Chapter 9. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

Gunshots created a rhythm that rattled through the rainslick trees of a dense jungle. This was punctured with a bassline of monstrous screeches and cracking chitin. It was music to the ears. At least, music for the slightly unhinged type of people who spent a lot of time detached from reality.

Row after row of chitinous horrors the size of bears scrambled forward with mandibles gnashing. Scythe-like claws sliced through the foliage and stingers glinted in the sun. Opposite the horde stood two dozen men and women, their guns cutting down the insects as quickly as they moved forward.

“I wish we were getting PPK for this,” said a young woman at the front of the group. She threw a grenade into the chittering mass and reloaded her machinegun as the ensuing explosion splashed blood and chitin fragments across the trees.

“No kidding,” responded the man beside her. “I could retire on a pay per kill contract of this size.”

“Who’re you kidding? You have no intention of retiring. What would you do with yourself without my company?”

“Sure, peace is overrated, but being knee deep in acidic viscera is hardly my idea of a good time. Maybe I’d start an agency where I can send young idiots off to do the hard work while I reap the awards.”

The woman laughed. Only the smallest fragment of her mind was focused on the conversation though. Several tallies ran through her head, counting down her own bullets, and those of the soldiers around her, with every flash of a gun muzzle. The number of visible terropods occupied another section, as did the distance between them and her team. Then there was the constant knowledge that, less than a mile beyond them, was a defenceless town just waiting to be overwhelmed by the ever-hungry insectoids.

“Birdy, Six, maintain current rate of fire. Esten, you’re on support. The rest of you, initiate melee in three, two, one!”

The majority of the gunfire fell silent in unison. The woman slung her gun onto her back then grabbed a staff that had been stabbed into the earth beside her. She counted to two then swung. The staff connected with an armoured head then flowed in a smooth arc to intercept an incoming attack. All around her, metal met chitin in a vicious clash.

“DD, you in position?” she said into her headset as she ducked beneath a wide swipe.

There was a crackle of static in her ear. “You bet. Target in sight.”

“Good. Tanto, is your squad ready?”

“Hell yeah we are,” answered a woman’s voice. 

“Okay. DD, take the shot. Tanto, give ‘em hell.”

A single shot rang out louder than the others. Seconds passed then a ripple ran through the terropods, slowing their relentless assault. Then a fresh peal of machine gun fire sounded off from behind the creatures.

The woman smiled and pressed her attack. Terropods were a hivemind controlled by a queen. The queen never fought near the front, but for a sniper, that was hardly an issue. Take out their leader and the rest lost their purpose and organisation. Throw in a sudden flanking attack and the battle was as good as won.

“Hey Glory, you about done?” asked a new voice in her ear. She batted away a stinger before replying.

“More or less. What’s up? Bit late to try and make yourself useful now, Ace.”

“Jungles are not the best environment for large helicopters. The local government weren’t too happy with your original plan of napalming a mile wide area of rainforest either. I think that I worked hard offering you guys moral support. But anyway, a call came for you during the battle. It’s something you should probably take a look at.”

Glory scanned the battlefield, her eyes darting through the carnage. “Sure. I’m done here. Six, take over for me. Finish things up quick.”

Her staff flashed an angry red colour and started to make a low whining noise. She stuck her tongue out at it. “Quit your moaning. You’ve had your fun. Surely you want something more challenging than squashing bugs?”

The staff beeped forlornly but the glow faded. It constricted in on itself until it was a quarter of its full size. The woman slid it into a strap on her back then disengaged from the combat and jogged through the thick undergrowth. Up ahead was a large helicopter that sat between the site of the battle and the town as a last wall of defence. A short man with boyish looks stepped out to meet her.

“Ace, how are the sensors?”

“All clear. No more terropods detected.”

“Looks like it’s a job well done then. What’s the message?”

Ace led her into the helicopter. It was a beast of a machine, big enough to carry two squads of soldiers and their equipment. Glory lounged across the co-pilot’s seat while Ace sat at the controls.

“The call was from the English Moot. They have a job for us.”

Glory frowned. “The English Moot? It’s not like them to come to us. They have their own army. Why hire mercenaries unless the job is not strictly legal?”

“Oh, it gets better. You see, they want us to hunt down a bounty. We’re talking crack covered hooker sort of money too.”

“Yet you don’t sound happy about it.”

“Ace started to chew thoughtfully on a pen. “No. The job is for us to hunt down and execute the man known as Déaþscúa.”

“Déaþscúa? I didn’t even know he was back in the UK. Last I heard he had wandered off into the Himalayas. Well fuck me. Are they crazy?”

“It seems he killed one of the prophesied ones. News is spreading fast. Moots around the globe are in a panic.”

Glory closed her eyes. A thousand calculations sped across her brain. She didn’t like any of the answers that she was reaching.

“I don’t like this. If Déaþscúa has done something so reckless then he must be on the warpath. He’ll be expecting repercussions and won’t go down without a fight.”

“You want to skip the job then? There’s a cushy job taking out some rogue mages in China we could do.”

Glory shook her head. “Bollocks to that. We need to get back to England and see what’s going down. I know Déaþscúa and I know the people he’ll rely on. He is dangerous. On the other hand though, I know the English Moot too. There are more cloak and dagger politics going on behind closed doors than I’m comfortable with. I don’t trust them. I need to know which way the wind is blowing.”

Ace nodded. “Understood. We’ll hit the skies as soon as we finish up here.” He paused uncertainly. “Glory, I sure hope we don’t have to fight Déaþscúa. He scares the shit outta me.”

“So he should. Let’s just pray to whichever gods might give a shit that it won’t come to that.”

Previous – Chapter 8.

Next – Chapter 10.

Chapter 8. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

It was Déaþscúa who woke them. Darkness clung to the windows outside but the fire still burned with a steady flame that the man prodded with a chair leg. KT felt completely drained and Kai looked no better. Both were pale and moved with a lethargic stiffness. Déaþscúa wasn’t very sympathetic.

“Come on,” he urged them. “We have work to do. You’re involved now despite my wishes so you’d better pull your own weight.”

Kai pulled himself up then stood face to face with the older man. “We want answers before anything. All of this is just too convenient. We just happen to walk into one shop owned by a mythological cannibal and before we’re killed you swoop in and save us. For all that I know, this could all be a setup. You’ve already betrayed us once by leaving us with that witch.”

Déaþscúa threw the chair leg into the fire with a sigh. “I don’t understand people sometimes. You hunt me down against my will, and your better judgement, then complain and question everything I do. Either follow me and trust in my decisions or leave me be. You can’t have it both ways. If you’re to be near me, your only chance of survival is to place all of your trust on my shoulders. Even that may not be enough but it’s too late now. Annis has eyes everywhere. You’ve made yourselves prime targets.”

KT looked to Kai. She trusted Déaþscúa in a strange way but Kai had always been cautious of the man. She couldn’t even explain why she had such faith in him. She supposed that he was like an anchor throughout these turbulent events, an unmoving pillar that prevented them from being washed away in the tide of chaos that they had witnessed. On the other hand, maybe the unquestioning trust came from some kind of magic. How could she know? All she knew for sure was that they were in a dangerous position and he was the only thing that stood between them and death. The butcher had taught her that much.

Kai clenched his fists. His eyes were closed. KT thought that he was going to lash out. He had always had a bad temper. That was why he had put so much effort into crafting his laidback persona. He lowered his head. “I want to be stronger. These past few days have shown me that I can’t even protect myself, let alone my family. I…I need your help to train me. You have my word.”

“Mine too,” added KT. “I’ve seen the things that you fight against now. I’ve seen the pain and fear they cause. I want to fight them too. If I can stop one monster from killing then that has to be worth something.”

The man nodded. “Good. The SUV is out front. I’ll fill you in on the road.” 

KT held out his coat for him to take back but Déaþscúa motioned for her to keep it. “You need it more than me at the moment. Now go to the SUV. I just want to check something before I leave. Don’t worry, this isn’t another trick. Jearl isn’t waiting out there with a tranquilizer gun.”

Reluctantly, KT followed her brother. They left the hellish butchers and were greeted by Jearl. He gave both teens thermal flasks filled with hot chocolate then hopped into the imposing vehicle’s driver seat. 

*     *     *

Déaþscúa watched them from the window. As soon as they were safely seated in the back of the car he turned back with a face of stone. He looked over the room then wandered through the house. All of the cupboard doors and desk drawers in each room opened as he entered. The room where KT had fallen had an old phone on a table. He pressed the button for voicemails and a smooth female voice started to speak.

Christie, Déaþscúa is back in Scotland. I have to act fast. I am close to gaining the powers that I need. I require your contacts. Gather up any useful pawns and send them to the village. I am heading to the old MacFeelan fort to draw upon the curse. Join me once I return. The final pieces are soon to be in place. Oh, and Christie, delete this message. I know I have been gone for a long time but you will hear my voice in person soon enough. I don’t want to find any more shrines this time either.”

The message ended. Beside the phone was a dogeared picture of Annis. Déaþscúa could almost have felt sympathy for the man had he not been a homicidal psychopath. His eyes lingered on the picture for a moment before he turned it over. It looked as though Christie had written a poem across the back but the writing was too bad to even try to read. 

He continued through the house. In what looked to be a seedy living room he found a cabinet filled with spirits. They rose up and floated around him before drifting away in different directions. Several seconds later there was a series of crashing sounds throughout the house followed by the shattering of glass. He thumbed his lighter and a tiny flame sparked to life. He knelt down and held it to the carpet.

“You deserved a lot worse, Christy. I hope your soul burns longer than your body will.”

Déaþscúa emerged from the shop and climbed straight into the passenger seat. He nodded to Jearl who immediately started up the engine and pulled away. In the rearview mirror the sky was already darkening with smoke. 

Déaþscúa cast aside his own dark clouds and tried to put on a friendly face as he answered Kai’s previous questions. “Despite what you think, my finding you was as close to a coincidence as fate would allow. I’d only just learned that Christie was back in Glasgow and thought that I’d pay him a visit to see if he had any information on his former lover. When I entered his shop I could feel your auras, which was a shock since I thought you were still under Elizabeth’s care. The strongest aura was Christie’s so I followed that. That was also how I found you in the freezer.”

“Did you find out anything about Annis? About where our dad is?” asked KT.

“I always find what I need,” Déaþscúa smiled. “It seems that some old friends of mine have either just been attacked by Annis or are going to be soon. We’ll be heading up there as soon as I’m confident that you two won’t die the second I blink. For that to be the case you’ll need protection and weapons.”

“Are you sure you want to visit Delonne, Guv?” piped in Jearl. “He ain’t exactly friendly and you know how he is with you and the Grand Moot.”

Déaþscúa shrugged. “I have money so he’ll accept. It just means that I’ll have to listen to his constant preaching.” He opened up the glove compartment and took out a leather-bound book which he threw into the back. “Here, read this. It’s a good drive so you may as well learn what you can in that time.”

KT opened the book to see that it was a series of handwritten notes outlining threats that they were likely to encounter and how best to overcome them. The way that it was written led her to believe that Déaþscúa had written them as a manual, a prima into the dangers of his world. The pages were slightly faded, giving it an aged look. Clearly he had written it a while ago for someone else’s use. She held it between herself and Kai, allowing them both to read as the car barrelled east out of the city.

*     *     *

They drove through the early morning, rushing to meet the rising sun as it arced through the cloud laden sky. The SUV thundered across a motorway, the different signs indicating that they were heading straight to the capital city of Edinburgh. It didn’t seem long since they had left behind the suburbs of Glasgow when they entered into those of Edinburgh.

Jearl slowed to a less erratic pace as they entered the city and the traffic increased. KT closed the book to instead admire the architecture of the buildings around them. Déaþscúa seemed impatient to be wherever it was that he wanted to be. He signalled for Jearl to pull over and let them out.

“We’ll walk from here. Pick us up from Delonne’s at five.”

“Aye aye, boss,” the scruffy man saluted. 

They left the car and Déaþscúa led them through the clusters of stone structures for another ten minutes until he stopped outside of a tailor’s shop. He entered and strode straight to the counter. It was a small store with clothes and materials hanging from every wall. Spools of thread, measuring tapes and scissors littered the room yet everything felt orderly and carefully arranged. 

The man behind the counter was a black haired man in his middle years. He was dressed in a well cut suit and didn’t have a hair out of place or a single wrinkle in his clothing. His face was pinched and dark skinned. As his eyes fell upon Déaþscúa, a look soured his features as though he had just tasted something foul.

“Déaþscúa. What do you want?” The man said bluntly. He spoke in a cold, well educated voice that held almost no hint of an accent. His eyes flickered over KT and Kai, causing his sour expression to grow.

“Well Delonne, you own a tailors. I’m certainly not here for your company so take a guess.”

Delonne frowned. “You know my clothes don’t hold a candle te Zehra’s. I can offer you nothing near the quality of what you’re wearing now.”

“It’s not for me. It’s for them.”

The tailor shook his head firmly. “No. I will not help you lead more innocent souls te a gruesome death. You’ve done that enough over the years.”

“They have already tangled themselves up in our world and have nearly died repeatedly because of it. They’re going to be in danger whatever I do so I want them to stand the best chance they can. Are you going to help me keep them alive?” Déaþscúa slammed down a bag as he finished. Inside were several wads of twenty pound notes. “That should more than pay for your best.”

Delonne still looked hesitant but finally took the money. “Fine. What do you require?”

“Something that will stop claws and teeth. Lightweight and warm. I’m thinking La’carta spider silk or something similar. Whatever you can manage in the space of seven hours.”

“Seven hours!” spluttered Delonne. “I cannot create two well crafted outfits in only seven hours.”

“Improvise,” Déaþscúa offered dryly. “Take a stock product and change it. Just say you’ll have it done or I’ll take my money back.”

“Fine, fine. I’ll just about manage. Anything te help preserve young lives,” the tailor relented. Déaþscúa turned and left the shop with nothing more than a nod of his head.

Kai followed Déaþscúa straight out. KT paused. “Don’t you need our measurements?”

Delonne gave her a soft smile. “I got your measurements the second that you walked inte my shop. Not every unusual skill has te have a use for battle. Now listen, girl. Déaþscúa might seem a decent man but he is dangerous. Please be careful. I’d hate te see more innocent blood on his hands.”

KT wasn’t sure how to respond to that. She nodded then quickly left the shop to catch up with Déaþscúa and Kai outside. They were taking a brisk walk down the street, moving away from the city centre. The wind had picked up now, driving cold through KT’s torn clothes and filling her bones with a fierce chill until she wrapped Déaþscúa’s coat tighter around her. The clouds above looked brooding, threatening either rain or a fresh torrent of snow.

“Ailia lives nearby,” Déaþscúa told them as they walked. “Hopefully we can get everything sorted and return to Delonne before news reaches him from Glasgow. He won’t be happy when he finds out.”

“Why?” Kai almost spat. “Jearl mentioned this ‘Grand Moot’ thing wouldn’t be happy either. Why the hell is everyone angry at you for taking care of a sadistic cannibal? He was a monster and it’s your job to kill monsters. Where’s the problem?”

“Prophecy,” Déaþscúa said simply. Seeing the twins’ frowning faces he sighed and continued. “The Grand Moot is our equivalent of your government. I won’t bore you with the details but suffice it to say that their word is law. One of the founding Moot members is a near comatose Aevumancer named Protellious Avus. He is known as the Prophet and only regains consciousness to reveal new insights into the future. He predicted that your butcher friend would play a role in the protection of Earth during some kind of apocalyptic event. As such, the Moot gave Christie their protection.”

“So you broke their law?” 

“In a nutshell. They don’t like me very much and now that I’ve potentially destabilised the pattern of the universe they’ll probably be a bit pissed.” He shrugged nonchalantly. “That’s a problem for the future. Ailia is trouble enough for now.”

They walked on through a tangle of streets until they came to a long driveway with a sign above it that depicted a teddy bear wearing a princess dress and another in a camouflage uniform. At the end of the driveway was a small building with dozens of teddies filling every window. ‘Teddy Kingdom’ was printed in large, colourful letters above the door.

“Don’t ask,” Déaþscúa muttered in response to KT and Kai’s questioning looks.

They entered the building and were greeted by hundreds of beady eyes that stared at them from overly cute fluffy faces. Shelves upon shelves of teddy bears lined the walls and seemed to fill every space. Everything was bright and colourful beyond common decency. Asleep in the back corner was a kindly looking old man and at his side, playing with a teddy, was a young blonde haired girl of about twelve. She looked up as they stepped inside and a huge smile split her face.

“Bram!” she shouted as she leapt up and jumped at Déaþscúa, wrapping her tiny arms tightly around him. “You’re back. I thought you might never visit again after you left me waiting for so long but now you’ve visited me twice in one month. Did you miss me? Couldn’t bear to be without me? Eh? Get it. Bear?” 

“Well I certainly didn’t come back for your sense of humour,” Déaþscúa said as he pried the girl from him then placed her firmly back on the ground. He took his phone from his pocket and held it up to her. “What’s this?” he said sternly.

The girl tilted her head to the side as she stared at it. “That’s your phone, silly,” she giggled. He hit a button and ‘Barbie Girl’ was once again blaring from the device. She offered him a mischievous smile. “Your music was boring so I changed it.”

Déaþscúa’s face became stony cold. “Tell me, what part of mind melting guitar solos and pulse racing drum beats are boring?”

“I couldn’t sing along to them.”

“I hate you sometimes,” Déaþscúa sighed.

The girl’s smile widened further. She turned away from him to look at KT and Kai. “You even brought me friends. You’re the greatest, Bram. You’re usually so broody and alone.”

Déaþscúa gave the two teens a long suffering look. “KT, Kai, this is Ailia Vihart. Ailia, this is KT and Kai Redthorn. We’re here to stock up.”

“On what?” Kai murmured under his breath. “Stuffed toys.”

Ailia clicked her fingers. Suddenly the room erupted into movement. Every shelf flipped or turned to be replaced by an identical arrangement but for the replacement of the teddy bears with an army’s worth of guns and weaponry. Kai stared around the room in awe, his mouth open. Even KT couldn’t help but be amazed by the vast array of shining death. There were all manner of guns, some long since outdated while others were modern in appearance and unlike anything they had ever seen before. Swords, axes and other blades were intermingled with the firearms along with shelf after shelf of ammunition. 

“What takes your fancy?” Ailia grinned, giggling at their wonder. 

“Nothing flashy today. A primary and secondary for each and I’ll collect my special order.”

“So no lasers or explosions?” Ailia asked, her smile dropping. Déaþscúa shook his head. “You’re no fun, Bram. Fine. I’ll see what I can do.” She started to crisscross the room checking weapons, all the while humming under her breath. 

Déaþscúa stood fiddling with his phone. KT and Kai wandered the store, taking in the wealth of weapons until KT made her way back to the man. He had put his phone away and was now toying idly with his pistol. 

“Who is that girl? She looks too young to run a gun store.”

Déaþscúa considered his answer carefully. “Ailia is special, I guess you could say. She is an expert on weaponry and is known across the world as a master weaponsmith.”

KT eyed the girl doubtfully. She was the picture of childhood innocence. “Okay. So why does she call you Bram? How many names do you have?”

Déaþscúa opened his mouth but Ailia appeared at their side. Her arms filled with weapons that were stacked up to just below her eye level. The weight would have been more than a fully grown man could have managed. She answered the question for him. “It’s short for Brambles. I had a cat once called Brambles and he was scruffy, bad tempered and got into a lot of fights too.”

“Enough about your pets,” Déaþscúa interrupted. “We need those weapons quickly. The MacFeelans are under attack and need a helping hand quick.”

“I know,” the girl answered. “I got the message a few days back to send them extra weapons. It sounds like there’s been daily skirmishes for almost a week now.” 

She turned to KT, her smile returning at full force. “Here. This is the Wrath Mark II sub-rocket launcher. It has a twelve shot cylinder with each rocket capable of stopping anything in its tracks,” she explained as she handed KT a large gun with twelve small pods circling the central barrel. It was heavy but still managed to be lighter than it appeared. She was then handed two slim pistols and a double-ended sword.

“The pistols are simple lightweight Cobra Renegades with extended magazines while the doublesword is a fast melee weapon with a good range and area of attack. Your body looks like it can handle the flowing movements required to use it effectively. With a bit of practice anyway.”

Ailia skipped away towards Kai, the weight of the weapons not seeming to affect her in the slightest. KT was feeling the strain in her arms already. Déaþscúa threw her a duffle-bag from the corner of the room and she gratefully began to load the weapons into it.

Kai jumped as Ailia sidled up next to him with a sleek shotgun aimed at his chest. She held the gun steadily with one arm while her other hand held an axe. “These are for you. They’re heavy but you look big and strong,” she said with a sly smile. It was only then that Kai realised that she had fangs. He took a hasty step back.

“You’re a monster too.”

“A vampire,” Déaþscúa told him from nearby. “She might look young but she’s actually in her third century of existence. Watch her, she takes a sick pleasure in trying to get people arrested.”

Ailia pouted at Déaþscúa. “You shouldn’t give away a girl’s age, Bram. Even you must know that. And it’s not like I do that just for fun. My body is stuck at this age but my mind is fully developed.”

“No, you do it only for fun. Vampires have no emotions and only take up relationships to amuse themselves.” The girl stuck her tongue out at Déaþscúa before handing Kai the armful of weapons. 

“Here we have a pump action shotgun, a 45mm Magnum and a carbon fibre axe with a silver-alloy cutting edge. Three heavy hitters that are still quick and efficient. There is a firing range downstairs. You two should go and get a feel for your new weapons.”

She took a rifle from the wall then fired it an inch above the head of the sleeping old man. He spluttered awake and looked around blearily. 

“Ah, Déaþscúa. ‘tis good te see ye ag’n,” he said in a thick, drawling accent. 

“Take these two down to the range and show them how to shoot.” Ailia ordered him.

“Aye, Miss Ailia. As ye say,” he answered hurriedly.

Déaþscúa nodded at the teens as they looked to him for consent. After all that had happened, they were reluctant to leave his side, especially to go underground with a stranger. Seeing his assent, they followed the old man into the back. 

*     *     *

Now that they were alone, Ailia motioned for Déaþscúa to join her. She stood before one of the gun cabinets and slid it to one side to reveal the metal door of a safe. She entered a password and fiddled with the dial until the door clicked open. Inside was a single pistol which she reverently removed and placed into Déaþscúa’s hands.

It was a monstrous construct of metal in the design of a revolver. Rather than the single revolving cylinder, this pistol had three. The metal was a shining silver colour while the grip and décor panels were made from dark wood that was a near black in colour. The bullet chambers were long and wide.

Ailia took a deep breath. “Custom 50cal tri-cylinder revolver made from a tungsten super-alloy and African Blackwood. The bullets are armour piercing and the cartridges are filled with multiple rapid detonating charges of ‘lightning powder’ that allow the bullets to easily surpass the speed of sound. The bullets explode on impact and flood the wound with filings from a dozen materials to take down any foe, whatever their weakness. That’s eighteen shots per reload, a single one of which will leave a T-Rex dead before it even hears a sound.”

“The schematics worked then?”

“I had to make a few alterations, but between the ancient designs and your own workings, most of it was up to scratch. The materials were the biggest problem. That gun and its bullets cost a small fortune.”

Déaþscúa fastened a new holster to his hip then slid the pistol into it, slowing only to admire the engraved script down the side of the barrel. “‘Aeternum Nox’. Eternal Night. How poetic of you, Ailia.”

“You’re known as the everlasting darkness,” she said quietly. “And coming from a vampire, that’s quite the title.” Déaþscúa grunted and made his way to join KT and Kai.

He found them in a long, narrow room with multiple rows that led down to targets. They were stood with the old man between them, showing them how to hold the guns properly and how to load them. So far they hadn’t made it past the pistols. Déaþscúa stood at the back and watched as the man directed them how to shoot. They both fired several rounds at the targets, or at least around the targets, then received feedback from the man and were given tips to adjust their technique. KT had the steadier aim on single shots but Kai was able to better manage the recoil when firing multiple rounds back to back.

As they moved onto the bigger weapons, Déaþscúa stepped up to an empty alley and drew his new gun. It was heavy; too heavy for a normal man to use with a single hand. He fired, the recoil thumping up his arm, but it barely moved. Most men would have been left with a numb arm and a good chance of a broken nose from the gun’s buck. He rapidly hammered the trigger three times, the peels of thunder merging together into a single roar. The central circle of the target no longer existed. Neither did the wall behind it.

A louder explosion sounded and he turned to see KT’s target, or what was left of it, in flames. Kai’s target was missing chunks too and a final blast from his shotgun cut it in half. Happy that they wouldn’t somehow shoot themselves, the old man signalled them toward a cluster of straw poles.

The man grinned in Déaþscúa’s direction. “Déaþscúa, why donae ye show them the basics. Ye ken more than I ev’r will aboot blades.”

“You know I’m no teacher, Cathal,” Déaþscúa told the man. It didn’t stop him from approaching the teens and appraising them and their awkwardly held weapons. He tutted under his breath, moving their hands and feet with a series of small nudges. “Loosen your grip. Move your hands further apart. Keep your knees bent. You need to be constantly ready to spring into action while always being relaxed. A split second is all that separates life and death in a fight. You need-”

A screeching siren suddenly blared throughout the building. KT and Kai froze. Déaþscúa showed no sign of worry, merely motioning for the teens to follow him as he moved to the stairs. Ailia and Cathal joined them.

“My sensors have been triggered. Hostile forces are coming down the driveway,” Ailia told them as they mounted the stairs. She took the lead and stood at the front as they gathered together in the centre of the store. Through the windows they could see dozens of men sauntering toward the shop. The door opened and the men entered, each one armed with an automatic rifle. 

“Sorry te barge in on ye but I’m ‘fraid ye have displeased the wrong folk,” announced one of the men. By the way he held himself it was obvious that he was the leader. 

The other men sniggered at this. All of them had their guns levelled at the small group and looked eager for the bloodshed to begin. They were just waiting for the order. 

“You wouldn’t kill a little girl in cold blood would you?” Ailia asked in her most innocent voice.

The men laughed in her face. “We know what ye are, lass. We’re Golman’s new monster huntin’ division, ye see? Gots UV lights on our guns so they’ll be none of yer fancy tricks.” 

Déaþscúa snorted at this. The leader turned to him. “I donae ken who ye be but yer a dead man now.”

“Close your eyes,” Déaþscúa whispered back to KT and Kai. 

*     *     *

KT wanted to listen to him, to close her eyes and block out the world, but she just couldn’t tear her eyes from the situation. She kept expecting to see Déaþscúa leap into action, avoiding the spray of bullets to slaughter the men, but he made no move. He simply stood, his arms at his side, his eyes watching the men carefully.

Ailia stepped forward. “Boys, boys, boys. I’m afraid you’ve brought assault rifles to a finger fight.”

The men looked at her in confusion. She smiled at them and raised her hand. All of the guns jerked in her direction, the men on edge now. Déaþscúa still showed no sign of moving. Ailia clicked her fingers. Every single gun in the shop rose up and swivelled toward the men. Hundreds of barrels stared them down from every direction. The men swung their own guns around erratically, unsure what to shoot at first. Ailia clicked again and hell descended upon the store.

KT saw red. Bullets flew, ripping the thugs to pieces in a heartbeat until every surface of the shop was drenched and dripping with blood. Nothing was left of the men except for a ragged, pulpy mess on the floor where they had stood.

“Such a waste of perfectly good blood,” sighed Ailia. 

KT listened to her vaguely as she threw up. She could hear Kai doing the same beside her. Her clothes and skin were thoroughly splashed with warm gore. 

“Cathal, fetch the mop.”

“Aye, Miss Ailia,” he nodded then rushed off.

Déaþscúa wiped his face clear of blood with an uncaring hand. “Who is this Golman?”

“A mortal who thinks he can carve out a stake in our world. He’s no threat; simply an annoyance. I think I’ll pay him a visit tonight,” Ailia answered with a small, fang filled smile. She licked her lips hungrily, clearing a circle of her face from blood. 

KT had closed her eyes now as every direction she looked in made her want to retch. She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked to see Déaþscúa stood beside her. He took her and Kai’s arms and led them out of the shop. Around the back was a makeshift shower that they stood under as the cold water washed them clean. A few minutes later they stepped out, freezing and soaked, but free of any blood. 

Ailia came out to them, still covered in blood, with the two duffel-bags. “Good luck, all of you. I’ve packed extra ammo for the MacFeelans. I hope you finally catch her this time, Bram.”

“I will.”

They left and headed back toward Delonne’s shop, KT and Kai stumbling along behind under the weight of their new equipment and their wet clothes. Déaþscúa urged them on but their pale faces and shambling walks told him that this was the best speed he was going to get out of them. 

“I told you to close your eyes,” he commented dryly. The looks he received in response were sour at best. 

When they did arrive at Delonne’s tailor shop, the atmosphere had drastically changed since that morning. When they entered, Delonne was red-faced with fury and looked on the verge of throwing them out instantly. He stormed up to Déaþscúa with a pair of scissors gripped in his hands and grabbed his shirt.

“You damn idiot! You may have doomed us all! The Moot contacted me just after you left. You had orders on pain of death not to touch him!” the usually prim man roared at his face, or would have if his head didn’t stop at Déaþscúa’s chest.

Déaþscúa’s voice was low and dangerous. “He was a deranged killer. How many lives has he ruined over the centuries? He was a monster, more so than the beasts I’m usually tasked with killing. He chose to be what he was.”

“That’s not the point! Some sacrifices need to be made! He was key to ensuring the survival of every creature on this planet and you killed him knowing this! How many lives have you ruined? Even if you haven’t just signed this planet’s death sentence, your body count eclipses anything that Christie could have managed. You are the monster.”

Déaþscúa’s mouth rose in a snarl. His words were like razor blades. “He had these two kids in his hands. He was on the verge of killing them. For all your talk of wanting to keep them protected, you’d ask me to let them die? Could you stand there and watch that sick bastard murder a child? Could you? Do your rules and ideals make you feel better about leaving innocents to die?”

Delonne let go of Déaþscúa and took a step back. His eyes flickered to KT and Kai then looked away guiltily. “Sometimes we have to do things that we don’t like for the greater good. You never did understand that though, did you?”

“Do you have the clothes? That’s all I want to hear from you.”

“Yes, I have them. If it was for you I’d have thrown your money back at you,” Delonne almost growled. “Wait here.”

He left and returned a few moments later with two large suit-bags. He handed them over to KT and Kai then directed them to small changing cubicle. KT closed the door behind her and hung the bag up, unzipping it to reveal black cloth. Taking out the individual articles, she laid out a pair of tight looking black jeans with a pattern of skulls and flowers sprawled across the legs in silver thread. Next to that was a plain looking white vest and a dark red leather crop-top with a deep neckline that she eyed sceptically. The last piece in the bag was a black jacket that was form fitting and had several spacious pockets. It too had the silver thread patterns scrolling across it.

As she began to change, she was amazed at how well everything fit. The trousers were tight yet seemed to stretch in all the right places to provide unhindered movement and the crop-top wasn’t too revealing when worn over the vest. She did a few trial stretches and exercises and the freedom of movement was equal to if she were wearing nothing.

She stepped out to find Kai already waiting for her. He had black cargo trousers on with more pockets than he could ever fill. His shirt was also black and bore the yin yang symbol surrounded by strange looking runes. His coat was black leather and ended at the back of his knees. There was a series of straps across each arm and a large collar that led to a cloth hood of the same colour. Across its back was a large skull wrapped in chains. Both he and KT retained their heavy boots.

Delonne nodded approvingly. “Yes, yes. A bit coarse for my usual tastes but I knew that a quality suit would not be appealing for you. They fit wonderfully. 

Déaþscúa threw the weapon straps and holders at the other man. “Fit these onto the clothes. I don’t want them coming loose in combat.”

The tailor looked on the verge of snapping again at Déaþscúa but instead released his breath and set to work on Kai’s clothes. He explained what the clothes were as he worked.

“The fabric in both of your clothes is super lightweight but very durable. Think of it as silk with the properties of Kevlar. They’re all infused with a gel that leaves the fabric impervious to water and they have enough give in them to cope with any movement that the human body is capable of. It won’t save you from life endangering wounds but it will prevent smaller cuts and impacts. Your coat and your top are both leather from a Nemeanling lion and as such is better than most metals for protection.”

“You mean the lion that Hercules killed?” KT asked in wonder.

“Not exactly. Its descendants. The Nemean Lion was a single beast blessed by the gods but its offspring retained many of its powers, the near impenetrable skin being one,” Delonne answered distractedly. He had finished with Kai and now moved onto KT. “But as I was saying, that leather will stop a mortal blow. Miss, you have less of that armour but if you’ve noted that silver thread work, it is a special metal that draws in the energy of any magical attack. That small amount won’t leave you immune to magic but weaker blasts will be defused and more powerful spells at least weakened. There we go. Finished.”

He stepped back and Déaþscúa instantly moved in, passing the teens their weapons. They slid them into place then moved on the spot uneasily as they got used to the feel of the weapons.

“Come on. Jearl is outside.”

Delonne called to them as they approached the door. “Déaþscúa, you realise that I have to inform the Grand Moot about you? They will come for you.”

“They’re welcome to try.”

“They’ll send an army for you. Can you really kill that many men and women who are just doing their job? Does death mean nothing to you?”

Déaþscúa paused, his hand on the door handle. “I am death. It’s my nature. Can a man really go against his nature?”

“You know that’s not true. You’re so much more than that. If only you would accept it.”

“Maybe,” Déaþscúa said then opened the door and left. The three climbed into the SUV, Déaþscúa leaning into the back as they buckled in.

“We’re heading for battle. I hope you two are ready to embrace death too. Be ready to give and receive it.”

KT and Kai gulped nervously but still nodded.

“Good. Jearl, drive on.”

“Rodger dodger,” Jearl agreed in his best radio voice then floored the car.

Previous – Chapter 7.

Next – Chapter 9.

Chapter 7. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

The two teens walked briskly through the early morning streets toward the city centre. They had no real destination in mind but the shops seemed like a sensible start. Their breath misted in the air and their footsteps sounded unnaturally loud in the near silence of the sleeping city. The occasional car drove past while a few windows were lit but on the whole the place felt deserted.

They walked without speaking for what felt like hours. Their pace was brisk to ward off the cold and they lost track of the amount of times they had to backtrack. The sky slowly began to brighten and signs of humanity started to appear more frequently. The shadows around them resolved themselves into brown and grey stone buildings. By the time they reached the city centre, dawn had broken and people were increasingly populating the streets.

It was still a wait until shops opened but before too long had passed they were seated in a small café over a cup of coffee and a bacon butty. Neither were overly fond of the bitter drink but the idea of more tea was off-putting. It was just lucky that both of them still had their wallets on them.

“What’s the plan then?” Kai asked. “We can’t exactly just wander the city and hope that we find out something useful.”

KT chewed thoughtfully at a string of rubbery fat. “We’ll buy some supplies then get a ride as close to the lodge as we can. From there we can see if we can track where dad and the others were taken. Moving that many unwilling people must have left a mark. Even with the snow there has to be something.”

“You think we could buy weapons anywhere?” His tone told that he was sceptical of that. 

“I doubt it. We’ll need warmer clothes, some extra food and water, some camping gear and as much information as we can gather.” She finished off the butty and washed it down with the still steaming coffee. Kai had already finished. “Come on.”

They left the café and it wasn’t long until they found a store selling thick winter clothing. Thermals and coats were heaped into Kai’s arms along with two sets of sturdy boots. KT paid, wincing as the man behind the till told her the total price. They changed into these new clothes in a nearby pub’s toilets then ventured back out to find a place to buy camping equipment. After another hour, both teens were laden down with bags strapped to their backs containing a tent, sleeping bags and a small stove.

Next they asked around the locals, their questions varying from transport north, the wilds and local myths. Most brushed them off but they did manage to learn of a man who taxied people across Scotland for a cheap price. They followed the directions they were given and found themselves in a shady looking estate. The streets were almost empty except for smoking youths and dark figures in huddled conversations who fell silent as they passed.

The building in question was in sight now, a small, single story structure with an attached garage. Kai came to a halt sniffing the air. He looked around then pointed out a different building across the street. It had a grubby looking exterior but a glass counter decorated with cuts of meat was visible through the window. A sign above the door read ‘The Bean and Crook Butcher’.

“You said we need food, right?” Kai began.

“Food that will last and can be easily stored,” KT countered. 

Kai grinned. “Yes, but think about what Déaþscúa told us. Bacon is resistant to magic. We’re heading into dangerous territory and might be facing off against all manner of magical foes. A shield against their powers would be pretty damn useful. Imagine it: marching into Annis’ lair without fear as she hurls fire at us. We hold out our arms and it burns our sleeves away revealing bacon wrapped around our arms like bandages in an anime. It would be badass as hell.”

“I seriously doubt that it would ever play out like that. It’s not like we can trust what Déaþscúa tells us. I’m not sure when he was being honest, openly lying or just screwing with us for his own amusement.”

“But bacon…”

KT relented under Kai’s puppy eyed look. “Fine. Just don’t go crazy. I don’t have much money left and I doubt you have anything.”

“I actually earn more than you,” he commented airily as they veered toward the butcher’s shop. “I’m a private tutor. All the girls who need some help with their studies come to me. My brains, looks and charm are a winning combination.”

“You disgust me at times, you know that?”

They stepped into the shop and were met by the thick scent of fresh meat. Carcases hung from hooks around the walls. Kai eyed the meat like a child would with sweets. The decor was simple and dull, all of the room’s focus being diverted to the brightly lit cuts of animal. The main room was devoid of life other than them but a bell had rung above the door upon their entry and now footsteps could be heard from the room beyond.

The door opened and a man stepped into the shop from a gloomy corridor. He was a strange looking man with a small head and tall, gangly body. His eyes were beady and dark while his nose was tiny and pointed. A matted mane of long black hair draped down his hollow cheeks and across his shoulders. His mouth was wide and his lips a vivid red, its size looking unnatural on such a small head. Despite the spindly body and legs, his arms were thick and powerful. He watched them wearily as he made his way behind the counter. Once there he simply stood staring at them as they examined the cuts of meat available.

The KT and Kai continued their conversation, trying their best to ignore the man. “Should we really go looking for him?” Kai asked with a frown. He cast a glance at the man then lowered his voice. “He did give us to the witch and told us not to follow. I mean, we don’t actually know anything about the man. Maybe we should look for Dad ourselves.”

“We don’t actually know anything about everything at the moment. All we can work from is that we’re in a completely different world that is alien to us and that Déaþscúa is our key to understanding and fighting against it. He saved us and taught us what bits we know. He may not want us to be involved in all of this but I don’t think he wants us to come to harm either. We just need to prove to him that we can help.”

“Did ye say Déaþscúa?” A thick highland voice cut in. It was the butcher. “As in the hunter?”

Both teens turned their full attention upon the man. He looked nervous but also now paid the two more notice than the near annoyance that had shown on his face before. 

“You know him?” KT asked the man.

“Aye. I ken ‘im,” the man answered. He licked his lips constantly between speaking. “I’d heard rumblings he wa back in the area. What do two runts like ye have to do wi’ him?”

KT and Kai gave each other a quick look. Kai gave the slightest shake of his head. He addressed the man.

“What does a back-alley butcher have to do with him either?”

The man offered them a toothy grin. His teeth were sharp and yellow. “The world is a small place for men like ‘im. Everybody who is nae…normal kens Déaþscúa the death bringer. Ye are nae one of us are ye?”

Kai still looked suspicious. Anyone who knew of Déaþscúa could easily be a threat to them as Elizabeth had proven.

“We have business with him,” Kai told him simply. 

The butcher nodded knowingly. “A hard man to keep track of,” he said quietly. “Ye two are nae the first to want to find ‘im. I may be able to help ye.”

“Go on.”

“The hunter always has his wee phone on ‘im, ye see. He has to be easy to contact or he’d never get jobs, would he? I have his number in a book somewhere in the back. Come on through and I’ll see if I can find it.”

He moved to usher them into the corridor that he had come from but neither of the twins complied. He looked at them sourly. 

“The offer is there if ye want it. If nae then ye can buy me goods and be gone. I do nae care which so long as ye no wasting me time.”

Kai frowned but nodded. “Fine. Lead the way.”

The butcher stepped into the corridor and the twins followed. The narrow passageway was poorly lit and the wallpaper was shabby and worn. There was no ornamentation at all, the faded yellow walls only broken by plain wooden doors and a staircase leading up. He opened one door which revealed a small room with an armchair, a few shelves and a table with an old fashioned telephone on it. Beside it was a leather cased book. 

“The hunter’s number should be in that book,” the man told them as he held the door open. He offered them a toothy smile as they passed him.

KT entered the room first. There was a sharp click sound then she was gone. Kai jolted to a halt and stared dumbstruck at the black square that had opened up in the ground where his sister had been a second ago.

He span, fists clenched. “You bastard! I’ll-”

The butcher slammed a wooden bat into Kai’s face and the room flashed white then spiralled into darkness. 

*     *     *

KT hit the ground hard. All of the air was driven from her body and her every muscle felt jarred. She groaned and tried to open her eyes. It was dark but faint light spilled down from above through the hole that she had fallen through. She struggled to her feet and stared up at the square of light. A shadow fell across the gap, outlining the figure of a man.

“Kai?” she shouted.

Laughter met her words, high and unhinged in tone. Then a voice spoke, his words echoing through the darkness. “Your brother cannae hear ye. The poor wee bonny lass fell intae the dark wi’ no one near to hear her scream. I wouldnae want to be ye right now, girl. I am however very glad to be me. I do so love it when they scream.” More laughter followed but it was abruptly cut off when the trapdoor was slammed shut once more.

KT was in complete darkness now. Even her own hands were hidden from her as though she had been fully robbed of her sight. The only sound was that of her own panic tinged breathing. She started forward slowly, her arms out before her searching through the darkness for objects and walls. After a few moments she was already disoriented beyond recovery. From what she could tell, she was in a small room that had several passageways that led off in every direction. Her mind instantly crafted the place as an underground labyrinth that could span for miles of total dark.

She crouched in a corner, her body shaking too much for her to control. She desperately tried shouting again but got no reply beyond the repeated echoes of her own voice. That sound alone filled her heart with dread. The place had to be big to throw back her voice in such a way.

There was a sudden sharp metallic clang somewhere in the distance that filled the tunnels with its unnaturally loud noise. Cold laughter chased the clang. The laughter subsided then changed into a guttural singing that sounded as though it came from every direction at once.

“The meat is fresh, the blood is warm, the flesh is sweet, the bones I’ll gnaw, the tender skin I’ll peel away and revel in the screams galore. She’ll cry, she’ll shout, she’ll scream, I’ll sing, the rape and death fresh joy will bring, until her body fades away, forgotten underground.”

Terror rolled over KT unlike anything she’d ever known. For the first time in her life her senses had become useless to her. She couldn’t see anything while sound was deceptive and unreliable. Everything smelt stale, musty and slightly rotten, and the air was still and undisturbed by breeze. Only her touch was intact but that would be useless in detecting her psychotic hunter until it was too late.

Knowing that she couldn’t stay where the man knew her to be, KT made the snap decision to pick a path and run. She stood and staggered through one of the passages, bouncing off of walls constantly as she tried to walk straight. Her left hand brushed against the rough stone of the wall with the logic that any maze was conquerable by simply picking a direction and following a single wall. 

She stumbled blindly along, following the seemingly random twists and turns of the wall, all the time hearing nothing but her own echoed footsteps and laboured breathing. Time seemed to loop, losing all meaning beyond an overwhelming sense of fear-laced urgency.

A slight stirring of the air behind her made KT spin. All was dark. She felt it again, a stroke of cold across her back that caused all of her already tense muscles to go into overdrive. She turned again, lashing her arms out but they didn’t connect with anything.

“Do ye fear the dark?” came a whispered voice in her ear. 

KT yelped and tried to run but barrelled straight into a wall. She staggered back only to feel icy fingers brush across her face. She struck out again but still failed to hit anything. Her arms whipped around in every direction seeking her pursuer.

“So yer a fighter, are ye? I love it when they struggle.”

The voice seemed to come from directly beneath KT. She kicked out frantically as her arms flailed around her. 

“I’m going to enjoy ye. Slowly…”

The voice was above her now. Panic overtook her senses. She ran, slamming and sliding from wall to wall, no longer paying attention to which directions she took. All the while harsh laughter surrounded her and seemed to fill the entire tunnel network. Tears streamed down her face.

Her foot clipped the corner of a wall and she fell. What little breath she had left was torn from her lungs, leaving her gasping for air. Silence hung heavily once again. After the maniacal laughter it seemed even more surreal and empty. Slowly she stood and tried to regain her bearings. It was a hopeless task.

As though in a dream she wandered through the dark. Her stomach rumbled and her body ached. She needed to find a way out of there soon or her hope would fail and the heavy weight of despair would sink through her system. She stopped, leaning her head against the cold stone as she tried to think.

“Giving up already?”

The voice was right beside her. KT expected to feel a fresh wave of terror but anger rose up within her instead. She was no helpless little girl. She wouldn’t let herself die like this.

“Get the hell away from me!” she screamed. “You sick basta…” Her insult became a stifled cry of pain as something slid across her arm. Pain flared through the limb. She grabbed it with her other arm and felt her skin was slick with blood.

She lurched forward, her teeth gritted. She was jerked back by a hand that clutched at her coat’s collar. She struggled then felt another sharp pain at the base of her neck. There was the sound of ripping fabric and more pain bloomed the entire length of her spine. 

Suddenly she was able to pull away and fell flat on her face. Her back was exposed, her coat and shirt having been sliced open. Blood ran freely across the pale flesh from a shallow wound that followed the path of the knife.

A weight lowered onto KT. With every ounce of her strength she thrashed and bucked until she was able to break free. She stood there panting. Waiting.

“The wee lass still has some energy. Good.”

There was the faintest of rustles before a cut opened up upon KT’s cheek. She held her breath. There was the rustling again. In a blur of movement she reached out and managed to grab hold of the man’s thick arm, the knife opening a deep gash across her forearm in the process. With the man locked momentarily in place, KT kicked out and scored a hit in his gut. He groaned and loosened his grip on the weapon. KT lunged blindly for it, grabbing it by the blade. She hissed with pain but didn’t slow as her other hand tore at the man’s fingers. She managed to pry the knife free then stabbed forward with it but the man was already gone.

KT clutched the knife firmly. She peered through the darkness, ready to strike at the slightest of noises. She felt a pressure on her shoulder and span, the blade slashing through the abyss. Instantly a fist drove into her stomach, lifting her from the floor. She dropped the knife and flopped to the ground like a rag doll. 

“We’ve had the hunt and now it’s time for the feast. It would be rude to eat without some pre-meal entertainment.”

Fingers closed around the ragged coat and tugged at it. KT slid out of the coat and fled on her hands and knees. The butcher kicked at her, his toes smashing into her ribs. Her hand brushed against the knife. He kicked again and she drove the blade into his calf. He swore savagely and jolted away, the knife still embedded in his leg. KT took the opportunity to scurry away again.

She couldn’t breathe but she didn’t slow her frantic pace. Her sobs weren’t silent any longer. She couldn’t keep control of her emotions. The darkness pulled her down, seeping at her will. Frantic desperation and loss of hope warred violently inside of her head.

She was becoming delusional too. She could swear that there was a slight crimson glow to the darkness ahead. Maybe the red tint was due to fatigue or blood-loss, she thought wearily. Despite these thoughts, she started toward it almost mechanically.

The light grew as KT shambled closer. Fresh hope sparked in her heart and her walk changed into an unsteady half-run. Her eyes stung after spending so much time in complete darkness but she didn’t care. The glow was all around her now. She could see the rough hewn walls for the first time, noting that they seemed to be carved from solid rock. The source of the light seemed to be around the next turn.

KT turned the corner with a half-laugh that died on her lips. She stood swaying on the spot, her blue eyes glassy.

She stood at the entrance of a large chamber. The light was emanating from red flamed candles that dotted the room, giving everything within a hellish sheen. No other passageways led away. Inside were several stone tables. On the tables were corpses. Mostly those of women. They were all in differing states of carnage ranging from whole bodies to severed limbs or completely flayed carcasses. Other bodies hung from hooks in the ceiling. The entire room smelt of blood and death. Organs and cuts of meat were littered everywhere.

“Ye found me sanctuary then, lass? Is nae it a place of beauty?”

The voice was directly behind her. She turned and staggered into the room. The butcher stood facing her, visible for the first time since she had fallen. Blood stained his clothes from the few wounds KT had dealt him but they didn’t seem to bother him at all. His small eyes gleamed with joyous malice. The features that she had at first viewed as strange now took on a sinister edge that painted him as a monster more than a man. 

“What are you?” she shouted. KT tried to make her voice sound strong and demanding but the words fell out as a cracked whimper. 

The butcher flashed her his pointed teeth. “I am but a man gifted by the gods,” he answered as he licked his lips hungrily. “I’ve had many names over the years. Bean and Christie were the most known. For what time of ye life remains, ye can call me whatever pleases ye.”

His oversized arm shot out and grabbed KT by the throat. Without showing any sign of strain he lifted her a foot from the ground. The pressure on her windpipe cut off her breath and strained the muscles to near breaking point. He leaned in, sniffing deeply with a warped smile. His free hand reached over to pull at her shirt.

“This’ll be such fun. I hope yer a fighter ‘til the end.”

The last of her strength was fading as KT struggled for breath. She tried in vain to punch out at him to no effect. Her arm slumped to her side, her fingers brushing against something solid. She grabbed it and swung at the butcher’s head. Whatever she had picked up shattered on impact, causing the man to stagger back, dropping KT in the process. 

The spots started to clear from her vision. She glanced down at her weapon and dropped it. It hit the floor and rolled slightly so that half rotted eye sockets stared up at her. One side drooped in on itself where the skull beneath had been smashed. 

A sudden anger flared up inside of KT. It was as though her fear changed into rage with every beat of her heart. How many scared young women had been in this same position only to lay dead in this chamber? It was as though their anger flowed through her too.

The butcher was still smiling. He lumbered towards her without any sense of urgency. His grin faltered when KT lunged at him rather than trying to run. He blocked the punch easily only to receive a boot to his gut a moment later. He grabbed her arm firmly so she kicked out again, this time slamming her foot into his knife wound. He grunted, his leg almost buckling beneath him.

A sense of clarity washed over KT. The butcher’s arms were massive but his legs were a weakness. She couldn’t overpower him but he could be beaten. She ducked under a swing of his arms and punched the side of his knee. Pain flared in her hand but she ignored it as she dodged around another blow. 

She jumped back, almost tripping on the skull. It spun slightly until it faced the man. KT kicked it straight at his face then leapt up onto the slab. Jumping up to catch the pipes above where several bodies were hung from, she used the momentum to swing forward, launching herself towards the man. In midair she kicked out as hard as she could, catching him hard across the temple. His head jerked around with a snap.

KT hit the floor on her side hard enough for the breath to be knocked out of her. She scrambled to her feet and spun to face him again. He still stood there, his body rigid and his head looking almost behind himself back into the labyrinth. Silent seconds ticked past as neither moved. 

Slowly, KT edged away from him. She scanned the room but couldn’t see any other exits. There was a butcher’s knife buried into a table beside a half-carved corpse that she wrestled free. The last place that she wanted to be was closer to the man but there seemed no other choice. She wanted to be sure that he wouldn’t hurt anyone again. He blocked the exit so she had no option other than to go through him.

She readied the knife and swung at his throat. His arm twitched and he caught her by the wrist before she could react. His other hand drove into her gut, doubling her over. Before she could recover he had both of her arms locked against her chest. He shoved her into the wall. KT had to look up to stare at his head as it jerked its way back around to face her. His smile hadn’t faded.

“Well, that was fun, wasnae it? An’ they say that foreplay is a dying art.”

He had her pinned. Even her legs couldn’t reach beyond the full length of his arm. He had taken the knife from her and now held it against her ear.

“If it makes ye feel any better, just ken that yer life’ll live on within me. The circle of life and all that crap. The strong eat the weak te become even stronger. That’s how life evolves after all. Through blood and death we transcend the chains of our own meagre mortality. Tis a cruel world but it’s all that we’ve got. Do try and enjoy. It is a once in a lifetime experience.”

There was a flash of light as thunder tore through the tunnels. The butcher staggered as blood erupted from his back. More crashes filled the air, each causing a new explosion of blood. He dropped KT as blood bloomed from his shoulder, spinning him around with the force of the impact.

KT hit the floor like a rag-doll. She couldn’t muster the strength to move but from where she lay she could see the entrance to the chamber. A shadowy figure stood in the doorway with its arm pointed at the butcher. The flash and crash happened again, fully lighting up the figure for a heartbeat. It was Déaþscúa.

The butcher was staring at him too. Amazingly, he was still standing. Without a flicker of emotion, Déaþscúa put two more bullets into his chest then waved his left arm at the man. A wave of fire shot from his hand and slammed into the butcher, knocking him back where the bullets had failed. He staggered and fell back onto one of the stone tables behind him.

“Ye bastard!” the butcher screamed, blood dribbling from his mouth with each word. His body was riddled with bullet holes that gushed blood and his clothes and flesh were badly burned. He still didn’t appear to be in pain though. “Ye cannae hurt me! I have the Grand Moot’s protection and ye know it, hunter! I am essential to the threads of fate! They’ll have ye head just for comin’ here. Ye’ve been warned by them before!”

“I’m shaking in my boots,” Déaþscúa said dryly. His eyes were locked on the butcher with a flaming intensity but his hands worked slowly at taking a single bullet from a pouch and loading it into the gun’s chamber. 

The butcher seemed to be panicking now. “Ye work for them! Ye cannae disobey their orders! They are the law. Without the law we’re the same, ye see, me and you. Both monsters in men’s clothing. Ye cannae kill me.”

Déaþscúa raised his gun. “Can’t I? Tell me where Annis is.”

“Stay away from my Annis ye bastard! Ye need to move on from her so she can do what needs te be done. Cannae ye see that? She is so close te achieving her dreams. I’ll kill ye if ye lay a finger on her!”

“You’ll find it hard to kill me from the grave.” 

“I AM PROTECTED!” 

“Not very well.” Déaþscúa’s finger clenched on the trigger. The crack of the gunshot was followed by a second bang as the bullet pierced the butcher’s skull then exploded. Brains, blood and fragments of skull splattered across the walls and floor. The man fell limp to the ground.

Silence descended on the room. Neither Déaþscúa or KT moved for several moments. Déaþscúa finally holstered his gun and sighed before entering the room. He walked straight up to KT and knelt down beside her.

“You sure got yourself into a mess this time. You’re reckless and will wind up dead without me. You should have damn well listened to me and done as I said.” Despite his words, his tone was gentle and his eyes filled with concern. “Are you okay?”

KT just lay staring at him with tears building in her eyes. Another few seconds and she could no longer contain herself. She broke down into great heaving sobs as all of the tension and fear drained from her body. Déaþscúa sat her up and rested her head on his broad shoulder. When the initial wave of emotion had faded he helped her to her feet.

“We still need to find your brother. Chances are he won’t be in a good state either.” 

He took a few steps toward the darkness of the tunnel but stopped when KT didn’t follow. He turned back to see her staring into the thick, black air, her eyes wild. Déaþscúa shook his head then held out his hand. It seemed to shake slightly and there was a reluctance in his stance.

“Take my hand so you don’t get lost. The exit isn’t far.”

KT hesitated a moment then grabbed onto his hand. It was huge compared to hers, his skin rough to the touch. Déaþscúa started out again, pulling her reluctantly along behind. At the cusp of the darkness, Déaþscúa took one last look at the girl then pulled a silver lighter out from a pocket and sparked it. The flame was tiny but provided enough light to dimly see the sides of the passageway. 

Déaþscúa walked with confidence, knowing each and every turn without taking a moment to think. He kept his eyes forward, their piercing stare never straying. KT had thought that he had only told her it was a short distance to comfort her but after a few minutes they had stopped beside a set of rusty metal bars that led up to a wooden hatch. Déaþscúa handed her the lighter then climbed the short distance to the roof. He opened the hatch then disappeared beyond leaving KT alone in the vile maze. She quickly followed.

“Tell me what happened,” Déaþscúa said once KT had rejoined him.

“We came here for supplies on the way to find you. He said he knew how to contact you. I fell through a hole into that hell. I…I don’t know what happened to Kai.”

Déaþscúa nodded. “Show me the room where you fell.”

The room they were in looked to be a cramped basement filled with all manner of general clutter. They climbed a narrow staircase into the main building and KT recognised the corridor that the butcher had walked them down. She started down it but stumbled, her head suddenly feeling very light. It took her a moment to recover herself.

“Blood-loss,” commented Déaþscúa. “We should stop and patch you up.”

“No,” KT said resiliently. “We have to find Kai first. That monster could have done anything to him.”

“I think Christie will have stowed him away somewhere while he amused himself with you first. He likes his meat as fresh as possible and would keep his victims alive for as long as his previous stores lasted.”

“What was he?” KT asked with a cold shiver. 

“A human. At least at the start of his life. He has plagued this land for hundreds of years. I suspect that he was living off of the lifeforce of those that he killed. He is the face to almost any Scottish cannibal you could ever think of. He was also the lover of Black Annis for a time, or Black Agnes as she was known then. I would have killed him long ago but a prophecy ties him to the end of the world. Or did anyway.”

They came to the room and pointed to a small rug. “That’s where I fell.” She felt a wave of nerves fill her just by being near to the hole again. 

Déaþscúa looked around the room slowly, his eyes taking in every inch, drinking in the room’s details. He moved his hand slowly as though feeling for something that he couldn’t see. “This way,” he said seconds later.

He left the room and continued to scrutinise everything. To KT, it was almost like he was looking past what was actually there to something deeper. He entered a storage room filled with boxes and tools with a large metal door at the back. He opened it and freezing air spilled out. Inside was a freezer room filled with all manner of meat. Tied up in the corner, his skin a pale blue, was Kai. 

KT rushed to him. He was icy cold to the touch and was barely breathing. Blood matted his hair. She tried to move him but his limbs were stiff. 

“Kai! Wake up!” 

“Move,” Déaþscúa ordered. He cut the teen’s bonds with a knife then lifted him easily over his shoulder. He strode out into a spartan living room with a single table and chair and placed Kai against the back wall. He then turned and began to smash up the table, creating a pile of wood in the middle of the floor. His sword made short work of the larger pieces. Once satisfied, he held the lighter to the wood and waited until the flame had taken hold of the kindling. Warmth quickly spread through the room.

Déaþscúa only checked over Kai briefly before nodding to himself. “His only injury is a nasty lump on the head. Once he has warmed up his biggest problem will be a concussion. You on the other hand need healing now.”

Kai stirred before KT could answer, slowly opening his eyes. It took him a moment to make out any details through his blurred vision but when his eyes focussed in on his sister they suddenly became wide and alert. He struggled to stand but only made it to a sitting position. 

“What the hell happened? You’re hurt.” He stopped as his memories fell back into place. “It was that damn butcher. What did he do to you?”

KT wrapped her arms around Kai in a hug. He was still cold but the contact gave her great comfort. “I’m okay now. It’s just a few scratches.”

This didn’t placate Kai. Fury set into his features. “Where is he? I’ll kill the bastard for hurting you!”

“Then you will have to train as a necromancer. Killing a man already in the grave is redundant,” Déaþscúa told him passively. 

This news did nothing to improve Kai’s mood. “I should have been there. I’m supposed to protect you but didn’t do a damn thing.”

“Don’t beat yourself up about it,” KT said to him as comfortingly as she could. “I can look after myself. I am the older sibling, right. See, I’m totally fi…” Her head drooped and her body slid to the floor.

“KT!” Kai roared.

“Relax,” said Déaþscúa calmly. He moved the younger man to the side then knelt over KT, the blue light appearing around his hands. “She lost too much blood by wasting time talking. She just needs rest. As do you.

Kai glared at him but visibly loosened his muscles. “Why are you even here? There’s no way you could have found where we were so quickly.”

“I just am. It’s a good job I am too. Now let me ease that concussion then you need to get some rest and I’ll fill you both in on details when you wake.”

Kai grumbled something but still let Déaþscúa place a hand on his head. Once the man had finished, Kai laid down and closed his eyes. It wasn’t long until Déaþscúa was the only one in the house still awake. He looked at the twins, his rough face sombre. KT’s shirt was wet with blood and hung from her were Christy had cut it while Kai still shivered. Sighing to himself he quietly took off his coat and draped it across them both.

“What have I gotten you into? The cycle repeats, no matter how hard I try to break it. May the gods guard your souls.”

Previous – Chapter 6.

Next – Chapter 8.

Chapter 6. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

Finding rest was something easier said than done for KT and Kai. Fear, worry and doubt forced out any hope of sleep despite the heavy weariness that hung over them both. The rugged landscape raced past beyond the dark windows, the moon and stars lighting up the terrain in a gentle white glow that highlighted the silhouettes of trees and hills in a veil of silver. Normally it would have been a serene scene, but now countless demons seemed to lurk in the half-light.

Unable to find peace, KT turned with the full intention of questioning the mysterious Déaþscúa further. His blue eyes appeared translucent through the gloom, hypnotic almost. They seemed to flash as they rested upon her own, bringing a strange tiredness over her that she couldn’t explain. Before she even realised what was happening, her eyelids drooped closed and conscious thought slid from her head.

Troubled dreams plagued her, making any rest she found superficial at best. She woke up in what looked to be the small hours of the morning. Kai had also drifted into sleep, either by spell or nature but unlike his sister, seemed in a calm and deep sleep. KT looked past him to see Déaþscúa staring absently out of the window.

“We’re nearly in Glasgow now,” he said without moving, his sudden voice startling her. “Ten more minutes and we’ll be entering the suburbs. Another twenty from there to get to where we need to be.”

KT forced the tiredness from her head and tried to place her thoughts in order. It proved to be harder than it should have been. “Where is that?”

“The house of a friend. It was the closest place I could think of to take your mother. Hospitals ask too many questions and don’t have the same skills that come with magic.”

“How is she?” KT asked, lifting herself up to peer into the passenger’s seat. Her mother was as pale as death and sat unmoving.

He shook his head slowly. “Not good. I’ve done all that I can but she is still slowly fading. It’s only a matter of time. We’re just lucky that we got back to the lodge so soon after the attack. An hour later and you’d have returned to find a corpse. Elizabeth is the only chance she has.”

“Is that your friend?”

“Yeah. A witch gifted in the arts of healing. Probably the strongest witch in Scotland who doesn’t work directly for our government. We just have to hope that we reach her in time.”

They both fell silent. Kai snored loudly between them and thin, barely audible breaths rattled from Tara. KT shivered and tried to huddle further into her corner. Nothing in the world made sense anymore. She was in a car with a strange man, fleeing from the scene of a goblin attack, and was now heading to visit a witch. 

“Is this everything that you wanted it to be?” Déaþscúa asked. “Does magic and adventure live up to your expectations?”

KT didn’t answer him. She wasn’t sure that she could. She kept her eyes firmly on the world beyond the window.

Houses began to dot their surroundings more and more until they fully entered into civilisation. Streetlights lit their way and filled KT with a sense of safety. It was hard to feel the same fear of monsters when surrounded by the painfully normal. They drove through the outskirts of the city and the houses seemed to grow increasingly dilapidated. The SUV finally pulled up at a rundown estate that was made up of old, cramped buildings and cracked pavement. 

“We’re here,” Déaþscúa announced before exiting the vehicle. He opened the passenger door and scooped up Tara gently.

KT nudged Kai but he didn’t stir. She shook him awake then watched as confusion worked its way across his face as his mind pieced together the previous day’s events.

“We’re at the witch’s house,” she said, indicating to Déaþscúa who was carrying Tara towards the tired buildings. He looked like he had no intention of waiting for them.

“Witch? What witch? Black Annis?”

“No. Déaþscúa’s friend. She is the one who can heal Mum.”

They both stared out of the window towards their mother’s slumped figure. Kai seemed to deflate as he watched her. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her hurt. She never even stumbles. She always seemed so damn untouchable. I always wanted her to be knocked down a few pegs to be more human. Now it’s terrifying me.” 

KT pulled him into a comforting hug for a few brief seconds until Déaþscúa shouted to them impatiently. The two teens jumped from the behemoth and jogged to catch up with the man. He was at the door when they reached him. He knocked then waited in silence. The door opened and a beautiful woman greeted them. She wore a simple yet elegant dress of green and had a slight curl to her long, ginger hair. She had a shapely figure and a warm smile. Kai gave her his best grin despite what looked to be a ten year age gap.

She took in the group with a single sweeping gaze then ushered them through the door without a word. The house was small with cramped rooms that were filled with all manner of furniture and china pots. She tutted under her breath as she led them upstairs into a room with only a single bed. Déaþscúa laid Tara onto the bed while the woman opened the doors of a large cupboard filled with vials and herbs. 

“I didn’t expect to see you back up here,” she said to Déaþscúa. She fished out a bottle of purple liquid and poured some onto a flannel. “Now you turn up with children and a woman on death’s door. Still causing trouble then?”

“It wouldn’t be me if I didn’t,” he answered dryly.

“Make yourself useful and fetch me a bucket of hot water and my supply bag,” the woman ordered. Déaþscúa did as she asked without argument.

KT and Kai filled the space that Déaþscúa had occupied beside their mother. “Will she be okay?” KT asked. She tried but was unable to keep the quiver from her voice.

The woman placed a delicate hand onto Tara’s forehead, brushing aside blood-crusted hair in the process. Green light surrounded her hand. She tutted again. “Her wounds are serious and she has been left too long without the proper care. She’s strong though and Déaþscúa has prevented her from bleeding out. She is suffering from blood loss, infection and the physical effects of her injuries. All of which are curable.”

“So she’ll live?” pressed Kai.

“Perhaps,” she answered airily.

Before anyone else could question her further, Déaþscúa returned, carrying a steaming plastic bucket and a large leather bag. He set them down beside the woman then stepped back. 

“Was it Annis?” the woman asked.

Déaþscúa’s face became stone cold instantly. He inched his head slowly in a nod. “I didn’t even step foot inside but she burnt the place to the ground. She was the only one that was left. Elizabeth, I…”

“You have work to do and so do I,” Elizabeth interrupted. “Now go. This woman’s wounds need cleaning and no man should be present for that.”

Déaþscúa nodded then left. Elizabeth poured a green potion between Tara’s lips then turned to KT and Kai. 

“There is nothing you can do for her now. Join Déaþscúa downstairs while I attend your mother. I don’t know how you have gotten yourself wrapped up with that man but you have placed everything you know in great danger. If I was you, I’d try my best to forget it all.” She turned her back on them and began to carefully remove the shredded clothes from Tara.

KT and Kai retraced their steps down the narrow staircase and entered through an open door at the bottom that led to a joint kitchen/living room. Déaþscúa was already seated on a small wooden stool. All of the other seats were over-pillowed and bore flowery patterns. 

Kai glowered at the décor then threw himself down onto an overstuffed settee. KT joined him, her head held in her hands. Kai stared fiercely at Déaþscúa for a long while but the man showed no sign of noticing. The younger man finally snapped.

“What’s the plan then? You said that Dad and Aunt Susan are still alive so how do we get them back?”

The man finally looked up. “We don’t do anything. You are two kids who were thrust into a world you don’t understand. You can’t offer any help in finding the captives or in fighting any threats you would face.”

Kai sprung to his feet and leapt at Déaþscúa, grabbing the man’s coat in his fists. “We’re eighteen! We’re adults damn it! We can go where we want.” The anger faltered and Kai’s grip loosened. Tears brimmed in his eyes. “They’re our family! Damn it.”

“Kai…” KT breathed. She hadn’t seen him like that for years. His carefree mask had taken a long time to construct and now it was crumbling. She reached out her hand and rested it on his shoulder. 

“We need to help,” she said to Déaþscúa. Her voice was quiet but she spoke with a steel determination. “We’ve been drawn into this whether you like it or not. We know the risks. I accept them.”

Déaþscúa didn’t move. “This isn’t your world. Only death awaits you if you continue down this path. Powerless humans may as well be babies to us. If you try to save them, you’ll only place them and yourselves in greater danger. Just leave it to me. You two should stay here and look after your mother. She’ll need your support after what she’s experienced.”

The younger man released Déaþscúa and slumped back into the chair. He clenched his fists so tightly that his entire body shook. “I hate not being able to do anything. I feel so damn useless. It’s funny really. I use uselessness as a shield and now it’s come back to haunt me.”

It was at that moment when Elizabeth entered the room. Both KT and Kai jumped to their feet.

“Is Mum… Will she live?” KT said, struggling to get the words out.

“Yes, yes. She will be fine. She just needs rest and a daily healing session. Minor scars will remain but she should make a full recovery. She will be better off than if she had been in the care of a powerless hospital.” Even as she spoke, Elizabeth made her way past the teens and lowered herself onto an armchair. No sooner had she seated herself her attention turned solely onto Déaþscúa, completely ignoring KT and Kai’s presence.

“Are you really up for this?” she asked in a low, careful voice. Her eyes were locked upon the man but he didn’t raise his head. “I don’t think that you’re prepared to face her again. You-”

Déaþscúa cut her off. “It’s been almost twenty years. I can’t keep hiding any longer. This has to end. Annis will die.”

Elizabeth sighed. “Just as long as you are prepared for the consequences. For someone whose entire life revolves around death, it still affects you.”

The man remained quiet. Without looking up he rose to his feet. “I have some leads to follow up. When I have her location I’ll go there. I’ll kill Annis, save the innocents and protect the world as usual. It’s what I do.”

“I’m coming with you,” Kai told the man. He too stood and tried to face up to the taller man, his young eyes blazing.

“Like hell you are,” Déaþscúa snapped. His face relaxed slightly as he went on, offering both teens a soft smile. “Your mother needs you here. Can you imagine how she’d feel waking up and not knowing where her children are after all that she’s already been through? If you come with me, Annis will kill you. I am responsible for too many bereaved women already. I promise you that I will get your family back.”

Kai continued to look defiant but then looked away. “You have until mum is better. Once I’ve spoken to her, I’m following after you whether you like it or not.”

“Whatever,” Déaþscúa said with a shrug. He strode out of the room and left the house. There was a few seconds of silence then the sound of the SUV starting up and speeding away.

Kai slumped back into the chair with a defeated look plastered upon his face. KT could tell that he didn’t know what he should do and wasn’t happy with any option. She too wanted to help save their dad but she couldn’t bear the thought of abandoning their mum until she was well. Her hand crept up to Ava’s necklace and clutched it tightly. The cold of the metal was strangely comforting in the stuffy room. Kai was right, feeling useless really sucked.

An agitated tutting came from Elizabeth. “Well, it looks like you two are staying here for a few days.” She stood and went into the kitchen. The sound of pots and cups clattering filled the air. The whistling of a kettle cut through it all until she re-entered the living room carrying a metal tray with three large cups on it. She handed one each to KT and Kai before settling herself back into her chair with the final cup.

The thick scent of the drinks filled the room. KT stared into the brown liquid and inhaled the sweet, almost flowery smell. That alone seemed to relax her. She took a small sip. It scalded her mouth but the taste instantly refreshed her. It was only then that she realised just how long since she had last had a drink. Or food for that matter.

“How long until mum wakes up?” KT asked the woman between warming sips. 

“A few days,” Elizabeth responded absently. “I can heal her wounds quickly but her bod will take a while to regain its strength.” She leaned forward with a tin in her hands, offering the two teens the assortment of biscuits within. They accepted them eagerly, Kai giving both the biscuits and the witch’s cleavage a hungry look. Even anger and grief couldn’t completely smother his spirits.

“In under a week she should be back on her feet and will hopefully remember nothing that happened to her. No one wants that kind of experience in their memories. It’s always better for those without powers to forget the terrors of our world.”

KT wanted to make a comment against her sentiment but another sip of tea made the words fade away on her lips. Instead she found herself asking, “Who is Déaþscúa?” 

“A man with a list of troubles longer than any man has the right to bear,” Elizabeth muttered over the top of her cup. “But enough about him. Tell me about yourselves. You’re my guests so it is only right that I know a little about you.”

Suspicion clouded in KT’s head but dissipated just as fast. She hated talking about herself, and Kai did even more so unless there was a pretty girl involved, but they both told the woman every detail that she asked for. She was constantly telling herself to shut up, but the message never seemed to reach her mouth. It was like she wanted to tell the woman everything. 

They talked for what seemed to be hours, the words only interrupted when Elizabeth would refill their cups with more tea. KT quickly lost count of how many cupfuls she had drained. Then there was suddenly no new questions and Elizabeth abruptly ushered them to a room opposite the living room. The single bed was already made up while a sleeping-bag had been laid-out beside it. The room was small and simple with dull floral wallpaper and a brown carpet.

It was still daytime but Kai gratefully collapsed onto the sleeping-bag and was snoring heavily before KT had even entered the room. She too felt very drowsy. She shuffled to the bed and threw herself into the covers. The sheets smelled slightly bitter but that barely registered in her mind. She too was asleep before Elizabeth had closed the door.

Her dreams were once again filled with nightmares but she took a strange comfort from them. They belonged to her and her subconscious clung to them like a hellish teddy bear. She awoke in a sweat but the usual adrenaline of a nightmare didn’t course through her. Instead she felt groggy and numb as though she had not slept in a week. Her mind felt fuzzy and her thoughts didn’t quite fit into place. 

There was a knock at the door shortly followed by Elizabeth’s head peering into the room.

“Breakfast is almost ready. The bathroom is just over there. Get washed and freshened up before we sit down.” She was gone again before KT could respond.

KT wanted nothing more than to roll over and go back to sleep but a deep feeling within her told her that she didn’t want to disobey the woman. She reluctantly slid off the bed, stepping on Kai in the process. He woke with an “Oof” and glared angrily at her. The look quickly became vacant. 

She padded down the corridor to the bathroom. It was cramped but neat like the rest of the house, with white surfaces and blue mats and shower curtain. KT started up the shower and washed with lethargic slowness, the water doing nothing to revive her senses. Once dry and redressed, she walked back into their room and kicked Kai in the gut since he had fallen back asleep. He groaned but finally got up and ventured off to the shower. 

A few minutes later they made their way into the living room together. Kai’s hair still dripped slightly, drawing a disapproving look from Elizabeth as she exited the kitchen holding a tray of yet more tea. The first sign of real emotion appeared on Kai’s face when he noticed that the tray also contained two large English breakfasts.

They all sat down and the twins tucked into the food ravenously. Elizabeth sat and watched them eat over the brim of her cup. The meal quickly vanished and the cups of tea soon followed. KT felt more awake now but her head still didn’t feel right. Her memories were becoming blurry and were merging together. It took all of her concentration just to remember why she was here.

“How is our mum doing?” she asked. Kai’s eyes suddenly sharpened, showing that he too had only just remembered. But why was she hurt?

Elizabeth met their looks with a steady gaze. “Your mother is doing well. Her fever is dying down nicely.”

The words processed through KT’s head slowly. Fever…That made sense. Their mum was sick so they had come here for medicine. But how had they gotten her? Where was their dad? These thoughts brought piercing pain to her brain. She shook her head and warded the thoughts away.

“I have to go out and buy some warm clothes for you both since you forgot to pack properly. I need you two to look after your mother while I’m away. She should be okay for an hour or two without me,” Elizabeth told them. She put on a thick red coat and grabbed her handbag. “Be good,” she commanded as she passed through the front door.

Kai picked up a nearby magazine and began to read. KT couldn’t shake her feeling of unease so she climbed the stairs to see her mum. The woman was tucked tightly into the bed and did have the look of someone suffering through a fever. She had small cuts crisscrossing her face though, something that KT knew wasn’t there before. Why couldn’t she remember them? Now that she thought about it she realised that she couldn’t even remember coming to this house. Her family had been driving to visit their Aunt Susan and then…then she was here with Elizabeth.

She sat on the chair beside the bed and gently moved a strand of blonde hair from her mum’s face. The woman’s breath was shallow and rattled slightly with each rise and fall of her chest. Her skin was sickly, sweat-slick and pale. She was so unlike how KT remembered her.

Several minutes passed as KT watched her. The house was quiet and the only sounds were the faint hum of cars and the occasional shouts from nearby. After a while she returned downstairs. Kai was still in his chair but the magazine was discarded at his side. On his knees was the tin of biscuits.

“Does this all feel wrong to you?” she asked. She remained standing but helped herself to a chocolate biscuit. 

“Maybe. I can’t remember what should feel right,” Kai answered, chewing thoughtfully on a wafer. 

“And that doesn’t strike you as weird?”

He shrugged. “I am pretty weird. My mind might just be confusing itself. It gets like that sometimes if I’m away from girls for too long.”

There was a bang as the front door opened. KT’s response died on her lips. Elizabeth entered the room carrying a shopping bag filled with clothes. 

“I see that you managed not to destroy the place while I was gone. Here,” she said, handing a bundle to each of them. “Try these on while I get the kettle going. They will fit you. I have an excellent eye for measurements.”

They wandered into separate rooms and changed out of the tattered remains of their black jeans and band shirts and into the clothes that Elizabeth had bought. KT couldn’t remember why her clothes were ruined but it did look cool. Perhaps that was just the style. In the bag was a floral dress that drew a sour look from her. She considered putting her old outfit back on but again felt unable to disobey the woman. Who was the woman?

She returned to the living room with a scowl. She had always hated dresses. Kai had beaten her in and now wore black trousers and a long sleeved shirt. He too looked far from pleased. 

“You two are looking wonderful,” Elizabeth stated. She placed the tea down then circled them both, admiring her choice of clothes. “These are so much better than those scruffy rags you had before. Far more age appropriate. Say thank you to your marvellous aunt.”

“Aunt?” breathed KT. They had come to visit their aunt but wasn’t that Susan? Aunty Elizabeth sounded so natural in her head, as though it had always been there. But then who was Susan? A raging migraine flared into existence, stronger than ever. She took a quick sip of tea to ward off the pain and it helped greatly. Both the pain and the confusing thoughts died away.

The rest of the day passed by much the same as it had the day before. This time Elizabeth drilled them on their future rather than their past, pressing them for answers about their dreams and aspirations. KT had always wanted to be a vet but didn’t think that she could cope with the death and suffering while all of Kai’s plans revolved around winning the lottery. Elizabeth didn’t appear impressed by either.

The sky darkened early and KT was grateful when Elizabeth finally told them to get some sleep. They had a final check on their mum then slumped off into their room. The air within was bitterly cold but the teens felt numb to it. They crawled into the covers and were asleep before they’d been in there five minutes.

The nightmares returned to KT again. The images were clear and invoked powerful emotions within her. There was fire and blood everywhere. Goblins and werewolves terrorised her but always there was a blond haired man stood at her side protecting her. He looked familiar but she would have remembered the pistol and sword…and those eyes. Kai was there too. Their mum was crucified on a cross while her dad and an older woman, who KT finally connected the name Susan to, were fading into darkness. 

The dream shifted. They were all in an SUV driving through the countryside. She blinked and the surroundings warped into a city street. The car pulled up in front of a house. As the engine died the front door of the house opened. Elizabeth stood behind the door but her emerald dress was black and she wore a pointed hat atop her ginger head. A wart was visible on the tip of her nose and a black cat circled her feet. In her hand was a cup of tea that bubbled and frothed. 

KT’s eyes snapped open. It was still dark, but then it was Scotland in winter, so that was no indication of time. A fierce rage burned through her body, dispelling the sleep like flames through a wheat-field. She leapt from the bed.

“The bitch drugged us!” 

Kai muttered something in his sleep. KT grabbed the zip to his sleeping-bag and pulled it down. He stirred, opening his eyes wearily as the cold hit him.

“Just once, couldn’t you wake me up with gentle words or the smell of breakfast,” he grumbled dryly. He stood up to face her, yawning loudly. 

“Do you remember Déaþscúa?”

“Déa-who-a?”

“The blond haired man with the sword who saved us!” KT pressed desperately. 

Kai scrunched up his face in an effort to remember something but he shook his head slowly. “No. It’s all fuzzy. I…I think you just had a strange dream. Yeah, a dream.”

“That’s what she wants us to think! She’s been drugging us. That’s why the tea smelled funny. Every time we drank it we lost a bit of our mind,” KT hissed. Kai pulled himself up, swaying slightly where he stood. He clutched his head in pain.

The door opened and Elizabeth strode into the room. She wore a flowing white nightdress that clung to her shapely figure. “What’s with all this noise?” she demanded. 

Kai gaped at the faintly transparent material that hinted at flesh beneath. It was as though KT’s revelations had already been forgotten. She rounded on the woman in a fury.

“That noise is the sound of your plans failing, witch. I can remember everything.”

A look of surprise flittered across Elizabeth’s face but she was quick to regain her neutral expression. She stared down KT without emotion. She glanced across at Kai. He was making no move to back his sister up.

“What are you babbling on about, girl?” she said sternly yet not unkindly. “Have you had disturbed dreams?”

“Nice try. You can’t trick me. Nothing you do could erase the memory of my mum crucified on a cross with the lodge burning behind her. Your little trick with the tea won’t work again.”

Kai furrowed his brows. “I remember. It’s all coming back.” He started to shake and his muscles tensed.

Elizabeth shook her head sadly. “I had hoped that we could avoid any unnecessary conflict. The herbs should have worked but there is more than one way to get the job done. I am a witch after all.”

She raised her hands to weave a spell. Blue light snaked around the two teens. KT slammed her fist into the woman’s nose with a powerful right hook. Elizabeth stood for a moment, a bewildered look on her face, then dropped like a rag doll. She smashed her head into the corner of a small table on the way down then lay motionless over the door’s threshold. Blood dribbled from her nose.

Kai looked stunned but shook off the last vestiges of his drug-induced stupor. “We have to leave. Find our old clothes and I’ll get mum.”

KT made no move to go. Her face was set in a grim frown. “We can’t take her with us, Kai.”

Kai whipped around to face her. “What are you talking about? Of course we’re taking her. Is your mind still messed up? We can’t leave her here.”

“Think about it,” she said. “Mum is injured pretty bad. We would have to carry her wherever we decided to go. It is freezing outside so she’d just get ill on top of everything else. She has to stay here to recover.”

“We could call a taxi and take her straight to a hospital. She’d be safe there,” Kai insisted.

“Déaþscúa brought her here. He seemed to trust Elizabeth.” KT paused for a moment in thought. “She never tried to hurt us, just make us forget. Maybe…Maybe she and Déaþscúa are right. Maybe she would be better not to remember. That is her though, not us.” 

Kai weighed their options up. A stirring from Elizabeth below them sped along his thinking. “I suppose you’re right. We don’t have time to wait and she would never last outside. We will come back for her though.”

KT nodded. “We won’t leave her long. We won’t abandon Dad and Aunt Susan either.”

“Agreed.”

With that said, they grabbed their old clothes from a rubbish bag and dressed. After paying their mother a final visit, they left the house, entering into the frozen dark of Glasgow’s streets.

Previous – Chapter 5.

Next – Chapter 7.

Chapter 5. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

Water lapped gently against the prow of the boat as it glided through silver waters. It had been a long journey but it was nearing its intended shore. People crisscrossed the deck agitatedly, anxious to be back on dry land after their long confinement.

One man stood alone against the railing. He stared at the water below as though in a trance. His skin was a dark black and he wore a leather jacket that looked to have been patched many times. He tore his eyes from the sea to look at his phone. A callous finger tapped the screen a few times and he raised it to his ear.

“We’re due to dock within the hour,” he said with a faint African accent. “Do you have confirmation of his location?”

“The bad blood has moved north,” answered the voice through the phone. The accent was thicker in the speaker and the voice was of someone much older. “Be cautious, Arteeru. It would seem that our quarry has joined forces with the black witch. This complicates your mission. I would advise you to coordinate your efforts with local groups.”

Arteeru showed no reaction to the information. “No need. Part of our creed is to not involve others in our redemptions. I have the situation in hand.”

The line was silent for a moment. “I have word that Déaþscúa may be in the area too. There is a good chance that your paths may cross.”

“Understood.”

The phone call ended. Arteeru placed the phone back into his pocket and returned his gaze to the water. His hand idly stroked a long scar across his throat. He had always found the waves peaceful. They reminded him of happier times.

Land was visible on the horizon now. Arteeru grabbed a duffle-bag from the deck beside him. He paused for a moment then took a white rose from the inside pocket of his jacket. The flower was starting to wilt but it was the last of many that he had brought with him. He held it out and dropped it into the water where it floated like a pale face in the dark abyss.

Shouldering the bag, he turned from the railing and made his way down to the cargo hold. His feet were drawn to a large, covered object that stood alone. The object beneath the cover seemed to call to him. He pulled off the sheet to reveal a sleek black motorcycle. He ran a hand along its surface then sat down on the leather seat.

“Come, Darian. We have tainted blood to spill. An arrogant fool who would use our curse to kill others for his own amusement. We must be redeemed.”

The bike roared as the engine came to life. Arteeru smiled grimly at the sound, canine-like teeth glittering in the glow of the headlight.

Previous – Chapter 4.

Next – Chapter 6.

Chapter 4. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

The twins sprinted toward the signpost in a mad stumble, any sense of caution immediately abandoned. In an instant they were at their mother’s side, tears rolling down their faces as the sight before them pierced through the initial shock. 

Tara Redthorn was a strong woman of unbreakable calm who never seemed to have a hair out of place. Now she hung upon a mock crucifix, her shining golden hair matted with clumps of dried blood, her pale skin nearly unrecognisable beneath cuts and bruises and her fine-cut winter clothes were tattered and burned. Long nails that had once held some part of the lodge together were driven through her flesh into the rough wood. Blood ran from the punctures, dripping down into a crimson puddle below her hanging feet. A thick coating of dirt and ash covered every inch of her.

Kai frantically moved around her, seeking out any means to get her down from her torture. KT grabbed a rock and placed it beside the cross. She stepped onto it then placed her ear upon her mother’s bloodsoaked breast and listened. A faint beat was just audible. 

“She’s still alive!” KT cried out, the words coming out as choked sobs. 

Kai jumped up to join her, listening for himself just to be sure. His hand shook maddeningly as he grabbed at the nails that secured her outstretched arms to the wood. The metal was slick with blood and his fingers couldn’t find a secure grip. 

Déaþscúa came up behind them. He still held his pistol at the ready as his eyes scanned their surroundings ceaselessly. 

“Move,” he ordered as he slid the guitar case from his back and clicked it open. All warmth had left his voice. He was now very much the wolf poised to kill.

Inside was a beautiful sword. It was a large blade of shining metal, long and wide with both edges having a deadly sharp edge and a pointed tip that could easily skewer armour. From the ground it reached up to Déaþscúa’s chin. The guard was a white humerus bone with two metal dragons twined around it so that each fanged head rested upon either rounded extremity. The balled tips of the bone had been carved into skulls, the deep eye sockets containing glinting rubies like baleful crimson eyes. The dragons’ tails dropped down, spiralling together to form a firm gripped handle. The tail tips met at the pommel to hold a wicked looking fang.

“Get behind her and brace yourselves,” Déaþscúa told them. KT obeyed him instantly while Kai hesitated for a moment, his eyes never leaving his mother. He bit his lip and followed his sister. In one swift movement, Déaþscúa swung his blade at the base of the cross, the metal slicing cleanly through it. The cross groaned then fell backward into the twins’ waiting arms. 

Déaþscúa placed the sword through a strap on his back, not bothering to pack it away into the guitar case again, and moved to check on the woman. He ran a hand over her, his face never hinting at any emotion as he eased the nails out of her flesh then lifted her slightly to place her beside the cross.

“Can’t you save her? Heal her with that glowing hand magic like you did to me!” KT begged. She wanted to move, to do something to help, but she couldn’t do anything more than stand helplessly by.

The man continued to examine their mother as he spoke. “I’m no healer. I can ease minor injuries but she needs someone devoted to saving lives. She’s badly beaten and is suffering from bloodloss. I can slow her death but can’t prevent it entirely.”

“Then we have to call an ambulance. We will save her!” growled Kai. His hands were white from clenching so tightly. 

From his coat, Déaþscúa fished out a mobile phone and tapped in a number. He held the device to his ear with one hand while the other began to glow over the woman’s chest.

“Jearl, I need a pickup ASAP. I’m at Aife’s Lodge in Abernethy Forest,” he said briskly then put the phone down, sliding it back into a pocket. 

He turned back to the two teens and opened his mouth to speak when his pistol flashed into his hand and fired past them. There was an abrupt scream as KT and Kai whipped around to see another goblin fall to the floor missing most of its chest. 

“Get ready!” Déaþscúa shouted. 

No sooner had the words left his mouth than the forest erupted into a frenzy of activity as dozens of howling goblins spilled out from the trees. Crude knives, axes and clubs swung wildly as the foul creatures barrelled forward, malice glinting in their small, dark eyes.

There was an explosion of sound as Déaþscúa fired his revolver, hammering the trigger with such speed that multiple shots merged into one peal of thunder. Six twisted figures fell like rag dolls but the others didn’t even flinch. 

Well practiced movements saw the gun reloaded from a pouch across Déaþscúa’s chest. “Grab a weapon and brace yourselves! You keep standing there gawping and you will die!”

Kai nodded shakily, picking up a ruined table leg out from the rubble. As he was bending down, a yellow glint from the darkness of the forest caught his eye. He stared for a moment as the baleful glow doubled then resolved themselves as a pair of savage eyes on a bestial face.

“Déaþscúa! Behind you!” he called out.

Déaþscúa span on the ball of his foot just as a giant wolf with ragged grey fur leapt out from the trees, blood slick claws and razor sharp fangs reaching out for the man’s throat. His opponent was larger than any canine, with features that could be attributed to a humanoid more readily than a beast. Clawed hands flexed with powerful muscles instead of paws, bulky arms filled with strength connected to broad shoulders, and impressive abdominal muscles suggested a weightlifter rather than an animal. It stood on two legs but its angular face and fang filled snout were all too animalistic. 

He shot it once but the bullet achieved nothing before its hand slammed into Déaþscúa’s face. Déaþscúa flew backward but flipped easily back to his feet. Claw marks oozed blood upon his cheek and exposed white bone, but even as the two teens watched, the wounds began to seal themselves.

The first of the goblins dived at Kai and he quickly lashed out with the table leg, splattering the creature’s brains across the dirt. Bile rose up in his throat and he would’ve thrown up if he’d had the chance before more of the grey skinned horrors were upon them.

“Catch!” grunted Déaþscúa as he threw his revolver and the ammo pouch at Kai. Dropping his club, Kai plucked them clumsily from the air and instantly fired at a goblin that had just jumped to reach his head. The gun kicked back, almost smashing into Kai’s face with the recoil but the monster exploded, coating him in a shower of blood.

KT was crouched beside her mother, hurling rocks at any goblin that advanced too close. There were too many to hold at bay any longer. She grabbed her mother’s arms and frantically pulled her through the slurry towards the wall of the lodge. 

Leaning her mother against the wall she scrambled for a weapon. Nothing nearby presented itself as a valid choice. A hiss from her side made her turn to see a goblin with a dagger scrambling toward her. She only had a second to act. Her hand sped to her belt buckle and she clicked it open. In one flourishing movement she whipped out the entire length, smashing the far end into the goblin’s nose with a satisfying crack. 

Swapping ends she brandished the belt like a whip, striking one goblin in the face with the heavy metal buckle that depicted roses growing from a skull, then swept away another’s legs. Like a snake it lashed out again and again, spinning through the air to form a safety zone around KT and her mother. Against humans it would have been pointless but the small size and thin bones of the goblins made each strike count.

Closer to the forest the werewolf howled angrily as Déaþscúa drew his sword. It glinted threateningly in the light of the rising moon. 

“Lycan,” he observed calmly. His eyes took in every detail, analysed them and provided conclusions in the brief second before the werewolf charged at him. Déaþscúa sidestepped and brought his sword down to slash at the beast’s flank but the lycan sprang into the air with unnatural grace and landed upon his back. Fangs snapped to tear at the back of his neck but Déaþscúa threw back his head, smashing it repeatedly into the wolf’s snout.

Déaþscúa repositioned his sword into a reverse grip then thrust it at the werewolf’s side. The beast jumped away again only to bounce straight back at its prey. Claws and blade met in a death-lock.

Meanwhile Kai had given up trying to follow KT and was now focussed only on keeping the goblins at bay. He emptied the revolver and was fumbling to reload the weapon. The goblins’ numbers hadn’t seemed to decrease at all. 

Kai was forced to abandon reloading when a crude axe swept toward his chest. He parried with the revolver then kicked at the goblin’s bony chest. He felt bones shatter beneath his sole. 

“I can’t hold them off with a gun!” he shouted to Déaþscúa. “They’re too close!”

Déaþscúa ducked under a swing then span away from an incoming attack from the other side. His sword flashed out, forcing the lycan to back away a few steps.

“What, you want the sword instead? Let me fight the giant wolf in close combat with a pistol? You wouldn’t even be able to lift this!” he snapped. As he said this, the lycan knocked his sword to one side and slashed at Déaþscúa’s chest. Ragged cuts pierced flesh and sprayed blood. “Bloody brilliant!” he spat before punching the werewolf in the kidney.

The wound knit itself back together but Kai noticed that it was taking longer than that first injury had taken to heal. A goblin then jumped onto Kai’s head and started clawing at his face with dirty fingernails. He couldn’t see a thing. He stumbled around blindly until he felt the wall of the lodge then smashed his head into it, squishing the creature between his skull and the wall. 

Behind him the lycan launched into a flurry of attacks that tore at skin and jarred every bone. Déaþscúa cursed as blood blurred his vision. He stepped forward into the lycan’s defence and slammed his pommel into the beast’s maw. Fangs flew from its mouth to litter the floor. Dazed, it swung at him but Déaþscúa stepped to the side then severed the hand with a decisive flick of his wrist. The wolf screamed, the sound a terrifying mixture of man and beast that seemed to shake the heavens. The lycan thrashed its remaining hand at Déaþscúa who, despite blocking, was thrown back into a tree with a sharp thud.

A soul rending howl issued forth as the lycan made ready to finish the job. Its battle cry was cut short when music suddenly began to blare through the trees. ‘I’m a Barbie girl in a Barbie world. Life in plastic, it’s fantastic. You can brush my hair- Déaþscúa fumbled angrily through his pocket for his phone. The lycan cocked its head at the sound then ran at him but Déaþscúa batted it away with the flat of his blade.

“Damn it Ailia! That is the last time I let you use my damn phone!” he hissed mid swing, quickly silencing the song. He glanced over to the lycan then bounded to his feet, breaking into an instant sprint. 

The sound of an engine rose up quickly, growing from a whisper to a roar in the space of a few seconds. From the narrow lane that led through the forest to Aife’s Lodge burst a shadowy shape. Flames reflected across a matte black SUV that looked more suited to battlefields than British roads. It was huge and bore armoured plates. Black tinted windows blocked any view of the interior. It mowed down any goblin that could not dive to the side in time then skidded to a halt beside Déaþscúa.

KT and Kai were still beside the lodge, their position almost overrun as the goblins ignored Déaþscúa to swarm the easier prey. He could see them crawling over the building, clambering down the walls like spiders to take the teens from above.

“Shit,” he said through gritted teeth. The lycan was charging him again but he didn’t have time to waste on it. He ran towards KT and Kai with the lycan chasing behind. It was rapidly gaining on him. He threw his sword, spearing one of the goblins to the wall just above KT’s head. The lycan swung at him and he leapt up, landing on the beast’s back as he grabbed its arms and forced them backwards into a tight lock. 

Kai dove aside as the lycan crashed past him into the wall. Déaþscúa sprang up, grabbing his sword from the wood and landing beside Tara. 

“Get in the car!” Déaþscúa ordered. He snatched the revolver from Kai and slid home another six bullets before passing it back to the young man. He effortlessly picked up Tara with one arm and began the run back towards the SUV. KT and Kai followed closely behind him. Few of the goblins dared to get close now that Déaþscúa was so near. The lycan had no such issue and was storming across the mud after them.

Déaþscúa made it to the car first and put Tara into the passenger seat. KT whipped one more goblin across the knuckles with the belt buckle then threw herself into the back seat. Déaþscúa and Kai barrelled in after her, Kai emptying the pistol’s chambers before shutting the door. Even as the door slammed shut, the car’s wheels screeched and it shot off back down the lane.

There was a howl of rage then the entire vehicle shook as something thudded into the roof. Metal screeched as claws punctured the roof and began to work jagged grooves into its surface. Déaþscúa muttered angrily then grabbed the gun from Kai. He reloaded then began firing up, wincing at every hole he made. The gunshots rang out like thunder within the confines of the car.

Through the messy gaps above they could see the lycan, wounded but undiminished in its movements. It snarled, baring glistening fangs at its intended prey below. Its good arm struck out again, tearing another set of lines into the roof.

“Open the door!” yelled Déaþscúa. 

KT looked at him unbelievingly. “Open the door? we’re driving at max speed down a forest lane with tightly packed trees on either side and a pissed off werewolf on the roof wanting nothing more than to get inside with us. Why the hell would I open that door?”

Déaþscúa growled angrily. He leaned over KT against her complaints and yanked at the handle. The door opened and Déaþscúa scrambled across KT to swing himself out, deftly pulling himself up onto the roof beside the lycan.

Déaþscúa and the lycan stared each other down, both braced against the car’s movements, their muscles tensed to leap into action at a moment’s notice.

“Care to stop smashing up my car?” Déaþscúa asked. The wolf snarled and sprang at him. Déaþscúa ran to meet it and jumped with unnatural power. He landed upon its shoulders and shot at its head, blowing a large section of skull away. Another flip saw him back onto the vehicle’s roof. 

Despite the horrendous injury, the lycan only staggered around the roof howling, struggling against the pain to get a focus on the man before it. It shook its head, flecking blood everywhere, then bared its teeth ready for one final attack. Déaþscúa simply waved goodbye and stepped to the side. 

A stout tree branch smashed into the lycan’s ribs. The sound of breaking bones was all too apparent. As the SUV drove on, the lycan slid from the branch and hit the ground limply. Déaþscúa watched silently as the great mass of muscle and fur shrivelled and shrunk, receding and rotting until only a battered human body remained. His naked skin was ragged and blood soaked and his overgrown brown hair was tangled. Scrubbed up and healthy, the man would have been considered handsome.

Kneeling, Déaþscúa leant down and knocked on the window. It opened and he hopped down through it almost casually.

No sooner had he seated himself Kai grabbed him by the shirt. “What the hell is going on? Monsters burn down the lodge and kill everyone just when you’re coincidently strolling through the area! Why did this happen? Who the hell are you?”

“They aren’t dead,” replied Déaþscúa calmly. “Think logically, boy. Did you see any bodies? Any blood? We didn’t get there before they had a chance to hide so many bodies.”

“But mum-“

“Is still alive as well,” Déaþscúa interrupted. “I suppose you could see it as a message.” 

“Will she survive?” KT asked in a weak voice. “I mean, you said you couldn’t heal her.”

Déaþscúa nodded. “I can’t. I do know someone who can though,” he said before tapping on the black glass that separated the back of the car from the front like a limousine divider.

The window slid down to reveal the cluttered area beyond. Their mother was still unconscious in the passenger’s seat but around her was a mixture of gadgets and fast-food wrappers divided messily along with a wealth of other miscellaneous crap. Magazines were arranged across the dashboard that varied from nude women, comic books and cheap gossip prints.

Leaning from the driver’s seat to see his passengers was a lanky man with messy brown hair and a long, blemished face. He wore a black chauffeur’s suit that was too baggy on him. It was creased and the jackets buttons were all undone. Its collar was up and the whole outfit had a very lived in look. KT could almost believe that the messy style could be attributed to some strange, niche fashion circle.

The man took a look at the destroyed roof and tisked to himself. His gaze slid over to Déaþscúa after they had rested several moments upon KT. Kai was completely ignored.

“Where to, boss?” he said in a cockney accent. 

“Get us to Glasgow as quickly as you can,” Déaþscúa told him as he pushed himself forward to check on Tara. “We need this woman healed or she’ll likely die. These kids don’t want to lose their mother and I don’t want to lose a possible source of information.”

“Got it,” nodded the other man assuredly. He turned back and the divide began to rise again.

“What do you mean by ‘source of information’? Doesn’t a human life mean anything to you?” Kai snarled. 

Déaþscúa watched him passively. “I saved both of you didn’t I? You serve no purpose to me but I still protected you and have brought you along with me. I also have enough information to not need whatever your mother could tell me. I helped her because she needs it and not because I need her. If she can even think logically when she wakes, the most that she could tell me would only confirm my suspicions.”

“And what are those suspicions?” KT asked. She looked into Déaþscúa’s bottomless eyes, determined not to look away until he answered. He had skirted too many of their questions for her liking. “Why did the goblins attack the lodge? Where is our dad? And Aunt Susan and all of the others? Why was everyone taken alive if you’re right? None of it makes any sense.”

He stared right back for a few seconds, the ice blue of his pupils seemingly slicing into her brain like a cold wind. “Exactly,” replied Déaþscúa with a frown. “The goblins should have kept well away from any human settlement. They only ever fight humans if they’re starving or have been rallied to war. Neither really fits here. Added to that, the lycan hate goblins and will hunt them as readily as any human. The lycan are hunters and will go after single targets. Only frenzied werewolves or those who still control their own actions would ever attack a group of people. Our fur-brain was neither. No goblin or lycan would take a captive, especially a whole host of them.”

“That doesn’t answer anything then!” Kai said, clipping each word out angrily. Now that the adrenaline was fading, his emotions had started to tear through his numbness.

Déaþscúa shook his head. “You have to look around the answers you know to see the shape of what you don’t know. If you open up a hundred piece jigsaw and only count ninety nine, which is easier, looking through each piece individually to try and guess what isn’t there or assemble what you do have in order to see the gap? I know that a building that I’ve recently been around was attacked by unlikely allies in circumstances that do not fit with their natural behaviour. This suggests they were attacking because of me and that a higher authority was guiding their actions. Running through the list of people that want me to suffer who’re near enough to know my movements and has the power to pull the strings of these creatures leaves only one name. Black Annis.”

Silence descended within the car as it raced over the dark roads. Kai clearly had no idea who that was but recognition sparked in KT’s eyes. Her eyebrows furrowed.

“Wasn’t Black Annis a mythological witch who lived in Leicester? Why would she be hunting you in Scotland?”

Déaþscúa removed a leather wallet from the back pocket of his trousers and routed through it for a moment before removing a folded piece of paper. He showed it to the twins. It was a pencil drawing depicting a twisted woman in black with blades for fingers. Water colour paint had been used to give the woman a bluish tinge to her skin.

“It is me who’s hunting her,” he told them slowly. “As I have been for longer than I care to remember. She did have a den in Leicester but I hunted her from there long ago, with the aid of urban expansion anyway. You have to consider, when your diet consists mostly of human children, you can’t stay in one place for too long. She was known up and down the British Isles by one name or another. Scotland is still wild so provides a good place for her to hide. She fled here and I followed.”

“Why burn down the lodge?” asked Kai. “You never went inside. We were the only ones you had spoken to and there were no children for her to take, just a load of gristly old folk who probably taste of bitterness and disappointment.”

“Annis enjoys suffering. Or at least the strong emotions that come from it. She knows that in an open fight against me she can’t win. Instead she wages mental war on me. For years anyone I was ever close to was killed by her. Then when I stopped making bonds she murdered anybody who I even spoke to. She made me pick between social isolation or the death of innocents. That is why I warned you not to go near me.” Déaþscúa sighed. His eyes held a distant look to them as he spoke.

Kai raised his voice. “You said they were all still alive. Dad, Aunt Susan, everyone.”

“And they probably are,” Déaþscúa replied simply. “Annis is a smart, treacherous woman. She’ll use them as bait to lure me into her trap. She thinks that the second innocents are in danger then I’ll just recklessly rush in and save them.”

“You have to save them!” yelled Kai. Tears brimmed in his eyes.

“First we save this one.” Déaþscúa said, indicating their mother beyond the divide.

“Then what?” asked KT, nervous of the answer.

“Then I’ll just recklessly rush in and save them,” he smiled. “Now get some rest. Even with Jearl’s gung-ho driving it’s a long way to Glasgow.”

Previous – Chapter 3.

Next – Chapter 5.

Chapter 3. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

“Look, we aren’t going to find anything. We’ve searched the whole area,” Kai said as the twins plodded through the frozen forest. The light of day was only just beginning to dilute the darkness of night and the air was still bitterly cold. They’d found no further clues to the man’s whereabouts.

“Stop moaning!” KT snapped. “You were attacked in this very spot by a mythological monster. Surely you want to know what’s going on?”

“Of course I do! It’s just that it all felt so…surreal.” Kai sighed as he suppressed another yawn. “If it wasn’t for you I’d have not given it a second thought. I just don’t know what you’re expecting to find. You think we’ll just stumble across a ring of power or a magic stone that will suddenly make all of your dreams come true?”

KT kicked at the snow. “I don’t know. I just… I just want there to be something more. What we saw was real so who’s to say what else could exist too? I have to at least try to find out more.”

“So what do you propose then? You said that dude told us not to go into the forest alone yet that is exactly the first thing that we’ve done.”

“We aren’t alone. We have each other. Anyway, that thing took us by surprise. We’ll be ready if there is a next time. We can finally put those karate lessons to use. Not that I expect trouble during the day.”

“You quit those lessons after three months.”

“I was the only girl and everyone was scared to face me. They all either didn’t want to hurt a girl or didn’t want to be hurt by a girl. How was I supposed to improve in that environment? Anyway, you quit the week after me.”

“Yeah. I didn’t like the couch. Old Barry, wasn’t it? He thought he was better than me.”

“He was a blackbelt.”

“That’s hardly the point. Aren’t kung-fu masters supposed to be all humble and shit? Not rub it in our face how high and mighty he is.”

KT rubbed the back of her neck absently as she thought. Her mind wasn’t really on the conversation. Her eyes drifted across the trees and noticed the broken branches that marked where the succubus had fled into the sky. Thinking back she knew that the beast had flown south, deeper into the vast forest.

She pointed in the direction that the succubus had gone. “We go that way.”

“Yes, brilliant idea! Let’s go deeper into an ancient forest after finding out that monsters exist. What could possibly go wrong?” Kai mocked as he waved his arms around dramatically. Despite his sarcasm, it was the first time he had shown any sign of energy.

“Think about it,” reasoned his sister. “That man appeared after you were attacked by the succubus. He wounded it but then had to help us. We can assume that he was some kind of monster hunter as he knew all about them and carried around that pistol. He helped us so he is probably an okay guy. He wouldn’t risk the succubus attacking someone else. It makes sense that he would finish off the job.”

Kai shook his head. “South covers a big area you realise.”

“You’re such a pessimist. We won’t know if we never try,” KT persisted.

“I’m not a pessimist, I’m an optimist with a negative disposition. There is a difference,” said Kai, resolved to the fact that he knew his sister had already won.

Knowing that she had won as well, KT wasted no time in venturing off into the forest. Kai followed behind miserably. He struggled to keep his tired eyes open but KT’s eyes constantly flickered back and forth in search for any signs of the quarry. Drops of blood, a footprint, some kind of trail, anything. 

“I’d probably avoid mum when we get back. She saw you last night and assumes you were drunk,” KT commented as they plodded around the trees without anything supernatural occurring.

Kai made a snorting sound somewhere between anger and frustration. “Great. I get attacked and still end up having her breathing down my neck. I wish she’d just give up already.”

“You know she just wants you to succeed.”

“Look, there are always going to be people who’re smarter, stronger, faster and more talented than me. Practice makes perfect but perfection is unattainable so why practice? Dear ol’ Mum always said to play to our strengths and my strength just happens to be being a smartass bastard with a fondness for pretty girls. I am the best at what I do and nobody can take that away from me.”

KT had no answer to that argument that she hadn’t used a hundred times before.

They walked in silence for another half an hour without finding anything of note. Even KT was beginning to show signs of doubt. Kai had succumbed to his weariness and was basically asleep on his feet, his legs propelled by their own rhythm more than by conscious thought. 

“Can we go back now?” he asked through a yawn. “I think I’m starting to dream again. I can smell bacon.”

KT was about to offer a scathing reply when the scent of bacon caught in her nostrils too. The smell caught her by surprise and caused her to miss her step. She tripped and fell to the floor. “You’re not imagining it,” she said, holding up her hand for Kai to help her up.

Kai ignored her and ploughed forward through the trees, sniffing heavily like a dog following a scent. KT pulled herself up and followed behind him. After a few seconds he came to a sudden halt in a small clearing. 

“My bacon senses are tingling. It was cooked here,” he stated confidently. He stood there wetting his lips hungrily since KT had dragged him from the lodge before he could eat breakfast. 

KT caught up to him and it only took her a moment to find scattered ashes that indicated a fire had been lit there. Judging by the way that the ashes were positioned, she guessed that someone had sloppily tried kicking snow over the fire’s remains. A passer-by would likely not have spotted them but for someone who was even remotely aware of the ground it was obvious.

“It had to have been him,” she said matter-of-factly. Placing her hand over the ashes she felt a slight resonance of warmth.

“Why does it? Anyone can eat bacon. Hell, it should be law that everyone has to eat bacon at least once a week,” muttered Kai. He was still savouring the smell. His stomach growled in agreement.

“Who else would be out in the middle of a Scottish forest on New Year’s day? It is the only logical answer. If only I knew which way he went.”

“West,” grunted Kai. 

“Why west?”

Kai shrugged offhandedly. “He is a man who has just filled up on bacon. He won’t be wanting to walk uphill. The ground slopes down to the west.

“Damn it. Kai, you can’t base all of life’s decisions on bacon.”

Kai shrugged, his face a mask of innocence. “Why not? It’s never let me down before.”

KT sighed in defeat. “Fine. We’ll head west,” she agreed, before setting off down the slope. 

They walked for another twenty minutes without seeing any signs of anything unusual. Kai stumbled along, his tiredness rapidly reducing his ability to function. More than once he tripped on a root or a section of uneven ground and staggered into a tree. He yawned, swallowed his own saliva, and began to choke noisily. 

“You’re right. This is pointless. We’d never find a man like that if he didn’t want to be found,” KT said frustratedly. She took a deep breath then visibly sagged. “What the hell are we doing?” 

“Choking,” wheezed Kai.

KT moved to help him but came to a sudden halt. Her entire body was alert as her eyes darted to a nearby bush. It shook slightly then became still again. She took a cautious step toward it then dived away as the bush exploded into motion.

A greyish-green blur erupted from the undergrowth and shot past her, smashing straight into Kai’s back. He screamed out and spun around with his arms swinging. Whatever had hit him jumped back and dashed around to the side ready to strike again at his blindspot. 

It was a creature about half Kai’s height with a scrawny build and tight, dirty grey skin that stretched over a knobbly skeleton. Jackal-like teeth gnashed hungrily while pale yellow eyes with slit pupils jittered across the two teens seeking weak spots to exploit. Its nose and ears were sharp like blades, almost as lethal looking as the chipped fingernails. It had no hair whatsoever.

A feral screech tore from the monster’s cracked lips as it leapt at Kai’s back. It flew through the air quicker than Kai could move. KT dashed to intercept the attack and slammed into the creature’s side. It hit the ground hard but bounced back up quickly. It looked half-panicked but wasted no time in grabbing a stone that it hurled at KT. She blocked it with her arm but the blow still came keen. While she was distracted the creature charged at Kai. He was ready for it this time and punched it in the face. The thing’s entire body shook with the blow but before Kai could withdraw his hand it clamped its teeth down upon his fist.

There was an echoing crack and the monster exploded like a bloody firework. Dark blood splattered everywhere while bone fragments and tattered skin filled the air like grisly rain. Both teens whipped around to stare through the blood haze at the man beyond.

Déaþscúa stood with his pistol pointed toward them, a frown on his rugged face. That strange look of confusion that he had shown the night before passed across his features once again. He stood like that for a few seconds then sighed as he holstered the revolver. 

“I hate teenagers. You specifically tell them not to do something and they go out of their way to do it,” His voice was more reserved than angry. He walked toward them. “How did you find me anyway? I can’t decide whether to be annoyed or impressed that you followed me.”

Kai’s skin was ashen and he trembled where he stood. KT watched him stare at the creature’s corpse then at Déaþscúa. Anger flared in his eyes just for a moment but then his entire disposition changed, his body relaxing and a blank look settling across his face. His pride had always been stronger than his fear. KT both respected and hated how quickly he could switch off his emotions. 

He shook off the remains of the creature’s jaw from his wrist then wiped a coating of gore from his face before speaking. “What the hell was that?” 

Déaþscúa looked at the viscera as though seeing it for the first time. “Oh yeah. That. I’d forget my own head if Jearl didn’t occasionally reattach it. That charming little creature was a goblin. Nasty little buggers. Just like you two. Now go away. Go home and forget everything you’ve seen or I’ll be forced to wipe your minds,” Déaþscúa informed them offhandedly.

“Can you do that?” KT asked with a raised eyebrow. She was genuinely curious as to the extent of his abilities.

Déaþscúa was silent for a moment. “Well no… I do know people who can.”

“And where are they?” Kai asked sarcastically. Sarcasm was his default response when it came to people in authority.

“Not here,” the man admitted slowly.

For how imposing the man was he had the quality of a large dog. He seemed endearing and friendly until threatened when the snarling wolf would rise from the mists of ancestral DNA. KT felt safe around him despite his dangerous presence and her own better judgement. “What is going on? Tell us. Please.”

Déaþscúa rubbed his stubbly chin with a scarred hand. “Fine. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know on the condition you return to the lodge and don’t seek me out again. Danger follows me like a shadow and it won’t take much to consume you both. You have to understand that. This might all seem magical to you but in reality it is a series of gruesome deaths just waiting to happen.”

The two teens looked at each other then turned back and nodded. 

He sighed again. “What is your first question then?”

Kai raised a hand. “Err, I seem to be bleeding. Do you have any disinfectant or bandages?” He turned so that Déaþscúa could see the claw marks that cut furrows into his skin. The wounds weren’t deep but they still bled, soaking into his black shirt and working down to his jeans.

“Do I look like a doctor to you?” Déaþscúa said. He placed a hand on the injury causing Kai to wince slightly. The same light bluish glow emanated from his hand as when he had healed KT’s stomach. “I’ve stemmed the bleeding. It’s just a scratch so don’t worry.”

Kai shuddered under the man’s touch. The glow seemed to make him nervous and he kept trying to look around to cast distrustful glances back at Déaþscúa. 

The second Déaþscúa was satisfied with the injury he turned and started a brisk walk into the forest in the direction of the lodge. After a slight pause, KT and Kai set off after him.

KT tried her luck with the first question. “Can anyone use magic?”

“No,” was Déaþscúa’s simple reply. “It isn’t a regular occurrence. It’s all down to blood, existing magic or cosmic events. Many gifted humans don’t even know why they can do what they do. There are very few of us left in the world. Once there were a lot more.”

KT looked disappointed but quickly recovered and pressed on. “Well, why are you here? Did you come for the succubus, or the goblin?”

“Goblins and succubi are everywhere. I wouldn’t come out to Scotland for something so small,” Déaþscúa said as though the monsters were nothing more than annoying insects. Despite his tone, his features settled into a frown. “I’ll admit though, that goblin’s behaviour was far from normal.”

“Why? It was ugly, smelled bad and tried to kill us. Seems pretty goblin-like to me,” Kai observed. 

“Three reasons. Firstly, goblins are nocturnal creatures. For them to wander out in the sunlight is pretty unusual in itself. Secondly, goblins will never attack unless they’re confident they’ll win. That means attacking the weak or outnumbering their prey. After all, they’re creatures that hunt in a pack. A lone goblin attacking two healthy humans makes no sense. Finally, the goblins know that I am in the area. Usually, most creatures will hide away if I’m within a ten mile radius of their territory. It isn’t just that one goblin ignoring me. I can sense that the whole pack is on the hunt. That’s very strange indeed.”

Déaþscúa continued through the forest as though the rough terrain didn’t exist. His movements were easy yet confident, taking him past the trees, branches, roots and bushes like he knew every inch of his surroundings. Kai and KT were basically jogging just to keep up with him.

“Why are you here then? You think there is something worse out here?” asked KT, fearing the answer already.

Déaþscúa laughed bitterly. “There is much worse out in these woods. I seek the worst. You don’t need to know any more than that.” His tone lightened slightly. “Anyway, you never answered my question. How did you track me?”

“We followed the scent of bacon.” Kai answered, happy to be back on a topic that he knew.”

“Curses! Foiled again by my one weakness!” Déaþscúa said overdramatically. Lowering his voice slightly but keeping with the dramatic tone he continued. “But it was worth it. Oh how it was worth it.”

Kai examined the man sceptically. “You don’t carry any supply bags. You don’t have enough pockets to carry food and water for an extended trip. That means that you must have a base around here, right?”

Déaþscúa smirked as he opened up his coat and lifted up his shirt. Underneath it was a vest made from individually wrapped bacon strips.

“You have a bacon vest? That’s awesome!” exclaimed Kai as though it was the greatest invention of humanity.

“I’ll let you in on a little secret. Bacon is resistant to magic. Someone throws a fireball at me and all that happens is that I end up with ready cooked bacon. It shields me and is a conveniently portable food supply.”

“What about the actual heat from melted plastic and cooked bacon against your skin? Surely that still burns-”

“Enough about bacon!” interrupted KT. “We stand at the doorway to a world of wonders and you want to waste time talking about meat.”

They were nearing the lodge now. KT wanted to get as much knowledge as she could before Déaþscúa tried to leave them again. She was about to ask another question when Déaþscúa suddenly tensed. It was like seeing a vicious predator suddenly realising that it wasn’t the nastiest beast on the prowl. Without a single word he burst into motion, leaving the two teens behind.

“I smell smoke,” hissed Kai. “Not the good kind either.”

KT sniffed heavily. Kai’s sense of smell had always been better than hers. It took her a moment but as soon as she looked for the smell it was there. Faint but foul in the pure forest air. A dark smudge was rising through the sky above the treetops ahead of them.

“What could be burning around here?” she began. “The only thing for miles is…”

“The lodge!” roared Kai as realisation hit him like a hammer blow.

Without heed of the branches that lashed at their skin, KT and Kai barrelled through the forest in the direction that Déaþscúa had vanished. The smell of smoke grew stronger and the sky started to grow dull as black clouds rose up to choke the blue heavens. The path between the trees quickly became obscured and their panting breaths turned into chokes as the smoke filled their lungs.

Then they were out in the open. Smoke covered the area like a blanket but the ruined shell that had once been Aife’s Lodge was all too clear. The aged wood had turned black as fire consumed every surface. The glass from the windows was shattered everywhere and stone lay as debris wherever the eyes looked. What remained of the once ornate furniture was now littered across the clearing. One of the walls had completely collapsed, leaving a gaping wound into the building’s gutted remains. Flames had melted the snow, reducing the grassy glen to a churned field of mud.

“Oh god!” KT choked as she took in the devastation.

Déaþscúa stood nearby, pistol drawn. He was advancing towards the signpost that had once borne the lodge’s name. Now it had been converted into a crude crucifix where a human body had been nailed. A human whose blood stained face was all too familiar.

“Mum!”

Previous – Chapter 2.

Next – Chapter 4.

Chapter 2. (Thorns of the Shadow: Blood, Blades, and Bacon)

KT barely made it through the front doors before her stomach began to protest the strain of lugging Kai’s unconscious body. She struggled to take a few laboured steps forward then almost doubled over as she felt her muscles cramp.

She scanned the room with teary eyes. Most of the people left in the hall were beyond the point of being useful. Some were slumped in chairs while others swayed where they stood while speaking overly loud. Most were too old to do any heavy lifting anyway.

One woman stood apart from the others though with a book held open in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other. She had neat blonde hair that rested atop her shoulders and wore a smart yet stylish skirt and blouse. Slender glasses covered icy blue eyes. She was tall for a woman, even when wearing sensible shoes as she did now.

KT waved at her until she caught the woman’s attention. Her gaze passed over KT’s dirty clothes then settled on Kai. She closed her eyes as though to compose herself then made her way over to the twins.

“What has he done this time?” the woman asked. 

“Mum, it isn’t what it looks like,” KT began. The woman cut her off. 

“Really? Because it looks like Kai has got blackout drunk again. Just once I would like to spend time as a family without him showing us up.”

KT hesitated. This argument had been going on for a long time now, and for once, Kai didn’t deserve the blame. At the same time though, telling her mother the truth was a fruitless venture. She would never believe that Kai had almost been killed by a mythical demon. She still wasn’t sure if she believed it herself.

“Maybe his drink was spiked,” she tried.

“Or maybe his sense of moderation is hidden in the same part of his head as his responsibility and respect.” She closed her eyes again and when they opened she spoke with a softer voice. “Let’s get him into his room. There’s no point berating deaf ears.”

Between them the two women managed to drag Kai up the stairs. KT did her best to cover up how much pain she was in, all the while looking at the remaining guests for any signs that they were not what they appeared. Nobody seemed out of place.

They managed to reach Kai’s room and dumped him on the bed. His breathing was shallow and his skin looked pale. The strange man had said that he should wake up fine but KT had no idea if she could trust his word.

Their mother was already at the door. She turned back to KT, her face shrouded in shadows so that the younger woman couldn’t quite make out her expression.

“Try to talk some sense into him. You’re the only person who he listens to anymore. He could do so much but he chooses to waste his potential. Being here should put that into perspective for him. Poor Ava was a rising star and was taken far too early. She died with so much left to give while Mordekai lives just to get drunk and womanise. Try to make him understand that life is too short to squander.” She was gone before KT could answer.

She stayed at Kai’s side for a while. Her head span but curiosity played on her mind more than fear. She had seen something that potentially shattered her very perception of the world. She wanted to know more. Her heart screamed out that life must be more than growing old, getting a job, having a family and then dying. She needed more. She had always been the type of child who had questioned everything. It had been people telling her that curiosity killed the cat that made her take on the nickname KT rather than her childhood name of Kat.

The scene in the forest was on loop in her head. What could she have done differently? Just how bad could things have gone? Before she knew it she was running through a nightmare forest being chased by the succubus. Being chased yet also chasing after a sphere of light that whispered promises of purpose and power across the void between them. Whenever she closed the gap it was a reflection of her own face that stared back at her from the orb.

She awoke with a jerk. The room was still dark. She stretched and winced as her stomach tightened. It didn’t feel as bad anymore.

Kai looked much the same as before but it seemed that his breathing had steadied. Finally feeling content that he was safe, KT stood and left his room. She wandered through the now empty corridors, her feet guiding her towards the room where she had spent most of her time on their previous visits to the lodge.

Her aunt, Susan Peterson, was an old-fashioned woman and her lodge reflected this. Aife’s Lodge had a large room that was packed tight with all manner of old books. It felt more like a symbol of status than a love of knowledge but KT didn’t care.

The smell of dust and old paper washed over her as she opened the door to the library. Clustered shelves lined every wall while free-standing shelves formed a labyrinth of pathways through the books. Most were cheap volumes that bore titles dull enough to put off any potential reader but KT remembered finding a few novels tucked away amongst the history books and manuals. 

It took her a while but she finally found what she was looking for. It was a tatty book in a faux leather cover with the word ‘Myth’ embossed in gold upon the front. She opened it up and was greeted by a roughly sketched dragon that looked too much like a cow to be as fearsome as the description implied.

She flicked through the pages until she found a small section titled ‘Succubi’. This time there was a cramped image of a beautiful, long haired woman with a lithe, small breasted body dressed in medieval style clothing. She wore it in an alluring manner that revealed hints of pale flesh. The only thing that set the image apart from a normal woman was the pure black eyes and leathery, batlike wings. It looked startlingly similar to the monster they had fought. The conflicting body images also fit with what Déaþscúa had told her. She read the scrawled writing that accompanied the image.

The Succubi are a form of demon that prey off of the sexual energies of mortal males. Like their male counterpart, the Incubi, they drain this energy through engaging in intercourse with their victims as they sleep. They take the form of attractive women but elements of their demonic nature are usually visible such as dark eyes, fangs, wings or serpentine tails. While usually non-violent, they are known to attack when threatened. The Succubi are in possession of increased strength and can withstand great amounts of damage. Reports of the creatures have diminished in recent decades but changes in society could easily cover up their dark activities.

She sat down on an overstuffed reading chair and read through the entry a few more times. It all seemed to fit with what Déaþscúa had told her. KT wanted to believe what she thought she had seen but every bit of logic in her screamed that she had to be wrong. There was only one way to know for sure if it had all been real.

KT left the library and traversed the corridors as she made her way toward the front door. Her stomach was starting to settle now but gave off a pang at the thought of leaving the safety of the lodge. There was a very real threat of danger out there now but she was not about to let fear stand in the way of magic. Magic! 

Other girls had wanted to be princesses while boys had aspired to be footballers. KT had always found inspiration in the adventures of Alice in her Wonderland, Eowyn fighting orcs amongst the men of the Rohirrim army and Sigourney Weaver battling against terrifying Xenomorphs. All of her life she had been the oddball. The weirdo who believed in fairies and had spent countless hours reading books on myths and witchcraft in the hopes that she could be special. On reflection, perhaps watching Alien every night at bedtime when she was six had not been the best for her mental state. Remembering her mother’s explosion when she had found out was one of KT’s earliest memories.

But then she had matured, grown out of idle fantasies to make her way through the real world, only for that to fail just as spectacularly. This was her chance. It didn’t stop her from approaching the fireplace first to arm herself with a poker. With the iron rod in one hand and her phone in the other she opened the main door. 

She stepped out into the frozen forest, thickening snowfall obscuring her view, and retraced her steps until she found the spot where the battle had taken place. The dirt was scuffed and the tree she had hit was missing some bark but little else seemed out of place. A growing layer of fresh snow made seeing anything difficult, especially in the early morning dark. A harsh chill was in the air that she could not shake as she moved around the area, searching for any sign of the blood that had been spilt. It was as if it had all simply dissolved into nothing.

After minutes of searching without success, KT was close to giving up until the sun rose. Maybe she really had dreamt it all. As she moved to return to the lodge empty handed, something glimmered in her peripheral vision as the light of her phone patrolled the treeline, causing her to turn back to the tree where the man had first appeared. If she held her head at just the right angle she could glimpse a sparkle of metal amongst the undergrowth. She rushed over to investigate the ground, fishing out a bullet cartridge from underneath an arced root.

Her limited knowledge on guns told her that this was not from any traditional hunting rounds. The strange, flowing patterns that were engraved upon it were too intricate to be used by any sort of hunter she knew of. Its location couldn’t be a mere coincidence. It had to belong to the man, Déaþscúa.

KT fought down waves of excitement as she made her way back to the lodge. As quietly as possible, she re-entered the building, the cartridge clenched in her hand as though if she were to let it go then it too would disappear. 

She rushed back into the library, almost throwing herself into the chair as she grabbed the book. The cartridge proved that Déaþscúa really had been there and did have a gun that he fired at something. That man was the key to understanding what had happened. He looked human but could heal wounds and moved with unnatural speed. The book had entries for all manner of wizards, mages and gifted humans but without more information there was no chance of narrowing down exactly what he could have been.

KT closed the book and was about to stand when a hand touched her shoulder. She jumped and tried to turn around at the same time, resulting in an undignified tumble from the chair.

“I’m sorry, Catherine. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

KT looked up to see the face of her Aunt Susan looming above her. Susan Peterson was a decade older than KT’s parents and those years showed on her hard face and in her grey hair. She was tall and had the same imposing presence as KT’s mother despite being her father’s sister. Her clothes were prim and faint lines marked her boney face. Tired eyes stared down at KT. They always looked close to tears when KT saw her. 

“Hi, Aunt Susan,” KT said as she picked herself up from the floor. “I didn’t expect anyone to be up yet.”

“I am usually up early,” her aunt said absently. “Though it is later than you might think. Winters here are dark well into the morning. You get used to it. Couldn’t you sleep?”

KT shook her head. She had never been sure how to talk to the woman. How did you speak to a rich relative who had lost her husband and only child and now lived alone in the middle of nowhere? Especially when it was constantly pointed out how similar KT looked to that dead child? It always left her feeling uncomfortable.

An awkward silence hung in the air for a moment until Susan spoke again. “Do you know why I asked you to come here?”

KT shook her head again. She tried desperately to think of an excuse to leave the woman but couldn’t find anything that wouldn’t be rude. The discovery of supernatural demons was slightly more important than a lonely old woman. KT instantly felt a pang of guilt for the thought.

“No, I didn’t think that your parents would tell you. Tara likes to keep her cards close to her chest. You may as well know now. I intend to move away from here to downsize somewhere a little warmer. I tried to keep myself occupied by turning the house into a hotel but it never really filled the void. Too many memories you see. Did you know that it was Ava who named the lodge?”

KT made what she hoped came across as a soothing smile. She knew next to nothing about her cousin beyond what she looked like and that she had been in the police. Unsurprisingly, nobody really wanted to talk about the dead woman. It reminded people how fragile life really was.

Susan continued. “I am leaving the lodge to your father. It’s up to him, or more likely your mother, if he wants to keep it or sell it on.” She paused to steady her breath. “I could never bring myself to clear out Ava’s things. I still don’t think that I can. I can’t take them with me so I want to leave them to you. She wasn’t much older than you when she died so maybe you will find a use for some of it.”

She hesitated for a moment. Reaching some kind of resolution, she took a fine silver chain that ended in a beautiful pendant of curved silver and emerald from around her neck. Its shape was indescribable, a complicated mesh of numerous patterns and designs. On every fine strip of silver were very small, golden inscriptions that were unreadable.

“It’s beautiful…” breathed KT as she took in the object’s splendour. Jewelry had never really appealed to her but this was a work of art.

Her aunt smiled. “It belonged to Ava. I’m still not exactly sure where she got it from. I believe it was from a suitor but she was always a very private girl, even to me. She’d intended to pass it onto her first daughter,” she faltered a moment, fighting against a sudden wave of emotions. “I want you to have it now. It is too beautiful to be worn by a tired old woman like me. It will look perfect on you, just like it did her. You both look so alike you know,” the woman finished, tenderly passing the chain to her niece. 

KT hesitated but Susan’s hand didn’t waver as she held it out to her niece. She took it slowly, admiring it for several seconds before sliding it over her head. She had seen pictures of Ava wearing it and wasn’t sure how to feel about having something else that tied her to the woman.

She searched for words but couldn’t find anything that felt fitting. “Er, thanks,” she answered lamely. 

“Ah, but enough about all of that. There will be plenty of time to talk when I speak with you all tomorrow. No need to bring the tone down now. Were you reading anything interesting before I interrupted you?”

KT assessed how much she should say before answering. “It’s a book about myths and legends. I’ve always found that kind of thing interesting. Have you ever seen anything unexplainable out here in the forest?” she asked as innocently as she could.

Susan smiled at her. “Oh yes. I remember you reading about King Arthur the last time I saw you. Hmm. Around here? I’m afraid not. The forest only hides wild animals, snow and more trees. Scotland has a rich collection of myths but I’m afraid I am no expert.”

KT hadn’t expected much but she still felt a sense of disappointment. She was about to try her luck and press the older woman further when the library door opened and KT’s father entered. 

Bob Redthorn was a tall man of slender build, healthy but not fit due to living behind a desk in an office job for fifteen years. His black hair was short and scruffy while his green eyes were shielded by a pair of sleek glasses. He looked relieved when he saw his daughter standing beside Susan.

“KT!” he breathed in relief. “Kai started to shout the place down. Looks like nightmares but I couldn’t wake him up. He looks rough. I went to fetch you but you weren’t in your room. I came here since I remember you being fond of the place. It appears that you were in safe hands.”

“I’m fine, dad,” she answered, somewhat annoyed that her parents were still making such a fuss about her. “I was just catching up with Aunt Susan,” she explained, her tone a little softer now.

“That’s wonderful!” he said. “I’m so glad that everyone is getting on. I just hope that Kai won’t miss getting to spend time with us. He looks pretty ill. How was he when you last saw him?”

KT tried to reassure her father. “He drank too much. Just kept throwing them back until he passed out. Me and mum dragged his sorry backside to bed then left him. I saw him pigging out on cheese at the buffet table too so that probably explains the nightmares.” Her dad was more likely to believe the truth than her mother but it would still have been a long shot, especially with Aunt Susan there.

“But he doesn’t even like cheese,” began her father.

“Alcohol makes you do strange things, wouldn’t you agree?” she replied accusingly.

“I was forced into that dress!” he snapped defensively.

“And the crude pictures that you painted on the car?”

Her dad turned away. “Fine. Point taken. I’ll leave you to it then. See you both at breakfast,” he said before beating a hasty retreat.

“He never changes,” said Susan with a faint smile, old memories glazing her eyes for a moment. 

Seeing her chance to escape, KT grabbed it with both hands. “I had better go and check on Kai. Where would they be without older sisters?” The fact that Susan was eleven years her brother’s elder while KT beat Kai out by minutes was irrelevant. Older was still older and she never let Kai forget it.

“Agreed,” Susan said then laughed softly. “I will see you both later. Hopefully we can catch up some more.”

“Of course. I’m sure Kai would love to get to know you,” KT lied sweetly. “See you later.”

The second the library door clicked shut KT made her way down the corridor and entered Kai’s room. He was still unconscious and his skin and sheets were drenched in sweat. His skin was still paler than normal and his breathing looked slightly erratic. It was still an improvement from when she had left him.

“Kai! Wake up!” she said firmly, shaking his shoulders, anxious to talk about the night’s events. He didn’t stir. Weighing up her options she chose the direct approach and punched him hard in the gut. 

“Gah!” he choked as he sat up violently. His eyes were now wide open. “What the hell!”

“How do you feel?” KT asked, the seriousness of her tone instantly grabbed his attention. 

“Well I feel kinda tired and my stomach hurts but other than that I’ll be fine. I’m just a bit shook up by a weird nightmare I had. I was making out with this hot Swedish chick when she turned into a monster and tried to rape and kill me. It was sexy in that ‘I’m going to hell for this’ kind of way,” Kai said with a yawn.

“What about the blond haired man with the gun?”

Kai looked up suddenly. “Wait! How did you-”

“It wasn’t a dream. You really were attacked by a succubus and saved by a blond haired man with a pistol,” KT explained, passing him the bullet cartridge as evidence.

“But that can’t be real,” Kai murmured, clutching his head with his hands. “It makes no sense.”

“You’re right,” she smiled, throwing him his coat. “That’s why we are going to find this Déaþscúa and learn what’s going on.”

Kai staggered out of bed and eyed his sister sceptically. “Wait up. Even if all of this madness was real, how do you plan on finding him? A man like that could be anywhere. It’s a bloody big forest that we don’t really know, we have limited equipment for hiking through snow and there are apparently dirty great demons out there. Did that impact with the tree knock the sense out of you?”

“See, you do remember! You know it was real. Look, Kai, what do we have going for us here? I failed on the first step towards getting the job of my dreams and you… well you’re you. There is a whole other world out there. I can’t let that opportunity just fly past me without even trying to take it.”

“Damn it, KT. If all of that is true it just means we shouldn’t do anything. People die in real life when scary shit starts happening. This isn’t a story where we just saunter into a magical war and become saviors of the damn universe. Chances are we’d just die painfully, never to be found.”

KT bit her lip. “I know. But that could happen in a backstreet of any city. Every time we step out the front door could be our last but we don’t let that knowledge rule us. This could be the biggest decision of our lives. I have to try. Whether you come with me or stay, I’m going out to find him.”

She turned from Kai and strode towards the door. Kai sat for a moment then growled angrily. “God damn it, KT. You know I can’t let you wander around alone.”

She smiled innocently at him. “He won’t get far,” she said, her eyes sparkling in the dim light.

Previous – Chapter 1.

Next – Chapter 3.

Death’s Shadow – First Chapter

Here is the first chapter of my newest novel. It is fully written but I have had no luck with agents. Let me know what you think and if you’d like to read more.


Chapter 1

Scotland. A land of ancient myths where mountains vie with dark forests while snow and cold winds dominate the rugged landscape. In modern times though, the warriors have faded into the history books and the wilderness has succumb to the advances of civilisation. Where once foreigners had sought to avoid the harsh land, now they flocked there as tourists.

Deep within Abernethy Forest in the Scottish Highlands was an example of this tourist trade. It was a large wooden building known as Aife’s Lodge that had once been a private house but had since been converted into a hotel. It was the kind of place where people went to escape society completely.

The moon was high in a black veiled sky. It was just before midnight on New Year’s Eve and the few guests of Aife’s Lodge had forgone seclusion and gathered together in the main hall to celebrate. It was the biggest room in the building. A stone fireplace dominated one wall while numerous stuffed animals showcased the Scottish fauna. The dozen guests mingled awkwardly in groups of two or three, the conversations gradually becoming less passive as the alcohol flowed. Continue reading