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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15. An Impossible Certainty

~Maia stared at him. Ismail rose off the bed, rolling his shoulders, his face sharp in the firelight. He unravelled the bandages covering his chest and arms, dropping them to the floor where they pooled, fluid and sinuous. As he stood to full height, towering above Maia, the central hearthfire threw his bare chest into sharp relief, seven feet of pure power, broad shoulders narrowing down to the waist, covered in a network of crisscrossing scars. Pale white marks wrapped around the length of his arms, slashes on his shoulders and stomach, and an inch long ridge on his left jaw, almost covered by a beard. His black,  hair hung down, framing violently green eyes and a sharp angular face. For the first time, Maia felt the awe-inspiring presence of a being that predated the gods.
"Hot damn," she breathed. "What was it like? Beyond the Gate?"

 

Ismail thought.

 

An impossible certainty. That is the only way to describe what is beyond the gate. A forgotten memory, a bittersweet taste, a calming rage. There is no time, so everything that ever was, ever will be and can never be exists at once. It is not defined by earthly limits of possibility, or of the confines of space, nothing has form, because everything is everything, and the being of a thing disproves its very existence. And yet there is something. Consciousness in this impossible environment is nonexistent, so it is of course in everything. We focus on these things that aren't things, the things created by absence, a band of shadows, a fistful of starlight, a box of emptiness - and we name them, and in doing so bind them to everything, which naturally makes them free. The Absence floats in the Beyond, going nowhere, drifting endlessly and yet anchored to one place. In crowded solitude, it gallops in its formal frivolity. Falling sideways up the Beyond, it hits something. Except that it can't. Because there was nothing to hit, or be hit by, or pain to know it, but still, it did undeniably hit something.

 

A single thing, adrift in this something of nothingness, existing in all places and at the same time none, anchored in this world between worlds, this fraying on the edges of reality and fiction, space and time, beginning and end.  An enormous gate, shaped from white gold and obsidian, tall as mountains and small as dwarves. A shining chain holds the gate closed, roughly shaped from hematite, as strong and sharp as shadows. It flowed in The Absence and The Absence flowed in it, and then it passed through. And in doing so he was finally free - but never was he more imprisoned.

"Red," he finally said. "I imagined it red."
"What? But you were there, weren't you?"
"Come on, we have work to do."


A steel-gray tower in the weak winter sun, Villskap was offered no shelter from the howling wind and driving rain. Seated on the edge of a cliff, it had no retreat, no hole in which to hide where the Jarn could not find them.

 

Eerie voices howling into the grey sky, they rode through the streets on huge wulves, rain lashing fiercely on bare chests, the wind ripping through golden hair. They laid waste to all, those who died standing in defiance would leave for Valhalla as dusk fell, given grudging respect in the violently blue eyes of the Jarn. But for the cowardly filth that ran instead of fighting, instead of dying for their brothers, death held nothing but the darkest and deepest pits of Niflheim. What was their crime? What had they done to deserve such merciless terror rained down upon them?

 

They committed the worst kind of treachery, abandoning their fellow tribes to war and ruin and fleeing the honour of battle. For this, the Gathering had exacted such terrible vengeance, the deaths of hundreds of their men, fighters, tradesmen, crafters, every able-bodied man older than sixteen. And yet, hope remained. For as there is always a light in the darkness, some would be spared from the dank mists of Niflheim. The women were spared, to build up the warriors of the tribe, and the children also, for harsh and unforgiving as the Gathering was, to kill a child was the darkest and most unforgivable crime.

 

Up and down the Norsemen rode, swinging axes, hammers and longswords, cleaving flesh and bone with every strike. They flooded through the broad streets and narrow alleys, the wulves enormous paws loping through grand manors and hovels alike, treading in the filth of life. Howls filled the air as the blood-crazed wulves took the scent of flesh and were driven crazy, though always controlled, never stopping or tasting blood.

 

Thirty minutes later they were finished. Every single man over the age of sixteen lay dead. Now a stream of people, women and children, wandered the streets, seeing what they had wrought upon themselves, weeping at the loss of their fathers, brothers and husbands. Some would stay walking the streets and hoping to see the spirits of the dead rise, but those who did so were uncommon, and frowned upon in the society of the Norse. Death was as much a part of life as anything else, and to dwell on it was unwise. Most would leave, staying with relatives or in nearby towns until the spirits had left in peace, escorted by the Valkyries to Valhalla, or else falling down into Niflheim.

 

The attackers now had two days hard riding back to their village where they would feast, celebrating another battle won, and honouring their dead brothers. But for now they had to organise the ride home. Of the five hundred warriors who had attacked Villskap, only half a dozen had died against the Villskap defenders, whose  numbers, though for certain were unknown, rounded at a thousand.

 

Maia sat on her window ledge, watching a stream of blond ride along the bright mountainside, streaming through the gates and filling the city, like golden blood filling pale veins. They left their steeds in stables just outside the city, but as far as Maia could tell, they were not horses. Her curiosity piqued, she swung down from the ledge, dropping from window to window, making her way to the ground.

 

Once at ground level, however, she realised she had absolutely no idea where she was or how to get anywhere. She decided to follow the slope of the ground, and try to work her way to the gate. What followed was two hours of wandering. It seemed that whilst the city might be sloped on the whole, when on the streets it was impossible to navigate by any sense of logic. Eventually when, an hour later, she found herself where she started, she swore violently at the building and sat on the ground.

 

"It seems that you are not mentally equipped to travel the streets of Hvit Sted." A faint smile played across Ismail's lips as he stood there, his broad, rough face quizzical and innocent.

"Hvit Sted. That means... White Place?"
"Literally translated, yes. Though in the Tongues of Men I believe it bears a different name. Come, walk with me. Allow your mind to wander, and then perhaps, you will find what you are looking for."

 

Maia picked herself up, and followed Ismail out of the alley.

 

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A/N:

Sorry it's been a while guys, but I'm finally back, and another one should be up soon.

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