought so hard to try and get our dad back and now I might lose her too. I feel like we’ve been fighting nonstop since we met Déaþscúa and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. Every time we fight, I run the risk of losing her and that scares me. She always protected me as a kid, even when I got bigger than her. It’s stupid, I know, but I’ve always seen her as indestructible.

“Back when we first moved up into comprehensive school I started to get bullied by a giant of a kid who was a boxer. I stood up and fought him and got the shit kicked out of me. KT was furious. I told her not to go near him but she marched straight up to him. I’d tried to win him in a fair fight. She kicked him in the balls then broke his arm while he was on his knees.” He couldn’t help but smile at the memory. 

Elizabeth stood. “I’ll fetch you some food and a nice cup of tea. You can’t have eaten for a while,” she told him kindly. 

As though it could hear her words, Kai’s stomach growled loudly. He’d shared a portion of his bacon vest with Arteeru during a brief stop on their journey but more food was always welcome. 

“Thanks.”

He settled down but didn’t have a moment’s peace though as Ailia plonked herself down on the chair Elizabeth had just vacated and leaned in close to Kai. She smiled at him devilishly, her lips curling around her gums in an unsettling manner. 

“They let me drink her blood,” she said, looking down at KT. “It tasted so very sweet. I can’t help but wonder if yours tastes the same.” 

Kai jumped up out of his chair. “You’re not having my blood! It is very happy where it is, thank you very much.”

Ailia giggled at his reaction. “You’re funny. You know that?”

Kai growled at her. He sat back down, glaring at the vampire. 

It wasn’t long until Elizabeth returned with a joint of pork, a slice of buttered bread and a mug of steaming tea. The meat was gone in seconds then he turned on the bread with equal gusto. Not quite satisfied but not hungry anymore, he sipped thoughtfully at the tea. He watched passively as the light faded steadily around him. Another hour and it would be dark. 

“The meeting will be starting soon,” Elizabeth told him. “I’ll show you the way. Ailia, are you coming?” 

“I guess,” Ailia answered. “Would it kill him to set it an hour later? He can’t imagine the migraines that natural light gives us.”

“You mean you don’t turn to dust in direct sunlight?” Kai asked her sarcastically. “You’ve been running around with us plenty through the day.”

“No. We don’t bloody sparkle either. Vampires have enhanced senses. You see a bright light and it may hurt your eyes and give you a headache. We see that light and it is so much brighter to us. That’s why we don’t go out in the sun very often. I’ve been lathered up in sunscreen all this time but I’ve ran out. Guess what, I also really enjoy garlic,” the young bodied vampire explained in a dry voice.

They left the tent and walked the short distance to the centre of the camp. A large fire was already burning there and a ring of seats had been placed around it. Many of the seats were already filled but Déaþscúa was nowhere in sight. Kai noticed that Arteeru was present, sat off away from the clusters of other men and women. Elizabeth sat beside Niall while Ailia stalked away to the back well away from the fire. Kai joined Arteeru, offering the man a quick nod of his head. The dark skinned man returned it.

More gathered around the fire until every seat was filled. Kai guessed that there were a few hundred people here. Whether Déaþscúa had more elsewhere he didn’t know. Finally, Déaþscúa stepped into the circle of amber light. He positioned himself beside the fire so that everybody could see him. He’d forgone his walking stick but still looked unsteady.

“Thank you all for coming here on such short notice,” he announced in a loud, confident voice. His words rose above the wind and fire to be heard clearly by everyone in the camp. “Terrible things have been occurring of late. Innocents are being killed and captured while the honourable clan MacFeelan has had to bury so many of their family. Black Annis is the root of all of this evil. The Grand Moot might not want to move against her, but I sure as hell will. We’re all here to put an end to her tyranny, something that we should have done a hundred times or more before now.”

There was a general muttering of agreement from the crowd. Disgust and anger showed on the majority of the faces that Kai could see. 

Déaþscúa continued. “I’m no leader and neither am I a fighter in my current state. I got cocky and Annis hit my hard because of it. Let’s not make that mistake twice. I suggest that a general is chosen before we progress further. I nominate Niall MacFeelan.

More debate was sparked among the gathering. Niall stood up. “Ye be full of shite, Déaþscúa. Ye have commanded more battles than we collectively have fought and I’ve yet to hear of a defeat under yer name. All the same though, I’ll lead these fine folk inte battle if that’s what they want.” There was a series of cheers and vigorous nodding of heads. 

“Good,” Déaþscúa said as the sound faded. Niall stepped up beside him. He looked haggard yet determination showed in his every move. “Kai, Arteeru, join us up here. We need you to detail this village that Annis has taken over.”

They both stood up. Arteeru took the lead. “Annis has taken over a small village near the north-eastern coast that was built for an industry that failed before its completion. It is surrounded by open hills that transition to forest in the east and the sea to the west. It is well positioned for an open battle but there is little chance for stealth and there is no high ground for any covering fire.”

“My dad and the others she took are kept in a basement to one of the inner houses,” Kai added.

Arteeru continued. “My sources suggest that the area is unstable, the barrier between realms being thinner than it should be. Annis will likely use this dimensional weakness to help her open Heaven’s Gate.”

Déaþscúa picked up right where they left off. “The basic plan is to have a multi-pronged attack so that Annis doesn’t know which is our true strike and which are simple distractions. That will be where all of you will be. I intend to visit the fairies and ask them to open a faegate straight into this basement where the hostages are. Kai will accompany me since he is the only one who has seen this place. We’ll free them and, if possible, strike at Annis’ back from her own place of safety.”

“I donae like going te the fairies. Nasty little scunners at the best o’ times,” Niall spat. “They willnae help ye.”

“Me ma’s cousin once went to the fairies,” put in a skinny young man with long, wild hair who Kai recognised vaguely as one of Niall’s many nephews. He was no older than Kai. Robby, he seemed to remember his name being. “Her pregnancy was failing so she asked them to make sure her baby was born safe. They agreed but took her sight, hearing and voice as payment.”

“I know the risks,” Déaþscúa told them. “As I am now, I’m no use in battle. My choices are to sit back and do nothing, go with you all and get in the way, or take this chance and hope to make a difference.”

Niall nodded reluctantly. “Fine. Now te plan out the attack itself. Somebody fetch me a map o’ that area. Quick. Between all of the clans, the mercenaries and the rest of ye there are a fair number of us here at the moment. I’m thinking three main attacks by land, a single attack from the sea, a force dropping in from above and then some long range support. We’ll hammer them from every angle.”

A young woman with fiery hair spoke up. “I brought some helicopters with me. Leave any troop transportation and air support or the like with the Blue Bands.”

“Good,” said Niall. “Ye and yer mercenaries have quite the reputation, Miss Valentine. I look forward te fightin’ wi’ ye. We know that Annis has found some teleportation orbs. I donae want her disappearing again. I trust ye brought a disruptor like I asked?”

“Of course,” Glory answered. “My pilot, Ace, will be setting that up. Annis won’t get away on our watch.”

“Okay, is there anything else that anyone wants te address?” Niall asked to the crowd.

“Where do you want me?” asked a voice that cut through the mumbled discussion of the gathering. Every head turned, several bearing stunned looks.

“KT!” Kai shouted, grinning like a fool as he ran to embrace her. He stopped himself just before crashing into her, suddenly remembering her wound and fragile state. “Are you alright? I… You… “

“I’m okay,” she said despite wincing as she wrapped her arms around him. She wore only a woollen nightgown that looked too big for her. “I ache and feel a bit weak but once I’ve been up and about I’ll be perfect.”

Elizabeth appeared at her side, her face grey. “You should not be up. Even if you had miraculously woken up after those wounds, you should have been bed-bound for weeks yet.” 

“Well I’m not,” KT said forcefully as the woman tried to guide her back to her tent. “I want to help and short of tying me down or knocking me out you can’t stop me.”

Elizabeth looked to be seriously considering that idea. She was forced to step back when Déaþscúa pushed his way to the girl. He looked all over her as though searching for any sign that she was too injured to be up but found nothing.

“Ailia, Not-That-Mad Willy, come with me. It’s time for another checkup.” He took KT by the arm and began to guide her back to the tent.

“I said that I’m fine, damn it!” KT huffed in protest.

“That’s what worries me.”

***

Once they were back inside the canvas walls, Déaþscúa rounded on the Scotsman. “You said all traces of it were gone before it could take hold. If that’s the case, why is she walking around when she should be having a hard time even breathing?”

“What does “It” mean?” KT demanded. She was completely ignored.

“I stabbed her wi’ the sticks and they rotted. I kept stabbin’ her til they stopped rottin’. Even Ailia said she couldnae sense it anymore,” Not-That-Mad Willy argued. 

“Stabbed me?” KT gaped. She pulled her gown to peer at her bare chest and made a strangled noise at the sight of the sword wound between her breasts and a series of small punctures across the entirety of her body. She pulled at her sleeves and hem, finding more across her arms and legs. Again she was ignored.

“He’s right,” Ailia confirmed. “It was my bond so had it taken root I’d be able to sense her. Look at her. She still clearly has the wounds. Had the vampirism still been there then all of her injuries would have mostly healed by now.”

“Vampirism! You tried to turn me into a vampire?” KT shouted. When no one showed any signs of answering her again she grabbed one of the fold-up chairs and swung it at Déaþscúa’s back. He staggered forward with a grunt.

“I’m standing right here. Tell me what the hell has been happening. I remember the battle to get your sword back. Me and Kai were fighting a man in a white suit. The next thing I remember is waking up a few minutes ago.”

Déaþscúa muttered something about ‘women’ and ‘violence’ before looking at her. “You were impaled by a sword. It would have been fatal so we decided to let Ailia turn you. Kai had just been taken and you were seconds from death.”

Ailia bared her teeth in a cheeky grin. “It’s just a good job that you’re ‘pure’. Good for you anyway. I personally could use a new zombie thrall.”

A blush spread across KT’s face. “What?”

“Yeah, vampirism is surprisingly picky. Ever wonder why vampires always went after young maidens in the stories? Even I don’t know the details but somehow sex and energy are linked. It’s a transition point between two versions of yourself I guess. You gain the ability to grow but also become vulnerable to corruption. People who’re sexually active can still become a vampire but there is equal chances of them becoming a thrall, an undead soul tied to the will of the vampire that infected them.”

“Not now, Ailia,” Déaþscúa snapped. “The second that you were not going to immediately die we drained the corruption from you and gave you a cure for Vampirism. It should have stabilised you then disappeared to leave your body to sort itself but you’re recovering faster than is natural.”

Elizabeth had taken out a notebook and was writing furiously. “Maybe it is her resistance. Vampirism is a magic based disease so could be negated by her. It couldn’t take over her body but perhaps was still able to passively affect it. Ailia, do you know of any resistants that were ever turned?”

Ailia gummed her lip thoughtfully. “No. There aren’t many of them and of those even fewer would be able to be turned. For your theory to be right though, she’d have to be an accipere resistant.”

“Hold up,” KT demanded. “A what now? Stop speaking bloody gibberish.”

Elizabeth answered her without looking up from her notes. “Accipere is a receiver or taker. Most resistant are unaffected by magic but are inherently powerless. Some have the ability to take the powers of others and use them as their own. This varies widely in the few known cases but it could explain how you received the benefits of the Vampirism without actually becoming a Vampire.”

Not-That-Mad Willy grabbed KT’s arm and held his hand over one of her wounds. His hand began to glow but nothing happened. 

“Ye see, my healin’ magic willnae work on her. I had te rely on traditional potions and poultices. That’s why ye still look like a pincushion.”

Elizabeth nodded and started to scribble in her notebook. “Déaþscúa, you try.”

Déaþscúa seemed almost reluctant as he placed his hand on KT’s arm. The familiar warm sensation filled her but when he removed his hand the wounds were still there. They looked slightly more healed but nothing like when they had faded previously.

“Interesting,” Elizabeth said as she made more notes. “It looks like my theory is correct. Your resistance is growing. Think of it like a muscle. Until you met Déaþscúa it had never been used so was weak and ineffective. Now that you have actually been exposed to magic your abilities are maturing. Pretty soon we won’t be able to heal you at all if you get hurt.”

A lot of emotions were coursing through KT. She decided to settle on anger. “I’m not a damn science project to be analysed. Me and Kai never fought because we thought we were safe but because it was what we needed to do. It’s terrifying thinking that I could die at any moment from injuries that I should be able to be healed from but it isn’t going to stop me. I am still going to fight Annis with you and get our dad back.”

Déaþscúa took one last look over her then nodded, a cocky smile spreading across his rugged face. “As you say, Ma’am. We move out in the morning.”

Previous – Chapter 21.

Next – Chapter 23.

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.