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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5. Say That Again

Farrow paused for a moment as he entered the tavern, taking the time and effort to check the place for any magical disturbances. The inn had salt sprinkled on the windowsills and a wooden crucifix hanging behind the bar. The walls were impossibly hard, reinforced by iron supports and the lingering smell of garlic hung in every corner. Between that and the iron and steel weapons hanging off every man’s belt, this place could hold out against an army of fey.

 

All the buildings were built such, this far into the mountains – the local’s fear of the unnatural was only beaten by their fear of the parade of barons who marched through these mountains. The difficulty of keeping the towns supplied with soldiers meant that every winter the residing army left, and in the spring the barons fought to be the first to reclaim it. As a result the folk living in the small villages were a hardy people; the most fearsome beasts waited until winter to come out of hibernation, taking advantage of the long nights and short, dark days.

 

Rubbing the stubble on his jaw, he took a seat at the worn oak bar, and caught the barman’s attention. He ached like anything as he eased himself onto a stool, running in the mountains had taken a vicous toll.

 

“You look like shit, mate,” remarked the barman, an enormous, barrel-chested man with a thick black mane of hair.                                                                                               

“I’ve been on the road since before dawn,” Farrow said, his face haggard and shadowed beneath his hood. “I’ll need the strongest, warmest drink you’ve got.”

 

“That’ll be a pint of Old Smokey then,” replied the barman, his voice rough and hard as rock. “But I’ll be warnin’ you, we don’t take drunks. You’ll spend a night in the town jail if you have to, but if you’re off your ‘ead, you ain’t sleepin’ here.” The barman’s thick northern accent was hard to decipher, but Farrow nodded in agreement anyway.

 

As Farrow handed over a few silver pieces, he raised his head and the barman reeled back in shock. Farrow’s eyes were a piercing, ice blue. Freezing suddenly, he realised the barman had knocked something over and attracted the attention of the entire tavern. Farrow tensed as the barman reached out to his hood and pulled-

 

A collective gasp came from the tavern, swiftly followed by the rasping of swords leaving their scabbards and the barman’s whisper of:                                                       “Elf.”                                                                                                                              

“You are mistaken. Have you ever seen an elf grow a beard?”                                           

“Your ears. The barman was recovering fast and his voice grew stronger with each word, “Those are an elf’s ears. And those eyes are simply inhuman.”

 

“Simply quirks of nature,” he assured him, “Not the signs of an elf.” Silently he groaned. He had a feeling that the superstition of the locals would win through, and he needed to stop for the night. In truth he had been up since six o clock the previous day, and even he had his limits. The barman struggled for a moment before answering – whilst these people might not want elves in their towns, they didn’t believe in unnecessary deaths.

 

“He will take the Test,” the barman declared, “if he proves to be human, he is under my protection and his death is murder. If he proves to be an elf,” he spat, “then he will leave, or be punished by death.”                                                                                                

“The Test? What’s the Test?” Farrow was curious, but not altogether afraid. Elves were nigh on identical to humans physically – the only distinguishing features were their ears and eyes and their inability to grow a beard – which made it hard to differentiate between the two. As a result, many people made up random tests to work out who was who, most of them gibberish.

 

However, when the barman stepped out from the bar Farrow felt a twinge of concern. In the barman's callused hands was a black knife, silver inlay glinting in the firelight.

“Oh it’s very simple. You see, this test was designed to root out any non-human beings, be they elves, vampires, demons or fey. The knife is iron, to burn out any fey blood, with silver inlay to root out demons. We slice your hand as so-” he grabbed Farrow’s hand and brought down the knife. Beads of blood, dark in the poor light sprung up on his palm and Farrow winced in pain.

“That’s three ruled out - if you were vampire you wouldn’t have bled. Now for elf.” He scraped the blood into a glass phial, grabbed an iron torch from a bracket on the wall and held the phial up to the light. “And that’s four. Elf’s blood turns silver when held up to the light.”

 

Farrow nodded his appreciation, “Whoever put that test together had a considerable wealth of knowledge.”

“That would be me. I’m Bjorn by the way. You are?”

“Farrow. But there are two flaws I can see. First of all, a vampire is most dangerous when it has recently fed, the blood makes it both faster and stronger. When they have blood in their system they wouldn’t show up on the test. Also, the stronger demons are immune to silver.”

“Indeed,” came Bjorn’s husky reply, “So this is how you finish.” He threw the phial into the fire, where it smashed into a thousand glittering pieces. “Any vampire or demon who endured that would be so powerful the entire town couldn’t have stopped it.”

“Interesting. The blood tie between the phial and the rest of the blood would permanently link the two, so when one of them is burnt..."

“...So is the other." Bjorn poured him a steaming drink and cast him an appraising glance. "On the house. How come you know so much about this stuff anyway?" 

Farrow shrugged nonchalantly, “Comes with the job I suppose,” his relaxed expression masking wariness.

A flash of curiosity blinked over the barman’s face, "And what job would that be?”

“Demon hunter.”

The young man sitting next to Farrow snorted and howled in laughter.                       

“Demon hunter? Oh sure. And my ma’s the bloody empress.”

 

Without stopping to take a breath, Farrow sunk a hellish black blade into the wooden bar, only inches from the man’s hand. The man fell off his chair. The barman barely blinked and brought his head closer for a better look. The knife was not black, as it had at first seemed, but dark brown, and closer inspection revealed grains of wood.                          

“What is that?”                                                                                                              

“Rowan blade. Blessed by a priest. Tempered by the Smiths of the East. I’d like to find a vampire, demon or fey who wouldn’t flinch at the very sight of it.” Farrow eased the knife from the bar and slipped it away, brushing his cloak aside. As he did so, the firelight reflected a silver rune on his belt.

 

By this time, the young man had stood up and brushed himself down.

"Thor give me strength," muttered Bjorn, moving the bottles of mead to a safe distance.

 "Anyone can paint a knife brown,” the man sneered, “You’re a coward and a liar.” He hawked and spat at Farrow’s foot. Very slowly and deliberately, Farrow downed his drink and turned his head, drilling his ice blue eyes directly into the young man’s brown ones.

“Say that again.”

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