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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16. Into the Deep

~~The Norse gifted them mounts. Sleek fur swam over rippling muscle from head to tail. Six inch fangs shone like rows of pearls beneath subtle sparks of silver, glints of emerald green and rings of smouldering embers. Ismail sat astride a six foot beast black as midnight, whilst Maia rode a shifting sea of russet. Tamar led them through the dense dark pines, a blond and pale figure atop a silent flash of silver bounding over the crisp glittering snow. His grace and elegance made them seem like children, crashing through the eerie silence of the wood.

They rode North for a small village several days away, where several children had been taken. Maia knew she was barely twenty yards from the river, but the thick wall of evergreens swallowed the sound whole, leaving only the crunch of snow underfoot and the occasional snap of a fallen branch cloaked in snow.

Their mounts were incredibly fast, covering thirty leagues every day. For four days they rode, making camp before sundown with a crackling fire at their backs to keep the darkness at bay. Ismail insisted they keep watch, but each night Maia saw nothing - until the fourth. She sat staring at the mountain silhouetted against the moon - when suddenly it moved. The rocky crag unfurled itself, a giant square head sat upon its shoulders. Hands big as houses grasped at clouds and its enormous chest rose and fell, crashing down with every slow, swaying step.

"A giant." Ismail had stepped up beside her and cloaked in darkness as he was, all she could make out were pinpricks of green in his eyes and streaks of silver hair gleaming in the starlight.
"I wasn't sure they were real."
Ismail raised his eyebrows, "Aye, and usually bigger. They aren't so common this far south. They follow the cold. You've never seen one?"
"My upbringing wasn't as … controlled as other spirits. I get it from my father - he took a passing fancy to a tavern girl or some city whore. I never knew either of them. I was outcast for a fae when I was six, killed my first man at twelve. Ripped his throat out with my bare hands. It sparked the Awakening right there, hands covered in blood in the middle of nowhere. I couldn't name what I was for years, I had to find my own way from there. No formal Awakening for me."

Maia wandered back to her bed, leaving Ismail alone, his mind reeling in shock. A half human spirit. The power in her blood, the mix of Order and Chaos - the possibilities were infinite. He could take back Dusk and Dawn, return to his chair on the council, protect the White City as he once had - Do it, urged Ultra. You don't need them. You don't need anyone. Forget the child, think of what the Council has done. Think of what you have lost. Think of what has been taken from you. Think of who you can bring back.

Longing filled Ismail, an icy torrent of despair that woke him from Ultra's control.
NO! Ultra snatched at the shadows inside him and tugged.
You wouldn't dare.
Watch me, little brother.
Ismail's upper lip curled in a snarl, Do it and we both die.
Growling, Ultra faded into a dark, brooding corner of his mind.

Ismail sat down heavily, breathing hard. He lifted a shaking to wipe the sweat from his face. As he did so he caught sight of the pulsing black mark crawling up his arm, the terrible darkness seeming to almost glow with anticipation. Ultra was getting stronger by the day - he dared not even trust himself with the shadows anymore. He had been foolish before - wielding them so recklessly had drained his strength. He had to find Dawn before it was too late - yet how could he? He had perhaps days before Ultra broke free, and no idea where to search. He could sense Ultra's mirth bubbling unexpectedly as he pressed his head into his hands. He had no choice. He had to keep going, to find Laila.

On the sixth day there was smoke. The smell came first, the acrid, stomach wrenching stench of smoke and burning bodies. Then they saw it, a thick pillar of grey bearing down on them from on high. And finally, when they were not fifty yards away, came the screams. Oh how they screamed,  soul tortured howls of pain, cries of horror as their blood boiled and their skin blackened like the carcasses of animals.

They were barely bodies when they rode through. Charred corpses of men, women and children alike. Fires still blazed, unchallenged, in the few ruins with wood left to burn. All else was ash. The snow was melted, the ground wet underfoot. Husks of guardtowers kept watch of a gutted town, with only the skeletons of burnt out trees for company. And in the midst of it all, a hole. Easily twelve feet wide, the chasm yawned, endlessly deep and brimming with mist. A stairway followed the outer edge, terrifyingly thin.
"Demons have no need of stairs," voiced Ismail in a tone like broken glass. "They're baiting us." He took the first step, losing his ankle to the mist. "And we have little choice but to bite."

When the descent stopped, only darkness awaited them. Tamar muttered softly into his cupped hands and tapped his staff on the stone floor. Blue light shone from his staff, the swirling sigils his own eyes of ice, his silver locks and his strong, sharply angled face. Ismail by contrast looked gaunt and sickly. His face was sunken, almost skeletal, and his hair was lacklustre grey - he was getting older by the day. Even his eyes had lost their lively glint of emerald - replaced instead by a solitary speck of green, almost invisible in the pale light.

Red dust hung in the air, clogging their lungs. Maia coughed, the guttural sound breaking the eerie silence. they had no choice but to keep walking, and only a hundred yards later they emerged from the gloom of the tunnel.

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