There was nothing particularly particular about the town of Shade’s Reach. It was more of an assortment of small houses sitting in the middle of nowhere. There was no major reason to visit the town, and if one was to ask any of its twenty odd denizens, they very much would prefer it that way. Of course, the town does get a few visitors, welcome or unwelcome, from time to time, whether it’s a starving, thirsty traveler at death’s door or the provincial guard stopping by for a drink. They would have gone for the local girls, too, had they been just a little less homely.
This week the captain of the militia felt like having a few pints and it was getting awfully dark. It was towards the end of the weekly patrol across the province and people were getting tired and thirsty. Shade’s Reach would have to do.
He only had a paltry company of three guardsmen with him as he stepped through the worn, chipped doors of the ‘Tess. Despite the seemingly backwater nature of the place, nothing much really happened there, which gave the militia a lot of free time. Still, it has only been the third time in the captain’s entire career that he would pay this barely strewn-together assortment of wood, gravel, and cement a visit.
‘Please! What are you- Let go!’ The captain arrived at a rather interesting time; the only man at the bar was wrestling with the barmaid over the half-empty pint of lager.
‘You’ve had enough, Tristan!’ Her face was stretched wide, veins appearing as she tried to undo his death grip. ‘You still haven’t paid your tab!’
‘What are you talking about? I paid that ages ago.’ He flailed his free arm back.
‘For the tenth time! No! You! Haven’t! Now let go before I get Armin to drag your piss-soaked arse out!’
‘Just let me drink in peace, you slovenly-‘ He froze in when he caught sight of the militia. Letting go of the glass, he sent the barmaid and himself crashing to the floor.
‘Sirs!’ Tristan stumbled towards the guards with arms open. ‘Sirs! I thank heavens. I never thought I’d see the day that I’d be glad to see you.’
The drunk embraced the captain, who in turn stiffened. He was taken aback by both the spontaneity and the fact that he reeked of alcohol and urine.
He cleared his throat before gently pushing Tristan away. ‘Right… What seems to be the problem?’
‘He’s been drinking enough ale to fill the Nine Seas. And not a single rial spent for the past month,’ the barmaid said. ‘We’re not a goddamn charity!’
‘Sir.’ Tristan said, breathing heavily. ‘The things I’ve seen….’ He coughed, lurching forward as if about to vomit. ‘The things I’ve seen would keep you sleepless.’
The captain took a deeper look into Tristan, noticing a wooden badge with two crossed swords carved into its centre surrounded by a laurel.
‘The Mark of the Veteran,’ the captain noted. ‘Which legion did you serve?’
‘The Fifth, Optic Squadron, First Ranger. Tasked with scouting out the Behrouz garrison.’ The man pounded his chest with his fist before bowing.
The captain took a few steps back, raising an eyebrow. Many people have lied and boasted about serving in the King’s Army before, but this was different. The way he gave out his classification gave him no choice but to salute back.’
‘Seventh, Main Company, Second Corporal. Served in the Left Flank under Centurion Eres. So tell me, how exactly does someone with the respectable rank of First Ranger end up pissing himself senseless in some middle-of-nowhere tavern?’
‘What does it matter?’ Tristan lowered his head in shame. The very thought of recalling past glories was too painful for him. ‘The enemies we fought, the cities we’ve liberated, it’s all for naught compared to the horrors I have seen.’
‘Two of the Priestess’ Brew, lady.’ The captain tossed a sizable pouch of coins the barmaid’s way, thereby erasing that nasty frown on her otherwise tolerable face.
‘Thank you, Sir. I really could use another drink.’ The captain of the guard still found it very odd that someone of a higher rank, albeit from a long time ago, was referring to him as ‘Sir.’
‘Tristan, your Mark says? What happened?’ The captain brought the two freshly-filled tankards over to their table. ‘What unimaginable horror drove you to drink the rest of your sorrow-addled days away?’
‘A killer, Sir, a being that I can’t even call human.’ He gulped down a quarter of his beer while the captain patiently sipped. ‘She had the appearance of a mere human being, but the things she’s done…’
It seemed like eons ago when I was still serving His Majesty. But I know that it has only been a few months. Thanks to our efforts, we were able to breach and take over the Behrouz garrison in no time at all. Scores of Mirian soldiers fell at our hands with barely any difficulty. I never had to draw my sword or string my bow, but I have killed many people just by sneaking around and relaying important information.
We were told that the garrison was worth more than thus is strategic position in the centre of Mirias. It held ‘powerful relics’ that interested a Mage from the Order. Why we have to bow down the whims of a bunch of deluded toffs, I have no idea. Perhaps maybe it is for the best that I stay that way.
We had to clear the fortress of all the corpses and blood within the week. The Centurion wanted the place clean and presentable for the Mage, who apparently had a great disliking of messiness. Of course, if we were not used to the smell of smoke, ash, and dead bodies, we too would be understanding of his request.
There wasn’t much time. We did not even give the bastards the proper rites. We just tossed them into the moat and burnt the whole lot. We salted the entire palace and rinsed everything down. But some bloodstains just refused to disappear.
We were expecting a man in the latter part of his years. We were expecting a dignified, tall man in extravagant robes. But we were not expecting a bloody Harukan. Letters to my friends in the Serican Expedition told many horror stories about how they laugh uncontrollably while tearing their prisoners apart limb from limb, about how they torture their enemies to death by slicing them into a hundred pieces, about how they somehow managed to turn human suffering into an art form.
But here he was, muttering in his native tongue, about how we were barbarians for not cleaning the place to his standard, so the interpreter said.
‘Our profuse apologies, Lord Magister, but the battle was long and the garrison was heavily defended. I hope you appreciate that we had to accomplish much in so little time.’
The interpreter listened intently to the Magister’s words, clearly marked with a tone of disgust and annoyance. ‘The Lord Magister wonders if we were foolish enough to tamper with the relics.’
‘I assure the Lord Magister that he has nothing to worry about. Not even the First Legionnaires were allowed to even get within twenty feet of the sanctum.’
‘He says that he is pleased that we have at least accomplished that much.’
As they proceeded down the hall, each pair of soldiers knelt down as the Magister passed. It was strange. This kind of procession would be appropriate for His Majesty, or the First Consul. Hell, we might even bow before the damned Grand Magister if the Centurion threatened us enough. But for us to kneel before a lesser known man, much less a foreigner!? Nonsense, I tell you. Something was fishy.
Now, I was a good old recruit. I wouldn’t lie to the Centurion. He got us through many tight squeezes and knots and treated us with respect. Besides, why lie to the very men who had your back? But something compelled me to keep a few routes, cracks and crevices around the fort to myself.
Of course, I was not exactly ordered to watch over the Centurion and the Harukan. Not this time, at least. But it was of little consequence. My fellow Rangers found it a little suspicious that a member of the Order would travel this far into Mirias just to have a cheeky peek. Not to mention, though the Mage’s Coup had long past, the memory of sorcerers going mad with delusions of absolute power was still quite fresh.
So I leapt from column to column, balcony to balcony, always making sure my presence was only known to myself. My feet accidentally chipped away at one of the columns, but nobody really noticed. Probably just rats, they must have thought.
I might have gotten a little carried away, because by the time I had finally lost my breath, the Harukan, Centurion, and his interpreter were still far behind, leisurely strolling past the sweaty, stiff privates holding guard. It is not exactly out of character for a mage to mock the Royal Army, but he looked as if he was looking to buy a new house, or as if he was traveling for leisure, not on the order of His Majesty at all.
So I compressed myself into a small form and leaned closer, trying to pick away at any possible clues.
‘The Lord Magister wonders if we are being watched. Perhaps your army did not even care to rid this place of any Mirian stragglers.’
The Centurion looked around. He had caught a few of his men prattling about against his orders, and gave them the typical fifty lashes. Not exactly the best way to round off your service to the Kingdom.
I pressed myself closer against the wall, holding myself on my toes. The amount of dust in the fortress gave me cause to sneeze, but I tried my damnedest best not to. I perhaps made faces that were not even meant for men, but I twisted and turned my nose until the urge was no more.
‘I would like to inform the Lord Magister that this place is fully secure and that no prisoners were taken during the assault.’
The Magister gave naught but a hiss for a response. The Centurion’s honour begged him to simply ignore it.
‘Milord.’ The Centurion said. ‘The sanctum is yours.’ He and his interpreter, after reforming the words into Harukan, joined the guards and bowed before the Magister. He was to remain undisturbed while perusing the contents of the sanctum.
It was a dead end. The door was completely surrounded by a huge wall from top the bottom. No way could I have continued on the high ground, not could I have snuck my way into the under levels.
But there was but a sizable crack in the alabaster; thin enough not to be completely noticed, but thick enough to let a pint-sized fellow like myself through. Hell, it was just the right height too, not an inch more, not an inch less!
But what awaited me at the end was something completely out of the ordinary. I had stumbled into a place that, well, looked extremely out of place for a fortress in the middle of the desert. I might as well had been stepping into another dimension! It was filled with strange shapes and was pulsing with strange lights. The sound was a strange, pulsing vibration. Thank goodness the room was filled with the humming noise, otherwise my light footsteps would have made me known.
He was mumbling to himself, his head hung low and his fingers interlocked. I would hear nothing but light hisses, but his mumbling grew louder. Now, I do not know a word of Harukan, but the garbling that spewed forth from his mouth was not from any human language. As his garbling got louder, his skin grew paler, his eyes lit red, with lines and inked patterns forming across his body. What was happening before me was not meant to be seen by the eyes of mere mortals.
By now, the room was filled with his voice. Whatever strange language he was now speaking, it wielded with raw, unchecked rage. Parts of the room were starting to crumble, as he stretched his arms out blades of energy pouring out of his hands.
So I was compelled to do what I thought any sane man would do in that situation: try and stop this stark raving madman.
I charged at the Harukan with everything I could. Of course, I was not giving the whole thing much thought; my light, skinny figure made me ideal for scouting, hence my placement as a Ranger as opposed to a regular Legionnaire. Never mind that some a non-attuned individual such as myself was trying to tackle a man well-versed with forces that could tear the earth apart.
Crashing against him, my training in disarmament told me to reach for his wrists and hold them behind his back. Our frail bodies crashed against each other, rolling along the floor. But despite my best efforts, despite all that training and drilling, he prevailed.
He grabbed my face and sent several bolts of lightning into me as he lifted me up with an inhuman amount of strength, my face stuck to his palm. When he was done, he tossed me across the room like a ragdoll.
‘Fool!’ So the foreigner could speak our language, albeit in one of the harshest accents I had ever had the misfortune to hear. ‘You pathetic fool!’
It was over for me. I had a hard time even trying to breathe, much less feel myself. He reached for my throat and whispered to me.
‘I will enjoy watching you die.’
He raised his free hand as it gathered energy, swirling streams of magic into his palm for the kill. As he thrust his hand, he let out a muffled grunt followed by a piercing sound.
The magic subsided, the look on the Harukan’s face turned from one of joy into one of terror, gaping in disbelief. He lowered his head to behold a growing stream of blood escaping his stomach, pierced by a long curved blade of the Serican style.
The blade retracted, and the man, whispering what probably were curses in his native tongue, collapsed like a sack of potatoes. But what lay behind him made all the horrors I had just encountered irrelevant.
This is how I met the Masked Killer.