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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4. The Hunt

Alvar dropped to one knee, his vision perfect even in the half-light. His long emerald cloak brushed against the track, it's hood shadowing his sharply angled face. He had risen early, but there was no sign of it on his face. Blonde hair pulled back, sharp cheekbones and chiseled features, he was undeniably handsome, but there was an alien feel to him - as if he wasn't quite human. Finally he pushed down his hood, revealing ice blue eyes and pointed ears that betrayed his elven nature.

 

Alvar's ears twitched back as a rabbit rustled in the undergrowth a hundred metres away, but where a lesser hunter might have spun around instantly, bow in hand, he had no need. He had spent all three hundred years of his life in the Great Forest, and he knew it inside out. He could identify any animal living in the forest by the sound it made moving through the undergrowth, and knew it was nothing to worry about.

 

The Ranger accompanying him, however, did not. He swiftly drew his bow, nocked an arrow and pointed it in the direction of the sound.

"Put the bow down, Kaelan," called Alvar,  "Unless of course, you think the rabbit will bite. They are no more than a few hours away," he told him. "We will reach them by noon at the latest."

 

Kaelan stood from the bushes, a scowl on his face.

"How do you know that?"

"The tracks are dry-"

"Not that. The rabbit. It could be a boar for all you know."

"There is no possible way that could be a boar," chimed in a third voice. "If you used your ears, you'd hear it too." The third voice was a woman's, and belonged to Aesa, a stout, rather  plump Wanderer.

"I doubt it," murmured Alvar, "Humans have the dullest hearing, I've always found."

"I-"

"Shut up."

 

They all froze. Alvar watched Aesa's hands as she signed silently to him and Kaelan. The elves had developed a system of hand signals for just such occassions when silence was vital. Now Aesa was signing a series of hand signals that combined to describe what she had heard. Group of three, she signed. Lightly armoured, probably male. Passing through a copse of pines behind me. Alvar nodded, evaluating the position in his mind. They could get in position silently, even the human could be stealthy when he wanted to. Bows would be all but useless, he had twin knives on his back.

 

Kaelan took over, signalling the others into position. Pretty boy Alvar might be a good hunter, but one on one combat was where Kaelan came into his own. Drawing the short sword he carried whilst hunting, he only wished he had his fighting spear, but it was too long to be carried for any distances practically. Oh well, the sword would do.

 

When he was in position, He held up his fingers to the others. Three, two one. He burst from the trees, and immediately fell into the swift flow of combat. His opponent was skilled, handling his weapon well, but it was a longsword, and ill suited to combat in confined spaces. As such, Kaelan literally ran circles around him, striking blow after blow. Finally he landed a winning injury, sinking his sword into the man's stomach and making him fall to his knees.

 

He advanced onto his next opponent, sword flashing. He brought it up, hitting their hand and making them drop their weapon, and then beheading him. Just as he did so, he saw Alvar slit his assailant's throat and push him over.

 

Just as Kaelan was about to sheathe his sword, he saw Alvar's eyes widen in surprise. Turning around, Kaelan saw a black cloaked figure advancing towards him and felt fear course through his veins. Vampire.

 

He, Alvar and Aesa swept into action instantaneously; Alvar a whirlwind of knives, he and Aesa with swords. They split up, each taking a different angle, forcing the vampire back. The vampire was not going down without a fight, however, and ducked and swirled furiously, using every ounce of speed, strength and agility it possessed. Then, taking advantage of a lull in the fight, the vampire responded in turn with a vicious barrage of claws, scratching Kaelan's face.

 

Kaelan jerked himself back, blood running down over his eye. Through his partially obscured vision he watched the vampire kick Alvar into a tree, sending him into a crumpled heap by Aesa's prone form.

 

Partially blind, and losing blood fast, Kaelan knew he was in trouble. He attempted to stand but crumpled back to his knees, feeling himself about to black out. As the vampire gripped his throat, he muttered one final prayer to the gods, staring into those cold, black, lidless eyes. But suddenly, he wasn't staring into them anymore. As if in slow motion, he watched a blade, shimmering like a mirage, slice through the vampire neck. It's head jerked forward, falling to the ground.

 

Then, finally, Kaelan drifted from consciousness.

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