The Mask of Night

Ismail. Farrow. Laila. Kaelan. Four people. Four tales. Before we are done, their stories will be irrevocably twisted together. Ismail is a secretive mage, hailing from the far reaches of the North. Though a formidable fighter, when the bodies pile up and the only enemy left is himself, the truth must emerge. Farrow, a talented demon hunter trying to piece together the fragments of his past, finds himself the centre of a manhunt. Laila, the thirteen year old firstborn heir to the Emperor's throne, must flee from a deadly conspiracy. And Kaelan. A ranger of some skill, he grows tired of his life among the forest. When the Forest Druids decide to help the Northern rebels, Kaelan joins them, and events rapidly spiral out of his control...

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14. A Baker's Dozen

~The ruins stood in a little valley, swamped by deep snow and a myriad of trees, bushes and thorny shrubs. There were thirteen guards surrounding the towers, stupidly posted where they couldn’t see each other. Elementary.

From the moment that Farrow set foot in the valley, it would take exactly two minutes for them all to die. The first was easy; facing away, it was so easy for Farrow to steal the axe from his belt and bury it in his neck.

There was no one with him, but every so often he saw Bjorn’s monster footsteps, caught a glimpse of Kaelan’s brown scabbard, heard Aesa push aside a branch. Farrow had donned a heavy white winter coat over his clothes, allowing him to remain invisible from a distance and a fur lined hood kept his head warm, but his hands were beginning to lose feeling. Horribly aware that with every passing minute the chance of discovery increased. He stood in a clearing, made sure he was in the right place, and cupped his shivering hands to his lips, whistling like a bird. A bush behind him shifted and Kaelan appeared.

Kaelan opened his mouth to speak, but Farrow suddenly silenced him. On Farrow’s direction, Kaelan shifted slightly to the right and watched a slim, elegant knife fly past his face. Someone on the other side of the foliage slumped in the snow. Farrow carefully rolled the body out of view and pulled the knife from its neck, turning the snow a sickly shade of pink.

“Are you done?” he whispered to Kaelan.
“Yep. Aesa and Bjorn are just finishing off.”
“What about Alvar?”
Alvar dropped from the trees, dusting snow off his shoulders.
“Alvar is done also. But I saw that someone moved.”
“What?”
“One of the guards. One of Bjorn’s targets, I think.”
Shit. Farrow’s mind raced. If the guard found a body and raised the alarm…
“Did you see where he went?”
“Maybe. I followed his footprints, and it looked like he was headed towards the gate.”
Farrow came to a decision. “Head towards the gate. If we see him on the way, we’ll take him. If not, we improvise.” Alvar nodded and ran back up the tree, disappearing into its leafy heights, a shower of white powder raining down on the two remaining occupants of the clearing. Kaelan looked at Farrow and grinned.
“Guess it’s just us then.”

They were lucky. The missing guard hadn’t reached the gate yet. Bjorn’s face appeared from the shrubbery, followed closely by Aesa. Farrow considered signing several angry where were you messages, but settled for guard, twenty yards. The reply was immediate.
He’s mine. Get ready to catch.
To catch?! But Bjorn had disappeared.

The guard was getting closer. If Bjorn didn’t do something soon, Farrow would have to kill him himself. Suddenly he emerged from the trees, silent despite his size, wielding a long staff. Bjorn spun the staff in one hand and runes appeared, blue light bleeding through the length of the wood. The light began to move faster, until the tip was pulsing with light. Bjorn jabbed it into the guard’s back and he went flying, straight into Farrow’s open arms.

Bjorn smiled grimly.
“I said be ready to catch, didn’t I?”

The gate guard scowled and stomped his booted feet. Whatever was frustrating him, he only had thirty seconds to worry about it. You had to feel sorry for him though, out here all alone in the cold. Twenty seconds. He leant back against the stone wall rubbing his hands and blowing plumes of mist into the air. Ten. Bringing out a little flask, the guard took a small sip and shuddered. Five. He fiddled with the thick hood keeping him warm. Four. He slapped his face with his hands, trying to restore feeling. Three. He took another cautious drink from the flask. Two. Bending over he slipped the flask into his boot and stood back up. One. He sprouted an arrow from his neck, silently falling backwards in the snow.

“Nice shot.” Farrow pulled the arrow out of the corpse and passed it back to Alvar. “This is going well so far. Bjorn, blast the gates and then we’ll just-”
“Hey Farrow,” interjected Kaelan, “Not to rain on your parade or anything, but… weren’t there two gate guards?”

Farrow froze.
“Shit,” he hissed.
“Hey guys, you might want to see this.” Bjorn had turned the next corner in the path, and there in front of him, strung up in the tree…
“Our missing gate guard. I didn’t kill him.”
The others shook their heads, whilst Bjorn lowered the body from the tree and examined it.
“And look,” continued Bjorn, “If you stand here then through the trees you can see...”
“A body.”

Just about visible through the trees, Farrow’s first kill could be seen. Farrow looked to his right, where the bronze alarm bell hung.
“He was trying to raise the alarm, but someone stopped him. But who? And why?” Thirteen men … A baker’s dozen… I wonder if that has any significance.
“Who knows? But it looks like we’ve got a guardian angel now. Come on, we need to move.” Pulling himself out of is thoughts, he focused on the present. He left his sword on his back, opting instead for a pair of long daggers, sharp as shadows and black as night. He glanced across, saw Kaelan and Aesa pull out short swords, Alvar unsheathe his knives and Bjorn ready his staff. He allowed the anticipation of the fight to flood through him and let loose the smile he reserved for combat.
“Lets go.”

 

Ice. Searing swords of frost so cold they burned. They buried themselves in his head, spiralling out of control, shredding anything they touched, the sudden, exploding pain bursting out threatening to overwhelm until suddenly - NO! That's private, he asserted forcefully, shutting the doors, slamming out the ice, halting its destructive progress, trapping it in a frozen cage of solitude. The dark bloomed, the pain fell away and He fell away, slipping into the bliss, the eternity of the Shadow.

Farrow woke up. Cold, black bars dug into his back, sweat soaked his clothes and his head felt as if it had been played host to a party of particularly raucous ice giants. His coat had been taken, and the whistling wind made him shiver.
“Well,” he muttered, heaving himself into a slightly more upright position, “That was quick.” He, along with the rest of them, was trapped in a set of iron spider cages, hung fifty feet above the ground. They had been stripped of weapons, and their wrists were bound with chains. They were in an underground crevasse in the rock, with a strong wind whistling past them, buffeting them around. The combined effects of the height and of being pushed around turned Farrow’s stomach, but Farrow was more concerned about Bjorn.

The big man had gone down fighting, and he wasn’t looking good. He wasn’t dead, at least Farrow didn’t think so, but he was definitely unconscious and looked to be in a bad way. Blood ran down most of his face from a cut on his forehead, and his shoulder had snapped out of place. Numerous smaller cuts were spread across his arms, opening holes in his tunic, but most were no more than light scratches.

Farrow looked around. There was a guard posted on the ledge jutting out from the rock face, but a combination of the wind and cold had forced him into the relative shelter of the tunnels beyond, from which the cages were blocked from view. Farrow looked at Alvar, pointed at himself, and then at Bjorn. Alvar nodded silently, then resumed examining his bars. Carefully, Farrow pushed and leaned on the sides of the cage until it began to slowly swing…

Once he had it that far it was easy. The cage began to swing further and faster, gaining speed each time. The space between his cage and Bjorn’s shrank rapidly, from two metres to one, then half, and then – So close! A hair’s breadth away, Farrow’s fingertips brushed against the bars but a particularly strong gust of wind pushed him away. On the next pass he managed to catch one of the bars, only to feel the cool metal slip away from his fingertips. Twice more this happened, but finally he caught a purchase, grasping the freezing bars firmly.

Very slowly, Farrow began to turn Bjorn's cage around, horribly aware that any loud noise could warrant the guard's attention. Incredibly tense minutes passed as Farrow ran the smooth bars beneath his fingers. Finally Farrow felt flesh instead of metal, and he grabbed onto Bjorn's shoulder with all his strength. Suddenly a strange feeling filled the pit of his stomach, and Farrow realised he was worried about Bjorn. He was so surprised by this that almost let go of the cage, but caught himself at the last second.

For the last however many months since he had left the Order, he had been constantly on the move, never staying in one place more than a couple nights, never going near anywhere larger than a town. Before that he had been at the Order, and the other children hadn't been exactly... welcoming. He'd endured a decade of hatred, torment, abuse and violence before he'd first snapped. The leader of his attackers, Marko, had called him a freak, an outcast, a half-breed. It was hardly anything new, but after a day of being punished for excelling where his classmates failed, Farrow had had enough. Marko had been thirteen, three years older than Farrow and much taller, but Marko had walked out with his arm and jaw broken, whilst Farrow hadn't been touched.

That hadn't changed anything though, if anything it made it worse. Teachers were harder on him, trying to instil discipline into him. Marko and his gang called louder, more obscene names, and even people who had used to stay around with him didn't meet his eyes, didn't talk to him. They were afraid. When Farrow turned fourteen, things got more serious. They started messing with him, stealing notebooks, breaking into his room. Once they even set his dorms on fire. When he turned sixteen, the betting started. At first Farrow thought they were betting on whether or not there'd be another fight - but then he realised that they were betting on how soon it would happen.

Farrow dragged himself back to the present. Tentatively, he felt Bjorn's neck, checking for a pulse. There. Farrow felt waves of relief rush through him. It was a little odd, Farrow thought that he had grown so close to Bjorn in so little time. Something inside Farrow warned him against this. He had survived as long as he had due to reacting instantly to anything out of the ordinary. Later, thought Farrow. I'll deal with this later.

Satisfied with Bjorn's vital signs, Farrow moved on to Bjorn's shoulder, gently probing the joint, and decided it was dislocated.
"All right big man, this'll hurt." Bracing himself against the cage bars, Farrow slowly pulled Bjorn's shoulder back into place, accompanied by a roaring bellow from Bjorn. Bjorn pulled away, staggering like an angry bear.
No longer holding the cage, Farrow swung backwards, cracking his head against the steel bars. Bjorn's cage swung madly, crashing into Alvar's and Kaelan's. Woken by the terrible racket, the guard, started clanging the emergency bell in his guardhouse. Head buzzing and vision swimming, Farrow's last thought before the darkness closed around him went something like;
Well, you really fucked this up, haven't you?
Thank god for the clarity of hindsight.
You're welcome. The voice in his head was extremely smug.

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