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...


1. The Paladin

They wore shining white armour, swirling patterns of red, black, and silver emblazoned on their chest guards.  Silver helmets were seated upon strong, broad shoulders, and gauntleted fists gripped the reins of their silver-backed stallions. Their swords-that-sing were sheathed at their belts, bows and spears hung over their backs. Each had a quiver of arrows on their saddle, and they sat tall and proud, easing their silent steeds along without even a nudge. There were fifty of them or so, spread around a plain wooden cart pulled by two oxen, their backs blue in the half light.


At the front of the cart were two men. One held the reins and donned a long, grey robe, his face cast into shadow by a deeply cowled hood - all that could be seen of his skin was his hand, covered by grey symbols. More than tattoos though, they seemed… etched, even engraved into his skin, like tiny rivers run dry. However, if you had looked underneath that hood, you would have seen a kind, weather-beaten face, pale blue eyes with an air of quiet wisdom about them, and a long grey beard tucked into his robe.  He was known by many names, but most called him Ave.

He wore a black leather jerkin that broadened at the shoulders and tapered slightly at the waist. He was unusually tall and strong, that was obvious even when seated. His arms were thick and a sword hung at his waist - he looked to be a man of combat, not of thought, though silver flecks in his hair hinted at old age beginning to take its toll.


He was sitting back, relaxed, letting his hand hang over the side in a seemingly innocent gesture. To the untrained eye. But had you looked closer, you might have heard a whisper, seen a flicker - but to Ave, the endless stream of hissing shadow was obvious, even in the late hour.
"Ismail!" he barked sharply. "Cease this foolishness! Without Dusk and Dawn you are mortal, and are far more susceptible to… misfortune. Every shadow gives it life, makes it stronger. We cannot afford any mishaps, not here."

The company journeyed along a road, suspended like a bridge in the sky. Periodically there were watch points, containing guards, an inn and a bar for weary travellers, but there had been none tonight, so they would not stop. If they tired, the men could rest in the wagon.


But the night was young, and the scenery coming alive. They travelled through a lush green forest that, whilst beautiful in daylight, by night provided a huge choice of shadows to hide in, a fact that was lost on neither men, though for completely different reasons. Broad, leafy branches hung over the road, lending a humid atmosphere and an overpowering scent of bark to the scene.


They travelled on thick planks of what would seem to be white wood from a distance, but closer inspection revealed it to be gently humming stone. The ridge was supported by wooden props that slotted onto the corner of the stone. They travelled a further hundred yards before the horses stopped, snorting, and would go no further. The oxen shifted, and lowed uneasily. "Finally," growled Ismail, "bandits."


Thirty or so figures swung themselves from under the road, clad in basic leather armour and red bandanas that covered their faces. Two were immediately impaled, screaming, by spears of shadows that materialised from nowhere and flung them against thick tree trunks. The rest were engaged by the heavily armed and armoured Paladin, a fight they rapidly started losing. the smell of blood filled the air, accompanied by ringing metal and the screams of the dying.  Then, thirty seconds later, a piercing scream rent the dusky air in two. The Paladin turned, trying to find the source of the noise, and in that fleeting moment the remaining bandits vanished into the darkness.


Ave looked bewildered, "What on earth was that?"  The Paladin sheathed their spears and drew their brilliantly shining swords, all in one practiced motion. Ave watched them carefully, as he had come to realise that you could learn many things about a fight to come just by looking at how the Paladin reacted to the attackers. Their movements were practiced but stiff, as if they used muscles that hadn't been touched in a while and were beginning to quite like things the way they were. The Paladin had fought this enemy, Ave noted, but not for a long time.


The whatever-it-was did not take a liking to the swords-that-shine, as the forest was suddenly alive with screeches and yells.  Finally Ismail could take it no longer. "COME OUT AND FIGHT, YOU YELLOW-BELLIED COWARDS!" They required no persuasion to comply. First one then two, three, four, five, ten, twenty showed themselves in the treetops.


They clung to that which wasn't there, with stubby legs and huge arms. They were roughly the size of the cart and covered in long, purple-black fur, dark eyes glinting with intelligence and malice.  "Ah," murmured Ismail, "Yes, you can go back into the trees now. Don't wait up on our account." In reply, the largest of the creatures, grinning a wicked smile with razor sharp teeth, threw back its shaggy head and laughed.  Ismail swore savagely, "I thought so."


Moving together, Ismail and Ave grabbed hold of the canopy above them that was supposed to shield them from rain, and swung onto the roof, Ave sliding a scythe from his back and settling into a stance, whilst Ismail ignored his sword, pulled a bow from the shadows and nocked an arrow from the quiver on his back.


He took aim, drew back, and fired. The arrow flew straight and true, sinking itself deep the creature's eye. It roared in pain and launched itself at the road, just missing several Paladin, who launched themselves out of its way. The rest of the creatures joined in, hurling themselves at the disorientated Paladin who fought back with swords and shields. Ismail remained on the roof of the caravan, shooting till his quiver was empty. He then discarded his bow and started hurling spears of darkness at them. Ave jumped down and ran to help the Paladin. He cleaved two beasts in half along the way, the meat sizzling as the enhanced blade seared neatly through flesh and bone. The stench of burning flesh filled Ismail's nostrils, making him gag.


 After ten minutes, there was only one beast left, and it was the biggest yet. Screaming in frustration, it pounded it giant fists against the white stone, spread its arms out wide and charged. Gathering momentum, it continued roaring, and all in its way leapt aside. Ismail somersaulted off the cart into its path. He gathered the shadows around him and flung a dozen shards of shadows at the beast, barely slowing it. Time slowed down. The beast brought its enormous purple arms together and grabbed Ismail. The man twisted, struggling to release the grip. When it became clear that escape was impossible, he started firing punches into its face.


Ave had assumed that once the beast had a clear target it would stop, or at least slow down. Apparently not. With Ismail in its arms, it simply gathered speed and pushed of the side of bridge, falling sixty feet and crashing into the undergrowth.

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