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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13. Unasked

Ismail went cold.

Ultra. What did you do?  Ismail’s other half was vicious, merciless, and practically invincible. If he had unleashed his fury on Maia and Tamar…

Do not worry little brother, they are safe. After all, I was only releasing your anger. Ultra’s voice was mocking, as if amused by Ismail’s worry. Although I do not see why you concern yourself with these mortals. They are so… fragile. 

Walling off that part of his mind, Ismail cast aside Ultra’s mockery and ignored his remarks. Instead he concentrated on his surroundings. His eyes were not open, but from the way he felt the shadows fall in the room, he could tell there was much light in this place. Probably from a skylight, since the shadows bunched up in one side. He opened his physical senses. He could smell poppy syrup, which indicated a house of healing, but also woodsmoke. People were talking in low voices in the corner, but in Norsk not Arlian. They had made it to the barbarian village then, unless he was in the White City. Softly, slowly, he let his fingers explore the bed beneath him, finding soft sheets, but under them a hard wooden table. It reminded him of wartime, and of makeshift medical rooms. Finally he gave in and opened his green eyes, preparing for a world of colour to flood him. Mainly the colour was black.

 

He shifted his head around and discovered a knot digging into his head. He coaxed the shadows into the sunlight, and made them cut the knot. Whispering, they fled from the sun, flowing back to the corners. The blindfold slid off, revealing his first glimpse of the room. He saw light, airy room, which was indeed lit by a skylight. Pale blue and cream tiles covered the ceiling and what little walls he could see, but any people were too far away to see, even from the corner of his eye. He would have to sit up. Once again, the shadows flowed to help him, supporting his back as he slid his legs off the stone table, ignoring the pain that told him of cracked ribs. Figures rushed to him, shouting expressions of alarm in Norsk. Ismail waved them all away.

“Mm fine,” he mumbled, light headedness making him forget Norsk, “Really, I am.” His attendants ignored him, continuing their heated arguments whilst carefully unwinding and rewinding bandages around his arms and torso. A chill across his chest told him his shirt had been removed, and the dark red seeping through the bandages couldn’t be a good sign.

 

He unwound the bandage across his torso, and when medics started to shout at him in Norse, he grabbed the shadows in the room and used them. Bound in place, each medic could only watch, first in horror, then in amazement. Shadows seeped in through the gashes on Ismail’s chest, clotting the blood and resealing the skin. Ismail gritted his teeth, gasping as shards of darkness slipped inside him like glass.  He drew short, constricted breaths as the shadows knit together his ribs, and sewed a nasty gash on his arm he hadn't even noticed. He felt them move through his veins, chilling his blood and stopping his heartbeat to allow his body to heal before something important fell out. The room grew cold, and each person’s breath formed clouds of mist.

 

The room, now completely devoid of shadows, was uncomfortably bright, and several medics had closed their eyelids to shield their vision. A minute passed, and still Ismail hadn’t moved.  Then Ismail drew a shuddering breath and collapsed, vomiting blackness.

 

Practical. If Maia had been asked how to describe the Barbarian village, that’s what she would have gone with. It was less of a village, more of an impenetrable fortress: the whole place had been built to survive the Ragnorok. It was built into a mountain, the rock walls forming an indestructible defence around three sides. The other was defended by outer wall of solid stone, almost ten metres deep, and an inner wall, between the two was a guard space. The houses were arranged in rows, each one slightly higher up the mountain. This meant that archers positioned on each roof could fire without fear of hitting the guards on the roof in front. Everyone, men, women and children alike, was trained in fighting and from what could be seen, mock fights were organised in the main courtyard.

 

Maia had escaped her room as soon as her medic had left for some painkilling herbs. Not bothering to tie her sheets together, she had simply jumped from her window onto the wall of the next building. Slowly she made her way upwards onto the roof. The medic’s quarters and workspace was far back in the city, second only to the mead hall. This was, she presumed, so that in times of siege medical help was always available – she doubted any army had gotten this far back into the city.

 

Now she stood on the rooftop, surveying the village. Her side stabbed with sudden pain, evidently reproachful that it hadn’t been included in the decision to come up here. She took a running jump and landed on the row of building's one down from her, rolling with her landing and wincing. She continued to do this until she was at the wall, then turned around and discovered a second reason the houses were arranged as they were. The roofs created a set of giant stairs, which were easy to negotiate when going outwards, towards the wall, but virtually impossible to traverse inwards, towards the mead hall.

 

Maia was only an amateur free runner, so she decided to drop down into the street and take her chances. However, with her dark hair and petite build, she stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the tall, fair-haired village residents. That was why she noticed the young girl, sitting in the shadows of a winding alley. She had covered her hair with a hood, which only served to make her stand out even more amongst the bustling Norse men and women, their long blond beards and golden tresses falling down to their waists. Before Maia could approach, a bear sized barbarian stepped forward, blocking her from view. When he stepped away again, the girl was gone. Conscious that she was attracting attention from Norsemen wanting to get past, she made a split second decision and entered the alley.

 

As the evening drew on and the curtain of night closed around her, Maia decided she was cold. Her clothes were all very well, and she was more comfortable in them than anything else – revealing as they were – but the problem with wearing an outfit that was more belt than fabric was that it hard to keep warm. Finally she gave up and decided to make her way back to the warmth of the room she had left. She turned around and began to search for footholds on the wall - if she could get up onto a roof she could see the fastest route back to the Houses of Healing. As she pulled herself up onto the roof, she saw a blond, long haired figure silhouetted against the moon.

 

 Tamar knew the daughter of the Valkyrie was on the roof. He heard her gasp as the stitches on her ribs tore a little. Heard the pebbles she sent rattling off the rooftops. Heard the gravel crunch beneath her feet. That was what it was there for after all.

Hello, daughter of the Valkyrie.

Fuck, Maia thought. You made me jump. I can speak Norse you know.

I prefer to communicate like this. It’s freer. Easier.  He turned around and sighed. His hopes for a night of solitude had been abandoned as the sorry figure before him arrived, clutching her side.

What are you doing up here anyway?

Speaking.

To who?

To whom. The moon. Had it been anyone else speaking, Maia would have laughed. Still she did not take him entirely seriously, but if there was anyone who spoke with the moon, it would be Tamar. You do not believe me. Have you ever experienced this? What Tamar sent over the mindlink was not words, but a feeling, a most basic, primal fear. It brought to mind her distant childhood, tucked safe in bed whilst the wolves moaned in the distance. Let me simply say that there are some nights the wolves hide in their dens, and it is the moon that howls. Follow me. Your friend, the shadow, is waking.

 

Ismail moaned, his entire body aching. A Norse medic held his head back and poured herbal painkilling solution into his mouth. The shadow healing had sped the natural process up, but left him full of aches and bruises, and incredibly tired. The medic’s solution was to pour painkillers into him, but since he had frozen his own bloodstream they weren’t doing an awful lot. The medic poked him with a knife.

“Ow! Fuck off.” The medic looked confused, checked the scrawling handwriting on the vial, and wandered off to confer with his fellows. He came back several minutes later with a stronger painkiller and more medics. “Go away. Any drugs you pump into me will have no effect. "Your concern is touching, but ultimately futile. I'll heal better alone, so bugger off and leave me be." The medic approached nervously with the prescription, while Ismail shot daggers at him.

Tamar strode in, followed closely by Maia. Glancing at the scene, Tamar threw a few short commands in Norse and . When no one responded, he glared around the room and snapped them again. Silently, the medics left.

 

“Finally. Where have you two been all day? These stupid barbarians are so arrogant they refuse to admit they don’t understand something. All they’ve done is pour enough drugs into me to knock out a horse.”

Ismail was in a foul mood, Maia reflected.

That, shadow of the North, is because you should be dead. They have never seen anything even remotely like this. You've frozen your vital organs in a state of semi-paralysis. It allows your body to fix itself faster but anything they give you will have no effect.

“Yes, Tamar, I know. I did do it after all.”

“Wait,” Maia interrupted, “How is that even possible? You were hurt almost beyond repair and now you’re fine. As for the state of semi-paralysis…” Maia shook her head. “I’d be willing to bet that the most powerful druid alive would find it nigh on impossible to do something like that. What are you not telling me?”

Do you not feel it within yourself, child of the Valkyrie? Your own blood is screaming at you. The shadow is no mere sorcerer. He is one of Those Who Came Before. Maia stared at Ismail, hunched over himself on the edge of the table.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

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