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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12. Up Against the Wall

The rough, thick rope cut the sides of her mouth, blood trickling down onto her cheeks. Strong, clawed hands passed her along the freezing passages, careful not to smash her on the low ceiling, or drop her. To do so would be perilous, for from her face down position, she saw that at times the floor simply stopped, leaving enormous crevices, slicing so deeply into the bowels of the earth that mist cloaked their floors. Her demon captors did not stumble however, stepping surefootedly past terrifying drops that hid dark things.
Once, when a crack had split the path completely, Laila had to be passed over. As hands grasped her bindings, occasionally slicing her skin, she was forced to gaze down into the abyss. The mists parted, just for a second, and Laila glimpsed an enormous, spindly leg. A spider the size of a caravan began to climb up the wall, ignoring the arrows, spears, and rocks sent its way. Laila wondered where they were coming from, as her own company was focused on their task, but it was soon revealed to her. The spider stopped climbing, and inserted its mandibles into the wall. Laila gasped, realising the cliff faces were riddled with a labyrinth of tunnels. The spider emerged again, carrying a figure in its mouth. It began to retreat down the rock, but just before the mists closed again, something grabbed it. An enormous hand, easily the size of the spider, crushed it against the wall, and red eyes burned from the abyss. They appeared to stare straight at Laila, and only when the mists hid it did Laila stop screaming into her gag.

Her captors yelled, panicking in an unknown language. When Laila was safely over the gap, they pressed on again, quicker this time, not stopping till they were hours away from the crack. Finally she was turned face up, her upper arms grasped, and food was forced at her face. The thing feeding her was thin, scraggly and looked as if he’d eat her if he could. Bright, impossibly colourful green eyes looked at her, somehow only increasing her fear. Vaguely humanoid in shape, it sported a head covered in long, thin spines, and curved, jagged teeth. Its gums were a bloody mass of destroyed flesh, making her recoil. Grey mottled hands untied her gag, and she realised it was the same one that had grabbed her from the sun. The demon, for there was nothing else it could be, forced the food closer to her face, but Ismail’s words suddenly came back to her.

Demons are evil, Laila. Their very existence depends on death and destruction. Everything they do they do for a reason, even if it is only to cause pain. Most importantly, you must never eat anything given to you by them, for if you do, you can never leave them.

Bracing herself, she cried out and lashed out, kicking the demon. Green eyes turned black, and the demon snarled viciously. Jutting teeth sank themselves into her shoulder, and Laila screamed.

Next thing she knew, Laila lay on an uncomfortable stone shelf, acutely aware of a rock face only inches from her nose. She opened her eyes wearily, an exhausting tiredness soaking into her bones. The world around her was dark, but through exploring with her fingers, she realised she was not in a room, but a crack in the rock. She was not lying, as such, but was jammed into a tiny crevice no more than two feet deep at its widest. She could not feel the edges of her tiny prison, and as she reached out, terrified wails echoed through her ears. The sound was harsh, not muted. Something that loud couldn’t have travelled through the walls.
A single, hair-raising, petrifying, spine-chilling thought bounced around her skull. What if this crevice that held her didn't just hold her? What if it didn’t end? What if there were millions of prisoners, all simply jammed into this tiny crack? Not held by anything, but simply stuck? Panicking, Laila started to hyperventilate, screaming into the walls. Her fear caught on, and suddenly the tiny space was filled with noise. Realising she was right, Laila only panicked further. Finally, a little light shone on her. A demon grabbed her by the throat and threw her into the open, but not before one last glimpse into the shadowed abyss. Thousands of tiny glittering eyes stared up at her from the dark, reflecting the light.

“Where are we going?” Laila asked, trembling. In reply she received a slap. Claws raked her face, marking long scratches into her pale, sun-deprived cheek. She was turned around and her hands were bound, tough leather cuffs cutting into her skin. She was blindfolded and pushed along a corridor, every so often span around. At first she thought it for the guard’s amusement, but as the blindfold was removed, she realised she had absolutely no idea where she was and what turnings she had made. She saw an enormous cavern, lit by torches. In the centre was an enormous stone throne, at least sixty feet high.

On it was seated the an enormous demon, red-skinned and with hair like fire. He sat, bored, an enormous staff in one hand. As Laila watched from the shadows some way away, two demons scuttled forward, pushing someone else, a human in front of them. They forced the human to their knees and spoke in horrible clicking sounds that echoed around the enormous cavern. The demon looked up for a few seconds, and spoke one word. The guards drew twisted, warped blades, and plunged them into the captive’s neck. Blood poured out from the lifeless corpse, spilling across the smooth rock floor, until it came to the demon’s feet. At a command, the body was taken away, and Laila was pushed forward. She stumbled into the light and fell to her knees, bruising herself on the cold, unforgiving rock.

She was pulled up roughly, made to kneel with her head down. But then, cold metal touched her chin. The staff, tipped with steel, was under her chin, pulling her head upwards.
“Look at me mortal.” His voice was rough and deep, instilling a quiver of fear in her. Hesitantly, she raised her head and looked at him. Now that she was closer, she saw his skin was not red, but white, layered with lines of red ink. His eyes were constantly moving, curving swirls of black, red and white. It woke some sense of primal fear in her, and also raised a memory.

Three years ago, Ismail had visited her. She remembered seeing him, being happy he had returned, but he had been silent. He didn’t speak a word for the entire day, and eventually she had forced him to sleep. Before he fell into sleep however, she glimpsed his eyes – swirling, black voids of emptiness they were, lacking any humanity. They had driven a pointless, unexplainable fear into her, and ever since, she always feared that they might emerge again. They looked like the demon’s eyes.

“Who are you?” whispered Laila, fearing the answer:
“Who am I? I am the souls of a thousand ages! I am Cassiel, lord of conspirators, and Seth, subjugator of souls! I am the father of all demons, brother of evil. I am the Red Lord, the Prince of Chaos – I am Set, mortal. Know me well.” The cavern began to fuzz over and blur, fading until Laila could barely see. “Take her back to her prison,” commanded Set, “It begins.”


Laila remembered nothing more, and awoke back in the gap, jammed uncomfortably in.  Once again she explored with her fingers, this time finding the hairline crack that marked the entry and exit hole. She brought her arms up, above her head, and they connected with something. A small foot, dangling uselessly.
“Hello?” She whispered, her voice cracked from thirst. Talking followed, a rapid jabber in a foreign language. The voice was high and soft, and Laila realised it must belong to a child of no more than eight or nine. There was a heavy pause in the jabber as the child realised they spoke different languages.
“You Arlian?”
“Yes,” Laila replied, surprised.

Arlia was the largest of the Allied kingdoms of the east, residing in the main body of the continent. To the west were the great forests, she had heard rumours of strange lands and people. Great monsters roamed there it was said, constantly fighting with the elves and savage men that dwelled in the mountain ranges. She remembered Maia saying they had gone west, and supposed that those savage men were the Barbarians like Tamar. Below those lands were the Great Plains of the south, where dark-skinned men and women ran in the wilderness, never staying in one place. As the heir to the throne, Laila had never been let outside Arlia. She had hardly been outside the capital really.

Surrounding Arlia were three kingdoms; directly to the south was Safir, famed for trading and its massive navy, to the west was Vanmarrl, with beautiful mountains and forests, this land had given rise to many great physicians. It also held great wide plains, wherein trained the greatest horsemen the world had seen. To the north lay the great white tundra, where the people were few and far between – but for enormous Wynterholds, where folk gathered in the harsh winters to huddle against the cold. They were a hardy people, and there was little in the known world that could force them into surrender, for their skill in close combat was legendary. Eastward was the coast, and with it Arlia’s navy.  These three kingdoms were often fraught with skirmishes, each having uprisings that were inevitably crushed. When it came to the conquering of outside threats however, they united behind Arlia, and behind the Emperor – Laila’s father.

There was one power dangerously close to home they had failed to vanquish though; beyond the east coast were a series of islands, home to a strange people wielding long, wickedly curved blades. They lived in harmony with their Druids and sorcerers, and as such were safe from any threat outside of their isles.

The voice continued to talk, now in broken Arlian, and told Laila of its homeland. Laila learned she was a girl, just over seven years old, from the Great Plains. She told Laila of her homeland, describing a bright, colourful place of joy. She told Laila of summer feasts and of dancing, of nights spent by firelight and of religious ceremonies. She told Laila that her name was Tala, and that it meant flower in her language.
“Tala,” Laila asked, “How did you come to be so far north?”
“North?” Tala’s voice was soft and sweet, both deceptively childish and devoid of any innocence. “I didn’t. I was playing with the other children, and I hid behind a rock from the storm. Then, next thing I knew, I had been taken here.”
“Wait… But I was in the north. We must have been thousands of leagues apart, so how could we end up in the same place?” Her mind reeled. How could the tunnels be so long? Had she really been carried for days?  “Wait, what storm?”
“When I was taken, there was a storm on. That’s why I hid behind the rock. It was enormous.”
“How long ago?”
“A few weeks, no more.” Laila was silent, staring at the blank rock face. What Tala was describing sounded like the enormous storm that had split the Great Plains apart. Laila had heard about it from her father, for the storm and its aftermath had killed a great many warriors – warriors meant as a tribute for the Allied Kingdoms. It had been over two years ago.

Her mind, though buzzing with new knowledge, was exhausted and begged rest. She put her head back, but had to crane her neck to lay it on the rock. That’s odd, she thought. There was definitely something there earlier. She was definitely in the same place; she could feel the same tracks in the rock as before. Just before she fell asleep, she realised what it meant.

The rock was moving.

 

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