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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11. Razor Sharp Darkness

Into the blinding sun they stepped, the ice reflecting the brightness a thousand times over. Tamar was the first out of the cave, collapsing onto the snow. Maia followed him out of the darkness, then Ismail with Laila following behind. Ismail flopped down, resting his head on a frozen rock. He felt exhausted, as if all the strength had been drained from his body. It was only Laila’s screams that stopped him falling from consciousness. She was stuck halfway out of the hole, but somehow the ice had sealed on her, trapping her half in, half out. Even as Ismail jumped up, he could see the ice hardening, thickening unnaturally -  if a few more seconds passed, she would be stuck forever.

 

Maia grabbed Laila’s hands and dug her heels in, but slowly, surely, the impossible was happening. The ice moved like quicksand, it dragged Laila in further and further, back into the cave. The ice had thickened now, and the cracks Ismail made were simply refreezing. Tamar had his ensis out, tracing runes onto his weapons. He handed the axe to Maia - the sword he shoved at Ismail’s chest. One of the runes touched Ismail’s bare skin, and hurt. It burned into his hand, leaving a sizzling imprint and the smell of burning flesh. Ismail howled in pain but gritted his teeth and stepped forward, swinging the sword two-handed against the ice. Almost at the same time, Maia hit the ice with her axe, and both blades sunk in deep. The heat runes did their jobs, melting the supernatural ice.

 

Finally, all that was trapped were her calves, then just her ankles, and then – Whoomph. Maia went flying backwards, Laila in her arms. Laila opened her mouth, uttering a silent scream, and Ismail realised that it wasn’t just the ice pulling Laila. There was something on the other side – and it was coming through.

 

A deformed, mottled grey hand burst through the ice into the sunlight for the first time in centuries, and grasped Laila with bony fingers. It drew her back through the ice, where she was held aloft by whatever was on the other side and dragged into the dark. Ismail roared, making Maia flinch. He sprinted at the ice, as if running into it.

 

“Ismail!” Maia attempted to grab him, to stop him killing himself, but then she saw his eyes. The intelligent, green glint had vanished, replaced by a black void of nothingness. Fear poured through her, an unstoppable wave of darkness and unexplained terror. The not-Ismail picked Maia up with one hand, threw her backwards and without stopping plunged into the ice. He drew his sword, slicing it through ice, smashing it to pieces, whereupon a hideous mass of creatures poured through. Maia leapt forward to help Ismail, but was grabbed by Tamar.

“Get off!” she shouted, but Tamar held firm. “He’ll be killed!”

“I think not, daughter of the Valkyrie. Your friend is not who he says he is.”

 

Not-Ismail swung his sword, trailing shadows behind him. He had grown, now standing over eight feet tall. A second sword, Tamar’s, was in his other hand, cutting through sinew and bone with ease. Anything that came near him was killed mercilessly – this wasn’t a fight. It was a massacre.  The not-Ismail laughed, crushing a skull with his bare hand. He had abandoned his old sword, favouring the new one. He hadn’t seen it for millennia, but it still felt perfect in his hands. He ducked a sword blow, trailing razor sharp darkness behind him, spearing any followers.  He decapitated two more, smashed a third in the chest, and ripped a deformed spine from a still breathing body – all in the space of a breath. The not-Ismail felt his other side within him, striving to rein him in, but the not-Ismail was strong. Oh how good it felt, to be free! To be shedding blood, lost in the heat of battle, even if he was in this fragile body.

 

The last creature fled, running back to the tunnel. It made it, almost, but a fourth wrist trailed out behind and was caught in the rapidly reforming ice. Not-Ismail cut off the hand, the sword slicing through bone and muscle as if it were butter, and then he drove it into the arm, blood running down onto Ismail’s arm. Then, as Maia and Tamar watched, not-Ismail reached through the ice, grabbed the thing and pulled it back out, still shrieking. Ismail smashed it into the ice wall again and again, crushing it’s skull into a thousand pieces.

 

Then he remembered nothing.

 

Tamar ran through the snow, the shadow weighing heavily on his back. Daughter of the Valkyrie ran behind him, struggling to keep up. Having slaughtered the demons from the ice, the shadow had collapsed onto the white. He and the daughter of the Valkyrie had carefully picked him up and taken him far away from the ice-that-never-sleeps. That had been two days ago. He glanced at the midday sun – they should reach the keepers-of-the-Shadow soon.

 

Tamar stumbled, a sharp rock rudely interrupting the white noise of his thoughts. It was disturbances like this that slowed them down, and every moment was important. Each moment was special, fleeting. Each moment was spectacularly unique and ordinary. Tamar glared at the rock menacingly. It would think twice before tripping him up again. Eventually he started running again, his white noise returning to normal.

 

 

Ismail awoke to music. Soft, lilting music that reminded him of home. Not this strange, violent place that humans loved so much, his real home in the beyond. What had happened? The last thing he remembered was getting out of the cave, then- Ismail’s gut wrenched in despair. Laila. The beasts, the demons under the ice, had dragged Laila into the dark. But then what had happened? He still didn’t remember, unless…

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