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...


3. Reunion

The city was in a good mood today. Confetti showered the streets, garlands roped from house to house, and crowds filled the streets, as crowds do. No-one saw the shadow of darkness that slipped behind the estates, just as no one had seen it bursting through the rotting wooden boxes that lined the brick wall of a dank backstreet on the lower levels. That was the problem with public Pentacles, there was always the off chance that someone would cover it up. He'd meant to install one permanently in a private place, but had never got round to it.


Ismail staggered through the crowded roads, revelers screaming, drinking and gambling away their hard earned wages. In a secluded alley he stumbled to his knees, feeling the cold bliss of the stone on his cheek and the mud on his knees. Shaking, he raised a hand and unbuttoned the straps of his jerkin, pulling it away from his shoulder.  The skin seemed black, but closer inspection revealed a swirling tattoo, constantly changing. As he looked in horror, the very skin seemed to bubble as if trying to raise itself above the surface of his skin.


It had taken him only twenty minutes to traverse from the very bottom level to one of the top, above him was the temples and the castles where the more wealthy nobility lived. This was his destination. He could have just shadow-rode straight to the top, but he preferred to keep to the ground wherever he could, using the Pentacle had taken a lot out of him, and being high from the ground made him nauseated, even when he was at full strength. So he had slipped easily past the guards, heading for the top level, albeit  in a roundabout sort of way.


But now he could go no further without passing through the prison, where the twisted jailers tortured captive prisoners of war in the hope that they would yield useful information. He crossed the thin corridor to the window and dived out, catching  himself with tendrils of shadows that carried him past the screaming that was emitted by the temple day and night. Someday, he vowed, someday he would storm the temple and free those trapped. He floated ever higher, suspended in mid-air until he spotted a lonely figure. He swooped down to the ramparts, landed lightly in the shadows and coughed slightly, alerting his presence to the twelve year old girl who stood with her back to him.


Laila Zakiyr was an interesting girl. As firstborn child of the Emperor, she had a legitimate claim to the throne, but she had made it quite clear that she had no interest in ruling.  She dressed in boys clothes, and was always getting into scraps with other children. She also spent an inordinate amount of time climbing, easily scaling the walls of the castle and finding herself on the very top roof. Her parents were horrified by this and became thoroughly relieved when a second child was born, this time a boy - whilst tradition indicated that it was still the firstborn who would inherit the empire, there was eight years till Laila became of age - plenty of time for an unfortunate... accident.


When her brother had been born, Laila had got extremely bored and ever so slightly jealous. She had descended into the city, and had wandered into its underworld, something her parents had told her never to do. Just when she had began to get excited about this new, rebellious act, she learnt very quickly why she wasn't allowed down there.


Six men surrounded her, stepping from the shadows.
“Now wot are you doin’ down on the sixth level, eh sweetheart? You don’t belong down ‘ere. We don't like people from 'igh up." One of the men stepped up and grabbed her from behind, seizing her around the waist with one hand, and covering her mouth with the other. Laila struggled desperately, but she was only nine years old, and whilst she could beat most of the children she knew in a fistfight, she had never had any real training, whereas these men were built like tree trunks.


Of the ring encircling her, one man stepped forward and said; "Who’s your daddy then, eh? Some puffed up noble?" Laila shook her head and tapped the ring on her finger embossed with the royal seal. His eyes widened, “Well, well, well, the Emperor's daughter. Whaddya think boys, what shall we send back to him?”
“I say we cuts her 'ead off, and send it to her daddy!"
"I says we slit her neck, and send her to him with a letter in her mouth!"
"I say," a deeper, calmer, colder voice joined the argument, "that you all shut the hell up, and let her go right now."


All six men turned to find the soon-to-be-assailant. A hooded figure stood in a tiny, twisting alleyway, a sword at his belt and a bow in his hand. A black fletched arrow whizzed through the air and settled itself firmly between the eyes of the man holding Laila, who died immediately, dropping her and falling backwards into a sludgy puddle. "Gentlemen," said the man who appeared to be their leader, "we have a new target." The other five men launched themselves at the hooded figure with a volley of furious howls.  The defender dropped his bow, which dissipated into shadows, only to reform into a metre long spear, thrown into an attackers neck. The hooded man moved into action, smashing the men one by one with the shadows around him, and one by one they fell, until only the leader was left. Tendrils of darkness gripped him, snaking around him like vines, until the only part of him that could move was his head. The hooded man had walked up to him, drew back his fist, and snapped it forward with impossible speed and strength, breaking the man's neck.


He then turned his gaze on Laila, who was feeling a little faint by now, and had realised that when she had been dropped she had somehow scraped her head. The hooded man had knelt down by her and picked her up gently. He carried her to a guard point, where he left her to their care. Laila had woken up the next day strangely curious about the man, but had resigned herself to the fact that she would probably never see him again. The day afterwards, however, she had.


She had been on the roof, looking up at the sky, when she had suddenly realised that there was someone else with her. She stood up cautiously and looked around. When she saw the man, she remained still. He stepped out of the darkness where he was hiding towards her. She spoke to him,
"How long have you been here?" Shrugging, he replied,
"Only a few minutes."
"Why did you save me?" He shrugged again.
"You were in trouble, you needed my help."
"Do you save many people?"
"Usually in a more indirect way, but yes. I've saved a few."
"How did you do that thing with the shadows? Are you a sorcerer?" He hesitated before replying this time, "Yes. I am."
"Can you teach me to do that?"
"No," he answered immediately, "definitely not." Disappointed, she said; "but I want to be able to defend myself, I want to be like-"
"No," he said, cutting her off. "You do not want to be like me." He glanced briefly at the sun, noting its position, and said; "I need to go. You're an interesting girl, Laila. Goodbye."
With that he stepped of the edge of the building. Gasping, Laila had ran to watch him, but he had risen up before she reached the side, carried by shadows. He fixed a half-mask to his face, his green eyes glinting, "I'll be in touch." He dived backwards, twisting, twisting until he faced the floor. He gathered the shadows around him, and smashed into the ramparts, melting into the stone. A month later, she had received a private carrier pigeon, with a message tied to its leg.


Dear princess,
This carrier pigeon has been bred for fast delivery, not for heavy loads, so I will keep it simple. An occurrence of recent events has led to my becoming a fugitive, my safe houses have been compromised, and I am unable to reach my fellow sorcerers. Therefore I would like to call in a favour. If you can allow me to stay, send this pigeon back with your reply, if your reply is not sent immediately it will probably be too late. If you agree to let me stay, then please draw the following symbol by noon tomorrow. Do not let your father learn about my staying here under any circumstances. Draw the symbol somewhere out of sight, but unblocked.


Underneath the message there was a symbol burned into the paper. The symbol was a five-pointed star surrounded by a circle, with each point touching the inner wall of the circle. She sent back her reply, and contacted some of her friends. Between them they arranged to have a chamber built that was connected to her room. By the end of the day it was finished, and she drew the symbol onto the floor underneath the single bed she had fitted in the chamber.  No sooner than thirty seconds later, shadows had started seeping into the room. She had watched with a horrified fascination as a masked face had risen from the floorboards. Two arms had followed, lifting the bed up gently, and finally the rest of his torso and legs.


Since that first time, he had visited her nine or ten times each year, and each time he had taught her a little about fighting, and she slowly learnt how to defend herself, though he always refused point-blank to teach her sorcery. Over the course of three years, all she had learned about him was his name: Ismail.


Now twelve years old, she turned around slowly, saw Ismail and ran towards him. "What are you doing here?" She asked, her arms around him, "I thought you were abroad?"
"A small hitch," he assured her, "involving several giant evil purple monkeys." After several minutes of pestering, he told her the full story of him getting separated from his group. "Anyway," he said, trying to get to his point, "I've been running for three days without sleep, trying to find a flat surface to draw on, and I spent half of my remaining strength using a Pentacle to get into the city, and I am completely exhausted. Seeing his point, she led him through a network of passages to her room, and pushed him lightly into his chamber where he collapsed onto the bed.


He woke up to find a pair of large brown eyes staring straight into his. Extremely confused, he tried to twist out of the bed but got snagged in the sheets and ended up stumbling into a wall, cursing profusely. He heard a light voice call;
"He's awake!" Followed by a small giggle. Blindly locking onto the source of the giggle, he tore of the bed sheets to find two children looking at him. Laila, stood at the door, dressed in tight fitting trousers and a top, and was looking mildly amused by the whole situation.


The other girl he had never seen in his life. She looked about sixteen, and she wore a ragtag collection of clothes held together by numerous belts - each one containing a dozen or so knives. She had long curly hair, tinged dark purple. Her brown eyes were large and innocent, and her features were small and pretty. "You weren't lying," she admitted to Laila, "he ain't half bad."


"Oh shut up Maia," she replied, her face red. "Who the hell is she?" asked Ismail, becoming increasingly confused.  Laila turned to him, "this is Maia, she helped set up this room."
"She is what, sixteen years old? How could she have set this up? Anyway I told the very first time I sent you a message not to tell anyone!"
"Well," interrupted Maia, "whilst that is very flattering, I am going to have to correct you there. I am not sixteen years old, but rather sixteen hundred years old." Ismail stared her.
"Maia," Laila said, "is a battle spirit. I trust her with my life."
Ismail blinked incredulously; "You enslaved a battle spirit? How?"
"She didn't, human” Maia spat viciously, “she came across me wounded by some beast from the darkest depths of 'ell, and in an effort to redeem the human race, she helped me and earnt my eternal loyalty."
"This evil beast," Ismail said calmly, "it wouldn't happen to look like a giant purple monkey would it?" 
Maia looked at him.

"Why, wossit to you?"
"Because if so, I was attacked by the same creatures."
“Creatures? As in more than one? Only one of them things attacked me, and I barely escaped with my life."                                                                                                   
"I was travelling through a forest in a group. Of Paladin."

Maia turned white.
"In my experience, if those guys can't kill something, no-one can."                             "They did defeat them, or all but one of them anyway, the last one charged me off the road and I got separated from the group."                                                                     
"An' how did you kill that one?"
"With this."


He drew the black sword sheathed at his belt. No sooner had he done so than a herculean punch smashed his head back into the wall behind him. He blinked as suns flashed into existence before his eyes.
"I don't know who you think you are, Shadowmancer, but if you got that sword you ain't no friend of mine."                                                                                                                                         "What are you talking about?" shouted Laila, as she became the one confused, "What's he done?"                                                                                                                  
"That sword is a Necromancer sword," snarled Maia, "which are forged with the blood of spirits." Laila stared at him, horrified.


"It is true." Ismail replied. "But know this. It was not me who forged this sword, nor I who slew the spirit. I claimed this sword as my rightful prize after I cut down the Necromancer who wielded it. It was only later that I discovered how this sword and ones like it were forged. I too was horrified to learn the truth, and I set about finding each and every sword like this and destroying it to release the spirit within. Thirty years ago I found another one. I melted the blade, trying to release the spirit, but instead of becoming free, the spirit died. I hated myself. I had failed in my mission.


But then I realised something. A spirit cannot truly die, but when a blade is forged with its blood, it is captured and encased within. I decided that only a truly evil spirit would prefer to be shedding blood in this time, rather than simply trapped there, unused. So I restarted my quest. I searched high and low, and I killed many people to gain their swords. I am now in possession of no fewer than two-and-thirty swords."
"That does not explain why you still use that one."    
“Do you remember when I said that only a truly evil spirit would prefer to be shedding blood? Thanks to a good friend of mine, a Mage, I came into possession of a device that would allow me to communicate with the spirits. Every time I collected a sword, I would talk at length with the spirit, to determine that it actually deserved freedom. This sword contains one of the few spirits who did not. The spirit inside this sword is evil and twisted. It does not dread bloodshed, but welcomes it, rejoices in it even. I decided long ago that I would never allow this spirit back into the world."
"Guys? We have a problem." Laila had her ear against the wall. "Some guards heard a commotion, and they're coming this way." Maia hissed between her teeth.                      "That is a problem. We'll finish this discussion later, human. Right now we need to hide."                                                                                                                                                     "If we hide, we leave her to sort out the guards. I say we leave." "Well that would be an amazing plan, if we could leave."

"We can leave by Pentacle"

"No. No way am I travelling by Pentacle."

"We have no choice."         
Laila was confused, "What's travelling by Pentacle?"

"It's using those star symbols that I ask you to draw sometimes." 
"Where would we even go?"

"There was a portable Pentacle with my group. We'll use that."

"Why didn't you use that straight away instead of coming here?"
"Honestly, I wasn't exactly sure if we'd dropped it."       
"And now you are?"

"No, but we don't have much choice." He dipped his hand briefly into the tool belt at his waist and brought out a stick of chalk. Maia paled. "You can't be serious."

"I'm always serious," Ismail replied, drawing out the star shape and circling it.


 "I can't do it. Tell me where to go and I'll meet you there. I'll leave through the window in the other room." There was a crash as the door to the main room broke open. "There goes that theory," muttered Maia. Ismail already had his head in the Pentacle. He brought it back out again, looking thoroughly relieved.


"It's fine," he said, "they didn't drop it." He grabbed both girls by the waist, took a deep breath and dived through just as the guards broke in. By the time they spotted the Pentacle, arms of shadows were already wiping it away.


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