3. (Something Like Life)

Corgi is already outside waiting for me. I sometimes wonder where he goes when he’s not with me. He never really mentions his home or family, though I know he has them. He feels almost like a side character in my life, always waiting on the sidelines for somebody else to appear. Maybe I should ask him. I know he hasn’t been having an easy time recently.

“You linger like a bad smell,” is what I end up saying though.

“Yeah, and your attitude stinks, so that’s probably why we get along.”

I snort and give him the middle finger, which he returns like a patriotic salute. I start down the road and he trots behind me to catch up. Even at this time the streets are busy. The sky is black and a fine drizzle hangs in the air, but city life never slows. I notice that most of the beggars are gone though. I wonder where they go when crowds die down and the nights set in. 

I take the path that I’ve walked so many times that I could retrace it with my eyes closed. It’s a good job too, because coming back I’m usually so far gone that I might as well be blind. We don’t really talk as we walk. Most of our store of conversations had been drained during the morning. Thankfully though, it isn’t long before we are back in the shadow of the Wetherspoons.

Larry and Toto are already waiting for us inside. They’re sitting at the same table we had occupied hours earlier. The place is much busier now. Steak nights always draw in a good crowd. I slump into the chair beside Toto while Corgi goes to the bar to get us drinks. Again I vaguely wonder where he gets his money from, but know I’ll never bother to ask him. 

“You are looking well, all things considered,” Toto tells me. “I worry about you at times.”

“Life is just the interconnecting tissue between moments of misery. I accept that, so have no reason not to live it to the fullest. YOLO and all that bollocks, you know?” I answer with a smile that rivals Toto’s. “Alcohol is just the mortar to fill in the cracks in that confidence.”

“To be fair mate, that sounds like something an alcoholic would say,” Larry quips.

“An alcoholic probably wouldn’t have the coherency required to articulate philosophical theories regarding the ephemeral nature of existence,” I answer, my brain working in overdrive to pull out the most pretentious chain of words possible and speak them without fucking up. My brain fails me on most things, but any attempt to be a dick usually succeeds with flying colours.

“That’s proper good mate. It’s almost like you should be a poet or something.”

“Fuck you.”

It’s at this moment that Corgi returns, placing an orangish pitcher down in front of me.

“What the fuck’s this?”

“It’s a cocktail. Sex on the Beach. The bar lady recommended it.”

“Corgi, under no circumstances do I ever want to drink cocktails with you, let alone one named Sex on the Beach. Sex is the last thing I want to think about when I see your face. And why would you ever do it on a beach? Sand gets everywhere. That’s real uncomfortable. I can only imagine it’s like tossing off with sandpaper. Awful. So why have you put these thoughts in my head?”

“Because it’s fruity and filled with alcohol.”

I take a sip and it is indeed very sweet and filled with alcohol. I shrug and drink more. “Fair enough.”

Larry leans across the table and lowers his voice. “How’s Steph doing? I heard she’s been ill.”

“You’re as subtle as a sledgehammer to the balls. I want you to take any thoughts in your head involving my sister and thoroughly wash them away with bleach.”

“Hey, I’m only asking. It’s not like you care.”

“I care by association.”

“What does that even mean?”

“It means that I don’t care what she or you do in your own lives, but I don’t ever want to imagine anything involving either of you, let alone together. I have enough nightmares as it is. I’m pretty sure that she finds you disgusting though, so thankfully I don’t really have to worry about it.”

“That’s harsh.”

“The truth hurts. What can I say? It’s only the flu, so don’t worry your little head about it, okay?”

“You just don’t like to see people being happy.”

“True enough. I wouldn’t surround myself with miserable bastards like you lot if I did. Except Toto. His outlook is as bright as your pasty skin.”

“And your thoughts are as dark as mine,” Toto adds merrily. “Yet somehow you gather people around you like a mother hen. Fate laughs at your attempts to push people away.”

“Yeah? Well fate can take a long walk off a short pier. Let’s not get the wrong idea here, I don’t hang around you for your optimism or company. You just make good food and are generous with your portion sizes. It’s purely a selfish, one way relationship.”

Toto just laughs and drains his drink. He isn’t wrong though. Somehow it’s me that holds this little group together. None of the others knew each other before me. I’m the common denominator. I guess that shows how desperate they all are if I’m the best option to spend time with.

“Tink say’s he’ll meet us at the house. He’s heading there with his brother,” Corgi says into the lull between banter. He has his phone in one hand and the cocktail pitcher in the other. “He expressly states that nobody is to cause trouble.”

“I wonder why he felt the need to specify that?” I say innocently. “At no point have I ever started a fight when Tink has invited us to these little gatherings.”

“You did draw a dick on that fancy painting when we were at his uncle’s BBQ. I’m pretty sure you spent most of his cousin’s wedding reception flirting with the bride.”

“Look, this is an invitation from little Po, and frankly, I’m not going to do anything to get on his bad side. I’ll be on my best behaviour. Scouts honour.”

“You were never in the scouts.”

“No. And from what I read in the news, they don’t have much honour, so it all works out in the end.”

Touché.”

Previous – 2.

Next – 4.

Chapter 4. A Flock of Faithful. (A Rubber Ducky at the End of the World)

Some of you by now might be wondering why certain people were changed more dramatically than others. Why can Peace Lenrow withstand attacks that crippled others and tear through toughened flesh like tissue? Why can Damian Smithson create beams of energy? 

The answer is more simple, (or infinitely more complicated depending on your outlook), than you would ever think. The universe needs to get its shit together. Everything in existence is just so random that it only offers the visage of order. Mutated genes lead to evolution, taking a single cell and turning it into every animal and insect on the planet. Even in humans, random traits manifest themselves without explanation. One person can naturally remember every single thing they have ever read, seen or done while another could develop muscle at an accelerated rate. Someone else could be unable to move at birth or be inclined to gain excess fat.

So people like Peace and Damian are simply genetic abnormalities. This story could have been focussed on someone else but then, it wouldn’t be a very interesting story, would it? We are following these two individuals in particular because they are the centre points of upcoming events. They are the right people in the right place at the right time. 

I suppose there was also the dog that single handedly, er pawedly, saved Africa from aliens during this time, but let’s not confuse things that much just yet.

For you see, things were moving quickly for the people of Earth. Society cannot be destroyed as easily as some people believe. View society as water. It can change and flow, even become ice or steam, but no matter how much you break it down, it will always pool into small groups that seek to become larger until the whole is once again reformed. Humans hate other humans yet cling to them for survival.

Groups had begun to emerge from the chaos that individuals flocked to for protection. Only, these groups then proceeded to fight one another in larger battles for control of lands or resources. This is how countries are forged and are usually viewed by historians as jolly exciting times.

One such group had made its home inside an old church that had been, rather redundantly, barricaded and fortified. This is the building where an empire began. As we look upon it we see Damian Smithson approaching the grand doors alone. At least, alone beside the giggling baby that was fastened into a harness on his chest.

He knocked on the door, careful to limit his strength and not damage the wood. It didn’t open. Instead a voice called out from within. 

“Begone. These are the holy grounds of the Church of Redeemers. None may walk these hallowed halls without the Lord’s blessing.”

“And how would I gain your Lord’s blessing?”

“By worship, good deeds and a charitable donation to our organisation.”

 “How is the amount deemed enough?”

“Sorry?”

“How much should I pray? How many good deeds should I accomplish? What good deeds could I even do as a single man in a world of chaos. How much money should I donate when money has become so devalued that it is all but worthless?” 

Damian received no answer for several long seconds. “Erm…” started a voice before it trailed off. Hushed voices were just audible behind the door. More seconds passed.

Eventually the voice returned. “Look, just go away. We don’t want to let you in. Okay?”

Damian sighed. “That is such a shame. I quite liked this door. So much hard work must have gone into making it while such little effort will go into destroying it. That is the way of the world though I suppose.”

He placed the palm of his hand on the door and pushed. Metal screeched, stone broke away and wood buckled. The door collapsed inwards, revealing the interior of the church and two dozen or so faces torn between shock and anger.

“You will suffer for this sacrilege!” screamed a grey haired man in robes of white and gold. They were not the clothes of any position in the church that Damian knew of but sought to surpass even the Pope in their pompous grandeur.  

“I suspect that we all will suffer before the end,” Damian said softly. He looked the white clad man directly in the eyes as he spoke.

Damian looked unimpressive compared to most of the men within the church. He was still scrawny and dressed like a paperpusher even now. He had thick glasses, thinning blond hair and a baby on his chest. What was not so visible obvious though was that in the two weeks since the Change, Damian had been training. He had pushed his body to heights that would have destroyed his old self. In such a short time there were few physical signs of this but he carried himself with a strength and dignity that he had never known in his life before.

“You heretic! Infidel! How dare you break into my sanctuary! I am the Grand Redeemer and I will not accept such blatant disrespect. You will be scourged from this world in the holy fires of redemption!” screeched the man, self-importance filling his every word.

“You mean like this?” Damian asked. He held out his hand. There was a spark then a blazing fire appeared in his grip.

The Grand Redeemer, (who was actually a stamp critic called Dave Smeg. Tragic, I know. With a name and occupation like that he was never going to be a balanced individual), stammered and gawped. He recovered amazingly fast though.

“You hold no sway here, conjuror. Your black magic of Hell passed to you by Satan does not intimidate me!”

Damian considered this. “Fires of Hell? Are they not pure enough for you?”

The flames grew fiercer until they burned with a blinding white light. Everyone in the room besides Damian covered their eyes from the painful glare. Amelia giggled happily and reached out a tiny hand toward the flames. The light faded, dulling back down to a gentle amber flame.

“This is what is going to happen,” Damian announced as the men began to lower their arms and reopen their eyes. “Your little group here represents the closest thing to order in this area. Society needs order, now more than ever. You are going to help me to spread this order.”

The Grand Redeemer sneered in a way that twisted his already ugly face. “Order is but a byproduct of our true ambition. The End is nigh and we must use what time we have left to spread the word and mercy of God!”

Damian shook his head. “About that. The whole religious angle is not in the world’s best interest. Religion has caused so much conflict throughout human history that it would be a poor decision to build a new society upon its back.”

A woman stepped forward who had kept well back before now. She was a stout woman with rough skin, the kind of woman you see in working class backgrounds who work all hours of the day to keep their family, community and the world in general running.

“But what about all the good that the church has ever done? The charity work and support? The hope that we give people?”

“But what about all the good that war has ever done? The advances in technology and medicine? The removal of corrupt regimes?” Damian replied calmly. “Do they make war a good thing?”

“That is not the same!” 

“I believe to the contrary. 

We have already witnessed what happens when common sense is ignored. Sometimes though, human stupidity extends beyond the simple breach of common sense and into the realms of downright objection to the survival instincts. Those people with fervent beliefs, whatever the beliefs may be, are unable to see past those beliefs at the bigger picture of the tiny picture of their own life.

“You have revealed yourself to be a Godless sinner!” Grand Redeemer Smeg howled. “The Lord will smite you down! It shall be me who rebuilds this world, not you, demon! I-AAAAARRRRRRGGGH!”

His ranting was cut short as his eyes burst into flames, which quickly erupted across his body. His skin melted and his bones cracked until only ash remained inside the robes. The robes themselves were completely undamaged.

“The name is Damian, not demon. Easy mistake to make,” Damian told the smouldering human remains in a level voice. He turned back to the others. “Sorry about that. He wouldn’t listen to reason. So, does anybody else have any issues with me taking command here?”

There was a brief moment of silence as the men and women shared horrified looks with one another.

“No, boss. No issues at all. Lead on.”

“Good,” Damian muttered. “Let us begin then. This world will not rebuild itself.”

Previous – Chapter 3. A Brave New World.

Next – Chapter 5.

Chapter 1. (Thorns of the Shadow: The Taste of Lead and Lightning)

Heat rolled in shimmering waves across every surface. The sun hung proudly in a cloudless sky above. It was the kind of day that seemed to drag on and seep the energy from the world. 

On a suburban street, in a house like every other upon it, a young woman sat slouched across a sofa where she had been for the past few hours without moving. She was called Catherine Redthorn, but prefered to go by KT. Her black hair ended half way down her back and she had an athletic build that was currently clad in black jeans and a simple white vest. A few scars marked her arms but many more lay hidden in a chaotic pattern across her torso.

On the other end of the sofa was the sprawled out shape of her twin brother, Mordekai,  known better as Kai. He was taller and broader than his sister but shared her green eyes and love of dark clothing. He too bore scars, as did their mother and father, but nothing near to the level that punctuated KT’s skin.

To the best of the Redthorn family’s memories, they had been visiting the twin’s Aunt Susan up in Scotland when her guest lodge had suffered a gas leak which resulted in a terrible explosion. It had killed several of the guests, including Susan, and left the survivors with varying degrees of injuries.

Only, that was not what had happened. The truth was darker and near unbelievable. KT remembered it all too well. She remembered being attacked by a succubus, meeting the mysterious hunter Déaþscúa, and returning to find the lodge in flames, her mother crucified, and the other guests gone without a trace. She remembered herself and Kai fighting alongside Déaþscúa and meeting vampires, werewolves and witches. She remembered coming so close to ending the life of the infamous Black Annis when the Grand Moot, the magical equivalent to the government, arrived and stopped them. Déaþscúa had been arrested and KT, Kai, and the surviving lodge guests had had their memories altered.

Unfortunately for the Grand Moot though, nobody had informed them that KT was a Resistant, someone with a strong resistance to the effects of magic. Her real memories had returned after only a few hours. Not that anybody would have believed her if she had spoken out.

The television droned on about politics in the corner of the room. Nobody was really watching it but the remote had been left in the kitchen and nobody could muster the energy to go and get it. The sound passed KT by without notice until a single word snagged at her attention.

“That’s right, Clair. We are currently live here in Scotland where local businessman and entrepreneur, Roger Golman has announced his intention to stand in the Parliamentary elections. Golman had begun to make a name for himself in the international business world until a suspected terrorist attack on one of his compounds left him in hospital for much of this last year. Now he has returned to the public view and is already gaining considerable support.”

The screen was showing footage of a tall man in his late twenties with short black hair and an expensive suit addressing a crowd. His features were slightly on the pudgy side but he wore confidence like a second skin. His voice took over where the reporter’s had left.

“I have seen the best of humanity, and the worst. It is my dream te change the world and te help create a society that is not weighed down by crime, greed and corruption. This is but a first step on my mission to forge a better future for us all.”

KT couldn’t help but to snort at the words. Everything that the man said was bullshit. He was nothing more than an overambitious criminal. After a moment she amended this since all politicians were nothing more than overambitious criminals. Golman had sided with Black Annis for personal gain and had captured and abused the vampire, Ailia. The ‘terrorist attack’ in the report had been none other than KT and Kai breaking in to free Ailia. His hospitalisation had been Ailia’s parting gift to him. KT still shivered to remember that moment.

“I didn’t realise that you were so invested in politics that you could look so disgusted when one speaks,” her father said with a smile. Bob Redthorn was an easy going man who was quick to smile and slow to anger. He had dark hair, wore glasses and had a slender build.

“Bah! They’re all the same,” interjected Kai. “Politics, made up of the word ‘poly’ meaning multiple and the word ‘tics’ meaning blood-sucking parasites. Still, there’s something about that guy’s face that just pisses me off. He’s a businessman so you know he’d slit his own granny’s throat for a quick fiver.”

“Disgusting,” their father agreed. “You can’t buy anything with a fiver anymore. I’d struggle getting a Freddo and a bottle of Coke in this economy. Greedy green bastard. If you raised it up to a tenner we might have a deal though.”

It was nice to see him return to his usual self again. After the events of the new year that lead to his sister’s death, Bob had sunk into a darkness that KT had never seen before. The physical recovery had been hard for all of them, but the mental healing had taken much longer. Luckily the arrival of summer had done wonders for everybody’s mood.

“Stop casualising moral corruption. Kai doesn’t need the encouragement,” added their mother, Tara. Unlike Bob, she was a strong, stern woman with little time for nonsense. She had blonde hair and always wore smart clothes. Unlike the other members of the Redthorn family though, her injuries still affected her day to day life, leaving her weaker than she would have liked. The holes in her palms where she had been nailed to a cross rendered her hands near useless and her new reliance on others hurt her far more than any of the wounds to her flesh had managed. 

“Your words cut me deep,” Kai said with mock hurt. “I’ll have you know that I am a pillar of this community and a paragon of virtue.”

Tara raised her eyebrow. “Oh. You mean how you help all those poor young women with their studies? It is all for the good of their education and not for anything more selfish.”

“Those are some bold allegations there. If my irresistible charm clouds their concentration then I cannot be held responsible for that.”

KT couldn’t help but smile at the friendly banter. It felt good to hear everyone happy and carefree. The problem was that she felt like she was in a bubble that separated her from her family and friends now. Her memories prevented her from relaxing. While she sought the peace and happiness of normality, a greater determination pulled at her. How could she go back to regular life after killing men and monsters, meeting immortals and fighting at the centre of bloody battles that nobody else even knew had happened?

‘Such connections are worthless. Do not concern yourself with fitting in but with rising above your surroundings.’

The internal voice cut through her own thoughts roughly. She smothered it out with a practiced ease. The voice belonged to Ghodot, the former king of the fairies. He had tried to possess KT’s body in exchange for passage through a faegate but KT’s resistance to magic had meant that he had been the one to fade instead. Now he was little more than an annoying voice in her head. The intrusion upon her thoughts was frustrating enough but the fact that he could see and feel everything that she could, as well as being privy to her own thoughts, made him insufferable.

The trouble was that everything had begun and ended so suddenly that she could almost mistake it all for a vivid dream. Only her scars and memories told her different. She had not wanted it to end. She had had no choice in the matter though. No matter how hard she tried, she could not shake the feeling that she belonged in that world more than her own. 

Kai and her parents were still bickering good-naturedly so she decided to get up and try to clear her head. She wandered upstairs into her room and just stood staring at the space that had once been the core of her life. It seemed so hollow now.

Her shelves filled with fantasy books no longer held an escape from reality but as a reminder of what she had left behind. The same applied to her DVD and video game collection too. Only music helped her to lose herself now. 

She wandered into the bathroom, connecting her phone to the speakers on the shelf, then scrolled through the vast library of music without anything particular in mind. Tapping the screen at random, a heavy drumbeat echoed through the small room.

Showering had become much more difficult with the fairy making lecherous comments in her head, but she had grown accustomed to washing with her eyes closed. Efficiency was the aim of the game. Almost everything in her life followed that principle now.

‘When will you accept that I am a part of you, girl? We are one. Why hide from me?’

‘I’ll accept it when I can finally block you out of my mind.’

‘Ah, so cold. But we work so well together. The unmolded clay of your body combined with my unparalleled intellect. Just let me take over and all of your problems will fade away like mist.’

‘The last time you spoke of things fading away it didn’t quite go to plan, did it?’

Ghodot became silent. For all his talk of grandeur and power he tended to pout like a child. Enjoying the brief respite from his incessant comments, KT washed then dressed herself in jogging trousers and a t-shirt. She already felt sticky again from the humid air.

“Since when did England get this kind of heat? A bit of rain would be wonderful.”

‘The air feels… constrained. Something is building.’

‘Climate change?’

‘Magic.’

Ghodot would say no more. Months of knowing him had taught KT that he was only reserved when he didn’t have the answers, even if he didn’t like to admit it. Magic was building and the king of fairies didn’t know why. Or wasn’t certain at the least. It scared him.

She headed downstairs and back through the living room. Nobody else had moved since she had gone. 

“I’m heading out for a bit. Need anything picking up while I’m out?”

“A winning lottery ticket would be nice,” her father muttered wistfully.

“Milk and bread would be more practical,” her mother added. “Just don’t push yourself too hard.”

“Stop worrying, Mum. Most of my injuries were superficial. I feel fine.” Superficial might have been an understatement. Really, KT should have been dead after being impaled multiple times. Those were small details though that her mother didn’t need to worry about.

Tara sighed. “Why am I cursed with such a stubborn family?”

KT didn’t bother answering, instead just waving cheerfully and making her way to the door. She stepped out into the street and immediately felt the full force of the sun on her skin. Kai appeared at her side, cursing the heat. The thought of dressing in lighter colours had never crossed his mind.

“You planning to join me for a jog?” she asked him playfully. “That’s not like you.”

“I’ll pass. You can run through this humidity and come back looking and smelling like a drowned rat. I have other places to be. Better places. I just wanted to… well, I wanted to ask you something.”

KT slowed her walking slightly. It was almost as though Kai was being shy. A devilish smile tugged at her lips.

“Now then, little brother, what could you possibly be so sheepish about?”

“Shut up!” he snapped. He wrapped himself in what bravado he could muster. “We are the same age and I don’t care what you say to the contrary. I was just being a gentleman and let you out first. Ladies first and all that bollocks.” He fidgeted with one of his rings for a moment before continuing. “What I wanted to ask was, I, err… I’m kinda seeing someone and I, well, I wanted to introduce you to her sometime.”

KT burst out laughing. “Since when did you introduce anyone to the family.”

“Haha, laugh it up. This is different to usual. I met her at the hospital and we just talked for a few months. Maybe my near-death experience changed the way I see the world but I just kinda wanted to get to know her, you know? Do you think something is wrong with me?”

“It’s called being an empathetic adult.

“Implying that sluts are unempathetic and immature is stereotyping and is harmful for society.”
“I’m making no judgement on the poor souls you’ve led astray.”

“Ha! Assuming any reference to sluts is referring to women is sexist!”

“So you are calling yourself a slut?”

“I’m calling myself a coitus connoisseur.”

“That phrase makes me deeply uncomfortable. Please never repeat it.”

“Yeah, that was pretty bad. So, do you agree to meet her?  I just want your approval to make sure I’ve not gone crazy, okay. This means a lot to me.”

“You know I hate awkward social encounters, but if it’s important to you then of course I will. Is that where you’re going now?”

Kai nodded. “There’s a market on in town. Handcrafted junk and lots of food stalls. We’re going to head there for a while then grab some drinks.  You can join us at the Silver Spoon after you’ve tortured yourself.”

“Fine. I’ll go for my jog then get ready. Hmm. What do you even wear for meeting potential sister-in-laws?”

“Whoa there! Let’s not get carried away with allusions to the ‘M’ word. It’s just casual drinks, okay. Be yourself and the two of you will get along great. I mean, she does like me, and you’re just a watered down, slightly less charming version of that.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, kiddo. Your personality only seems stronger because it’s been left to rot. Think of it like a smell. Stronger isn’t better.”

“You know which cheeses cost the most? The foul smelling ones that are absolutely crusted with mold. That’s me.”

“Whatever you say, cheese boy. Don’t leave this girl waiting now. Go on. I’ll speak to you later.”

Kai grinned and turned, heading back towards the house. Shaking her head as she chuckled, KT picked up her pace and started her jog. 

It was strange just how seamlessly life had picked up after been completely shattered. Nobody remembered those events but they had left such an impact on each of their lives, mostly for the better. Their mother had needed to open herself up to cope with her injuries and now had a better bond with everyone because of it, while Kai had met someone that he finally connected with while at the hospital, a hospital they were only in because of the injuries they had all received in Scotland. 

And then there was KT, as disjointed as ever. Possibly moreso. So she trained and trained, pushing herself to her limits in the hope that her life didn’t return to the mundane grind of reality. She hadn’t liked that back when it was all she had known. Now it profoundly unsettled her.

Her feet pounded down the all too familiar pavement. The air was so heavy that she was already struggling to breathe. She lifted her headphones over her ears and pawed at her phone’s screen until sudden music blasted into her ears. She swore then quickly turned it down before increasing her pace. 

Minutes dragged by until her sanctuary of sound was interrupted by a commotion ahead of her. Her eyes drifted over to a street corner a short distance away. Three men stood facing down a fearful looking girl a few years younger than KT. They laughed and jeered at her obvious discomfort, one of them holding her arms so she couldn’t escape. KT slowed in front of them, stopping at the girl’s side. She bend down, resting her hands on her knees as she took heavy breaths.

“Whats up, luv? We take your breath away?” one asked her with a smirk.

KT held up a finger for him to wait a moment. She’d only been jogging for a short time but was already completely drenched. She straightened herself then steadied her breathing.

“Afraid not. It’s this thing called exercise. You should try it sometime. It might help you bulk up those twiggs you call arms.”

The young man’s friends laughed. The man muttered something under his breath then let go of the girl, turning his full attention to KT.

“What’s it to you anyway?”

“Your friend here doesn’t look like she wants your company. Figured I’d have a look since you already threw off my concentration.”

“We’re just having fun, right. We aren’t goin’ to hurt her or anything. Bloody ‘ell, you can’t even talk to girls anymore without being the bad guy.”

KT sighed. “I don’t think you could comprehend what it means to be the bad guy. Being bad and being a bit of a dick aren’t mutually inclusive you know.”

“You what?”

“I think she called you a dick.”

KT ignored the men and turned to the girl. “You okay?”

The girl nodded. KT placed a hand on her shoulder and prompted her to start walking. She called over her shoulder to the men as she left. “See you around. Maybe work on those people skills in the meantime, okay?”

“Thanks for helping,” the younger girl said when they were out of sight of the men. “They regularly do that. They think they’re just playing around but it’s scary, you know?”

“No worries. Glad to help. They seemed alright, if a bit obnoxious. Most people like that just need a firm word.” She offered the girl a reassuring smile. “And if that fails you just gotta kick their ass.”

“I don’t think that’s very realistic,” the girl pointed out. 

“Yeah, maybe not,” KT reflected. “The world’s a scary place filled with things stronger than us.” Her thoughts found themselves drawn back to the tunnels beneath Glasgow, to the fear she had felt while hunted by the cannibal, Christie. No amount of ‘can do’ attitude would have worked there. It didn’t even take a supernatural being like that to be dominating for the average woman. She suddenly didn’t know what to say to the girl. 

“Err, just remember to punch their nose with the base of your palm in an upwards strike. Sends the cartilage straight into their brain.”

This information only seemed to make the girl unsettled. She quickly gave her thanks once again then took off down a side street.

“Dammit,” KT muttered. Her mood only soured further when she realised that she would have to hold up a polite conversation with a stranger as soon as she got back. What the Hell did normal people even talk about? It had been hard to interact with people before, but now it seemed impossible.

She set off at a full sprint to drown her negativity beneath a wave of exhaustion. It didn’t work. Gasping for air, she slowed to a walk again, her mood sinking further. Back then, after seeing what Christie had done, she had felt a great drive to protect others who were vulnerable. As that adrenaline had faded though, the reality of the world had set in. She wasn’t some kind of superhero. She couldn’t solve the world’s problems with her fists. But then she could inspire people either. Where did that leave her?

Her hands fumbled with the door handle and she nearly collapsed over the threshold. She took a step forward then fell onto the carpet. Her mother poked her head around the corner to investigate the noise. 

“You have a fun run?”

KT raised a feeble thumbs up and made some vague sounds that could be interpreted loosely as words.

“You’re pushing yourself too hard you know? Why the sudden need to get fit?”

Why? KT mulled the word over. She dragged herself into a sitting position with her back leant against the wall. 

“I guess that… the future scares me. I don’t know what the Hell I’m doing with my life, but getting stronger is the one thing I can control. I can’t walk into my dream career and tell them to hire me. I can’t just go out there and know what to say to people. I can run though, and I can lift. I can get stronger, and then maybe that strength will come in handy.”

Her mother didn’t say anything, instead awkwardly sliding down the wall to sit beside her. It was a sentimental gesture she never would have engaged in previously.

“I don’t envy you kids. Ha, kids, just the word is belittling. We were adults at your age. Everything was simpler. Your generation are the driftwood in the tidal twilight of the times.”

“That was very poetic, coming from you.”

“You’d probably not believe that I used to write poetry as a girl. That’s what I wanted to do back in school. But then there was a pressure on girls to step up and cast down the shackles of femininity in order to work respectable jobs for good money. So I turned my imagination towards business and never looked back.”

“Huh, I never knew that.”

“I don’t really speak about it. What I’m trying to say is, the world is changing faster than at any other point in history. It’s okay to be scared. It terrifies me to see you and Kai feeling so lost because I know there’s nothing I can do to help you. I can’t imagine living through it first hand. Just… go easy on yourself and know that me and your dad are here for you. It isn’t your fault that the world hasn’t left you a seat.”

KT felt tears sting her eyes. “Thanks, Mum,” she sniffed, turning to embrace the older woman. Her mum held her back.

“Maybe grab another shower before the hugs, okay.”

KT glanced down at her dripping clothes and dank hair. “Yeah, you’re probably right.” She stood up, noticing a wet blotch on the wall where she had been leant. Then to drive home the fact, she remembered she had to meet up with Kai.

An hour later she stepped back out of the house in a simple pair of jeans and a long-sleeved white t-shirt with a cat on it. Even this heat couldn’t encourage her to wear a skirt or dress. She sent Kai a quick text as she walked and he responded straight away. They were at the pub awaiting her. There was no backing out now.

The Silver Spoon was a chain pub that had a reputation for being cheap and little else. It was hardly the most romantic of places but it did have a strange charm about it. KT entered the pub and spotted Kai at a table in the far corner. She crossed the distance, her attention on the chestnut haired figure that sat opposite him. 

On seeing her approaching, Kai got to his feet quickly. He looked genuinely nervous. Seeing him like this brought a smile to her face, his sudden shyness helping to dispel her bad mood. 

“Hey KT. Thanks for coming. Did that sound too formal? Definitely too formal. Sup, Sis. Nope, that just sounds stupid. Okay, starting over. So, you are here, which is a thing. A good thing. Another good thing, and by thing I mean person, is Cayla. Cayla, this is my sister, KT. KT this is my, wait, what are we? Girlfriend? Partner? Or do the kids call it SO these days? Oh god, I said ‘the kids’ and ‘these days’ This is it! Old age is setting in. I’m not cool anymore. Please tell me ‘cool’ is still a thing!”

The chestnut haired woman, Cayla, stood up and rested her hands on Kai’s shoulders until he stopped floundering. She was tall for a girl, just inching out KT’s height, but had a slighter build. A light smattering of freckles was dashed across the bridge of her nose. She wore a long chequered skirt and a band shirt. She smiled and offered her hand to KT.

“I’m Cayla. Pleased to meet you. Kai has told me so much about you.”

KT took her hand. She couldn’t imagine what Kai would be saying about her but she ignored the lurching feeling of dread. “Yeah, it’s nice to meet you.” That seed of apprehension in her stomach flared again as no other words presented themselves in her head. Thankfully Cayla took the reins. 

They all sat down around the table, Kai and Cayla at one side with KT at the other, while Cayla chatted pleasantly about meeting Kai. A huge blush covered his face for the entire story. Both women found enjoyment in his discomfort. It was weird to hear a nice story about Kai. If KT didn’t know better she would have thought Cayla was speaking of someone completely different.

Drinks were ordered and small talk about music eased the group dynamic. KT found the other woman to be easy to talk with and they shared similar tastes in most things. Kai had been right about that. She was happy to let Cayla carry the conversations too, and the woman seemed happy to do so. 

“So, Kai never told me what it is you do. Are you an athlete?” Cayla asked once music had been thoroughly been discussed.

KT couldn’t suppress a surprised laugh. “An athlete? No. I’m a part time receptionist. Making the world a better place one generic email at a time.”

“Really. You look so strong. Don’t you play any sports?”

“I used to. Now I just like to workout alone.” A wave of self consciousness washed over KT. She hadn’t really considered that she would look any different. Looking across the table she suddenly felt like she was in an interview. 

Kai noticed the brief look on her face and steered the conversation away from KT’s life. As the drinks came and went, the atmosphere was light-hearted, and even KT started to enjoy herself. Kai got over his nerves and became his usual abrasively charming self. Seeing him being himself again, KT watched the interaction between him and Cayla. She always had a witty response to his quips and made him laugh in a way that she hadn’t seen before. It was nice.

Eventually, many drinks later, the evening had gone so well that Kai made a resolution. 

“You know what?”

“What?” KT asked as she went to take a sip of her drink, spilling it over the table.

“Today went really well. Cayla, congratulations, you’ve passed the trial period with flying colours.”

“I’m honoured,” she answered dryly. “I guess you scrape a passing grade yourself.”

“Well, maybe it’s the alcohol talking, but I really like you. KT likes you too.”

KT made a thumbs up gesture without looking. She was currently occupied with being face down on the table in the pool of spilled drink. The excessive exercise, alcohol, and lack of food was starting to hit her hard.

“So I think it’s time,” Kai continued. He took a deep breath. “Time to introduce you to the family!”

This perked up KT. She sat up and stared intensely at her twin’s features. “Are you serious?”

“Super serious,” he slurred. “In fact, let’s go now! I’mma walk right up to Tara and be like ‘Yo Mum, this is my commitment because you always said I could never handle a girlfriend. Yeah!”

He stood up with a fiery determination in his eyes, swayed, then toppled to the floor. 

KT stumbled over to him and prodded him with her foot. “Hey, you can’t back out now. Passing out isn’t gonna get you out of this.”

“I have made a mistake.”

“You’ve made hundreds. This probably isn’t one though. Cayla, grab his other arm for me. Is this something you want?”

A brief look of deer in the headlights flitted across her face. When she looked down at Kai it resolved itself into a soft smile. “Yeah, I guess I am.”

“Good. Now help me carry him. Don’t let go once you have him or he’ll make a run for it.”

Kai blinked drunkenly. “No. This is the right thing to do. Because I… what’s that ‘L’ word? Oh yeah. Like. Because I strongly like you.”

Cayla waved her middle finger across his vision, causing him to cackle maniacally. The two women hoisted him to his feet between them and started the short journey to the Redthorn house.

Next – Chapter 2.

Chapter 3. A Brave New World. (A Rubber Ducky at the End of the World)

Peace Lenrow was hungry. The door to his room hadn’t been opened in days. He had heard loud noises but had seen no sign of life. The electricity seemed to be down too. Something wasn’t right but he had not cared until now.

He stood up, flexing muscles that had not seen much use lately. It was beginning to dawn on him that he should be in pain. By now the hunger should have been eating at his stomach and seeping his strength. Instead he only felt a slight pang, almost a craving for flavour more than sustenance. 

“Hey! Anybody out there? Nurse! Anyone!” he shouted to the door. 

There was no answer. It would have been a surprise if there had been one since the building was empty except for Peace and another patient who was enjoying the solitude. The staff had ceased coming to work and most of the other patients had left. Super strength and a sound mind had done wonders for them.

His door was locked every night and had not been unlocked since his last visit from the nurse days before. He knocked then paused. His knuckles had left dents in the wood. He knocked again, harder this time, and the door shook in its frame. He shrugged then stepped back before ramming into it with his shoulder. 

The door burst open and Peace staggered into the corridor beyond. His concerns were confirmed as he took in the state of his surroundings. It looked like a storm had passed through the building. There were broken doors, shattered glass and several large holes in the walls. 

He walked over the debris in his cotton pajamas and fluffy slippers without feeling a thing. Glass crunched but no pain registered. A vague sense that his soul must finally have died washed over him slowly. He was truly numb to the world.

Only, he wasn’t. In reality he was more in tune with the world than ever before in his life and the reason that he could feel no pain was due to the strengthening of his body after the Change. It is strange though that reality has a tendency to bend itself around the beliefs of particularly delusional individuals. Personal reality trumps actual reality so often that you could be forgiven for thinking that we actually live in a truly chaotic world.

As such, it was not important what the universe had done to Peace Lenrow but what Peace thought that the universe had done to him. For all that he knew, the world could have been in perfect order and all of this was a product of his own delusional mind. 

Peace felt surprisingly happy. Whether it was the breakdown of society or the breakdown of his sanity, he was free. His biggest problem with life had always been other people so any reality without them was close enough to Heaven for him.

That sense of liberation didn’t last long though. No sooner had Peace left the hospital to be greeted by the ruins of his town, than his dream of escaping humanity was shattered. Swaggering down the centre of the road was a group of men who laughed loudly among themselves. Peace felt a vein twitch on his forehead.

I, as an omnipotent narrator, can tell you that the men had been washed up wrecks sustained by drugs and alcohol after never achieving anything in life. A successful football career cut short from an injury, a young love brought to an end by uncontrolled anger, and children born too early in life were the kinds of hallmarks worn by these bitter individuals.

“Old Jonesey didn’t know what hit him,” one cackled. “How many times had he and his lads beat us up? Then wham! I hit him with a car. Just picked it up and smacked him like it were a cricket bat. The look on his brother’s face. Ha!”

“They didn’t stand a chance,” sniggered another. “We run this town now.”

Another man suddenly noticed Peace and pointed him out to the others. “Hey look. Someone’s just come from the loony bin.”

Peace suppressed a sigh as every head in the group turned to focus in on him. He wasn’t very good with people. They had a tendency to annoy and confuse him. He tried to ignore them and keep walking but they had other ideas.

“What you doing out of your comfy little pillow cell, eh?” grinned a bald man with the build of a rugby player and the face of a crashed plane. 

Peace didn’t respond, instead changing his direction to try and avoid the group. One of the men grabbed his arm and pulled him back around.

“It’s rude to ignore someone when they’re speaking to you, boy. Maybe you’re a bit behind on the times. See, things have changed. We are the top dogs around here now. You do as we say. Got that?”

Peace frowned. “Sorry. What did you say? I zoned out for a minute there. Something about dogs. I like dogs.”

The man’s grip tightened on Peace’s arm. “Who the hell do you think you are, retard?”

“Who do I think I am?” Peace mused aloud. “A better question would surely be who do you think I am? I know who I am. I think.”

Cogs were turning inside the man’s head. Understanding dawned on him with about the same speed as an English sunrise in December. Anger sparked at the boy’s insolence and he lashed out his fist with a grunt.

The fist connected with Peace’s face with the force of a freight-train. The man, who was called Nicolas Drager but still thought of himself as the lad about town ‘Dray’, expected one of three things to happen. The boy could be sent hurtling backwards through the front wall of the hospital, his head could be torn off and bounce across the roofs like a stray football or his skull could implode under the pressure. Dray had seen all three happen. 

He had never seen somebody stand and take it though. He took a quick step back after letting go of the boy’s arm. Peace stood still, his eyes unfocused. Blood dribbled from his lips and nose. His brain felt like it had been put through a blender. Agony crackled through him. He laughed. To feel anything brought a sense of euphoria to him.

The sunrise effect was again spreading through the group of men. Common Sense screamed that perhaps the best thing to do would be to leave the area as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, common sense is in fact one of the rarest of human traits despite its misleading name. Fight or flight battered at the instincts of the men but it was testosterone that ultimately led to a scrawny man yelling “Get ‘im!” Mob mentality took over from there while Common Sense looked on in disgust and facepalmed.

Five fully grown men with plenty of fighting experience versus a seventeen year old fresh from a mental hospital. It should have been over very quickly. It was.

Peace felt as though he existed beyond the usual confines of time and space. He saw the men move, not exactly in slow motion, but as though he had seen each action a million times before like a favourite movie. He knew where their fists would land and where they would leave themselves open. Images filled his head, processing all of the information around him so quickly that he didn’t understand what was going on. 

He wove around the flurry of attacks without a care in the world but never fought back. Peace disliked fighting. Not because he was afraid of getting hurt but because it was a situation where all of the emotions that he tried to suppress came venting uncontrollably to the surface. Showing emotion made him less human. Pure rage would consume him and strip him of his humanity.

It had been a fight that had sealed his fate to be committed to the mental hospital. Self harm could be hidden, ignored, but biting off someone’s ear was somewhat more visible. It didn’t matter how horrible the person in question was. How many times they had bullied others, disrupted lessons and made life hell. The second someone snaps and puts them in their place they suddenly become the victim and you are a psychopath. 

One of the men caught him a blow across the back of the head with a brick that shattered on impact. Blood bubbled from the wound. Seeing that he could be hurt the men redoubled their efforts. Peace took a deep breath.

“That wasn’t very nice,” he said in a voice that was too calm. 

Peace’s fist drove hard into the gut of the man in front of him. It didn’t stop until it had passed straight through his body. Blood splashed across Peace’s face. The man screamed and flopped to the floor. He was still alive but couldn’t move due to the hand sized gap in his spine. 

This moment marked the second important decision for the men to make. Common Sense stood up to make its case again then decided that it wasn’t even worth the effort and left to find a can of beer and a good seat to watch the show.

The men dove at Peace and he offered them a feral grin. His conscious thoughts stepped away from his brain and took a seat beside Common Sense. 

Every punch that Peace threw connected then continued on its merry way unhindered by such simple obstacles as flesh and bones. Screams and blood filled the air in a symphony of pain and suffering. It was only a matter of seconds until five writhing, bloodsoaked bodies littered the floor and Peace stood in their centre panting as he wrestled to regain his composure. 

It was a scene of utter carnage. Peace surveyed the damage with dead eyes. A butterfly fluttered past the groaning mess, catching Peace’s attention. The sight of it lifted his spirits and cast any memories of his actions from his mind. He wandered after the butterfly with a smile on his face, everything else forgotten.

Previous – Chapter 2. A Father’s Duty.

Next – Chapter 4. A Flock of Faithful.

Chapter 2. A Father’s Duty. (A Rubber Ducky at the End of the World)

Humans are surprisingly dim for such clever creatures. It took them a while to work out that they had changed. People no longer got ill. They didn’t tire as easily, and they were stronger and faster than ever before. Lots of things happened that could only point toward humans having become more powerful, but people don’t like to connect the dots if the bigger picture is one that they don’t want to acknowledge. 

Even so, it was only a matter of days until the governments of the world were forced to announce that the experiment may not have gone entirely to plan. It went something along the lines of: “Somebody forgot to carry the one in the calculations and now the Earth and everything in it is atomically unstable. On a side note, you are all basically superman now. Please don’t use these powers and continue with your life as normal.”

If you think that anybody took that advice then you are more naive than I gave credit for. When confronted with power, human minds reach for extremities. They realise that they have no need to work when they could take anything that they want, or they develop a hero complex. Only, neither works when everybody is the same. 

How do you use your newfound powers to rob an old lady when she turns around and slaps you straight through a building? How do you protect the innocent when they can fully protect themselves?

Just like in nature though, not everyone was affected in equal measures. Some became stronger than others for reasons that nobody could tell. Many great stories of tragedy, triumph and the like rose during this time. There were millions of tales, such as Mrs Baker, and elderly woman who had been on her deathbed. After the Change she stood back up and took her poor dog on a long overdue walk in the park. Then there was Mr Dale who had thrown himself off of a skyscraper moments before the Change only to crash down onto a car and walk away unharmed, much to his own chagrin. 

None of these events factor into this particular narrative though. Instead we must shift our way through the chaos and miracles to a small terrace house in a rundown neighbourhood. It had always been run down but of late had been reduced to crumbling ruins.

Damian Smithson stood in the center of his living room with a crying baby cradled in one arm. He stared at his free arm, held out before him with fingers splayed, and watched tendrils of smoke curl around it. Before him on the ground lay a mound of charred bones.

Things had happened quickly. The bones belonged to a man who had broken into the house. This was a very literal statement too since there was a wide hole in the wall that marked the man’s entrance. He had come to steal from the single father, and Damian had done what he had to in order to protect his daughter. Only, neither man had expected Damian to fire a laser beam from his hand. People were stronger, faster, and could take more damage, but lasers? That was something new.

Slowly, Damian lowered his arm and tried to sooth the baby absentmindedly. He had always been weak. He was scrawny and had never advanced his career past being a supervisor at a fastfood restaurant. He had been bullied throughout his youth and had been unable to save his wife when she had been hit by a drunk driver two months ago. 

So why was he suddenly so powerful? Since the Change he had outclassed those around him. The man at his feet had not been the first to cross him. People could survive gunshots now but Damian had broken bones with a childlike ease. Only one explanation came to his mind.

He had been chosen.

“Hush Amelia,” he whispered to the child. “Don’t cry. Daddy is going to make the world a better place for you. Don’t fear the chaos, for I’ll bring order. Just you wait and see.”

Previous – Chapter 1. A Good Day for An Apocalypse.

Next – Chapter 3. A Brave New World.

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. 

If you enjoyed the story and have some spare money, please consider supporting my work through one of the links below, or by buying a version of this book, either an ebook through Amazon, or a paperback directly from my store here. If not, thank you for giving me your time. Spread the word if you can, as that always helps massively! You can do this by telling a friend, leaving comments on my posts, or by giving a review on Amazon or Goodreads, (or both!).

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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.