“You’re sure you heard the attack take place in the alley, not above it?” Sir Annis asked.
The paladin didn't sound disbelieving, just professional. Masnin tried to reply in the same tone.
“Yes sir, I have no doubt about that,” he replied stiffly.
Iolan grunted and turned to the mage he had recruited. The grey haired but hearty looking man had apparently shown up in town shortly after they’d arrived. He’d been sent by his guild to support the paladins in case there actually was a ghoul infestation. The Militant Order of Helio-Lustria had a charter from the king that allowed them to summon help from the mage guilds in such emergencies.
The mage wore a robe with the Fiery Eye on it. Masnin had seen a few of them before, however this one’s staff was more ornate and complicated than those carried by the fodder that the guild usually produced for the army. He was also older, with a trim white beard and lines under his eyes.
“What do you make of this, Roilg?” Sir Iolan asked the mage.
“I don't recognize the claw as coming from any particular creature. However, there is one test I can run that might be enlightening.” The other man replied in a baritone voice.
The mage then produced a glass vial from a pocket sewn into his vest. Masnin noticed that there were many more such pockets inside there. He had no idea what the mage could possibly need them all for.
Roilg the mage carefully poured a single drop of the clear liquid from inside the vial onto the claw. When the fluid hit the talon it let out a faint hiss, and wisps of quickly disappearing black smoke began swirling up from it. Masnin watched intently; he had rarely seen magic at work, even magic as mundane as this.
“Well, I can say with absolute surety that this talon came from a mutant, although I have no clue as to what manner of creature it started as. I’m relatively certain that’s it's not an herbivore though.” Roilg explained as he frowned down at the claw with a concerned expression.
Iolan cursed out loud, and at his side Annis paled a little. Their reactions shocked Masnin. Was a flying foe so hard to deal with? Surely these two veteran paladins had dealt with this sort of thing many times before. Masnin didn't consider it appropriate to voice his thoughts aloud, but Rusk did.
“Abominations such as a crystal host can be deadly foe, but surely they aren’t as terrible as an outbreak of the unholy plague?” the young knight asked from his seat at the inn's bar.
The mage snorted grumpily in response. Sir Iolan turned and considered the two paladin hopefuls. He considered the question worth answering though, which pleased Masnin.
“Ghouls can do more damage than just about anything. A full blown ghoul epidemic is a nightmare beyond imagining. They’ve gutted cities in the past, but that hasn't happened in ages. The unholy plague and its bearers are an old foe and one we understand, so they usually can be predicted and exterminated before they do too much damage,” Sir Iolan explained.
“Mutants however are cursed unpredictable things. They might, like this one, kill only one person a night, but stopping a powerful beast such as this is much more dangerous for the hunters. So far all we know about this thing is that it's a night hunter with claws and a taste for human flesh,” Sir Annis added.
“We know it flies,” interjected Masnin. He had seen enough to know that.
“Do we?” asked Sir Iolan. Then he smiled benignly at Masnin's answering frown.
“I don’t doubt your word, but crystal hosts can be tricky. Can you say for sure that it doesn't levitate, walk on walls like they were flat ground, or turn invisible?” the older knight clarified.
“Those are real possibilities?” asked Masnin in shock.
He didn't like considering that the gods would arm the enemies of humanity with such strange and powerful abilities. Had the creature really flown away? Now Masnin couldn't be so sure of what he’d seen or assumed.
Beside him Rusk looked just as shocked as him, which made Masnin feel better. Apparently, he hadn’t been the only one ignorant of all this.
“They are; all of those abilities have been documented by the guilds. Information on mutants is one of the few things shared amongst the guilds,” answered Roilg.
“So we will need a new plan for tomorrow night. This creature has already proven that the patrols are useless, and they were undertaken with ghouls in mind anyway,” Sir Annis told everyone.
“What do you suggest we do instead, then?” Sir Iolan asked his subordinate.
“I believe that tomorrow night we should get everyone off the streets, every last blackguard and streetwalker. Then, we bait the creature and lure it into a trap,”
“Bait? I can think of only one thing you could use to bait this man-eater. That seems like a deadly task, considering what we know about the creature. I doubt you're volunteering yourself,” commented Sir Iolan with a raised eyebrow.
“We could use the condemned in the square,” Sir Annis replied stonily.
The older Paladin's face showed no remorse at using living men as disposable tools. Sir Iolan looked thoughtful, but also more than a little reluctant. He didn’t seem completely comfortable with the idea of using men, even criminals, to lure the beast into an ambush. Masnin couldn’t read the mage’s face at all.
Masnin himself frowned as he considered Sir Annis’ plan. It seemed like it might work, no one was offering any other options, but there was a serious problem with it. It wouldn’t give Masnin a chance to prove himself, and he desperately needed to show these men his worth.
“I volunteer,” offered Masnin, surprising even himself.
The others all looked at him in surprise. Rusk seemed particularly shocked, and was looking at Masnin like he was crazy. Maybe he was, or maybe he was just desperate. He couldn’t live the rest of his life as a knight errant. The constant travelling and dependence on charity was already wearing him down.
“We already know it'll target armed men, because it killed that guard. The plan has a better chance of success if the bait can fight. If we use the criminals if might just snatch one up and disappear, but it’ll find a trained and armed knight a much more difficult target” he explained reluctantly to the other knights.
Sir Iolan gave the volunteer a long look, taking his measure. Masnin returned the look, and did his best to look stoic and brave. He wasn’t sure how well he succeeded.
“Fine, I accept your offer and acknowledge your courage,” proclaimed Iolan. “Helio-Lustria's blessing on you. May the sun god shield you against this creature of darkness.”
“You’re going to need it,” Masnin heard Rusk mutter quietly.
The young knight didn’t get a lot of sleep that night. He spent the next morning and afternoon thinking about all the things that could go wrong with the plan. They didn’t even know what the beast looked like…
Masnin was up early the next morning to help the paladins set up the trap. When dusk finally came and darkness blanketed the town, Masnin found himself sitting alone in the middle of a small unlit square staring into a large brazier filled with water. He cursed his courage and the fate that had led him here.
The brazier had been Roilg's idea. He’d raised the possibility that the creature wouldn't attack if its prey kept checking the skies for it. So he’d proposed using the reflective surface of the water as a mirror.
In it, Masnin could easily make out the stars above him. The young knight sighed. As last sights went he supposed the reflected night sky was a decent one. If only he could be sure that it wasn’t full of evil mutant beasts that wanted to eat him…
Masnin strained his hearing as he watched the reflection of the skies. Listening not only for the monster, but for the reassuring sounds of his companions and the town guards hidden away in the homes and shops around him.
The plan was that when he engaged the monster sharpshooters would fire on it from the windows above. Roilg was also around, but he hadn’t participated in the planning. He’d just said that he would do whatever was necessary.
That hadn’t reassured the young knight. In fact, it had almost made him think the mage was going to set the entire square on fire. He was a hard man to read.
As Masnin pondered all the ways he could die within the next few hours he felt an odd tingling sensation on the back of his neck as his hair rose. Instantly, he concentrated on the reflection in the brazier, and noticed a patch of stars flickering up in the sky above him.
He rolled. Not forwards, but backwards to his knees as an acrobat might do. As a country knight he'd been hunting enough to know that even the dumbest predators would try to predict how their prey would dodge them.
“Now!” he screamed, as he prepared himself for the worst. It was a wasted effort.
Standing before him was a creature seemingly made of living darkness that stood a story tall. It had swooped into the square without a sound and having missed him, spun around with speed that was just unfair in a creature that big.
The unseen thing seemed to swell and contract in size as it moved to strike him. It almost seemed to be a living shadow as it rose like a black wave to sweep him aside. His gut clenched with fear as he realized he wouldn’t be able to block the blow.
Luckily, the attack never came, instead a swarm of quarrels buzzed through the air and into the shape. The beast didn’t make a sound as it contracted back into itself, withdrawing. Just as soon as it had shrunk, it swelled again and somehow the writhing black mass launched itself upwards and into the sky. A gust of dusty wind swept into Masnin's face and forced him to shield it with his arm.
It seemed like the creature was going to escape when a loud crack filled the air and the unseen thing suddenly was thrown into the side of a building. The wooden wall the creature was thrown into wasn't solid enough to stop it. With a snap it burst through, landed inside the building, and disappeared.
Masnin's allies were busy though. A dozen armed men streamed out of the nearby homes and into the square to stop the creature from escaping. Masnin moved to join them, stopping with the rest just short of the building.
No one moved to enter it though, as it was filled with an eerie and unnatural darkness. Even as men began lighting the braziers and lamps outside on the street, the flames failed to penetrate the shadows.
“Aside,” came an authoritative voice.
It was the mage Roilg, who no doubt had been the one who had grounded the creature so dramatically. The mage walked up beside Masnin and frowned at the darkness. Quick as thought, his hands played along his staff like a musical instrument. His seemed to shift and change shape under his hands, and seconds later a stream of bright light burst forth into the building.
It failed to illuminate anything; if anything it only defined the darkness more. There were mutters of fear and shock from the guardsmen and even some of the knights, as they realized the inside of the building was impervious even to his magical light. It almost seemed to be a pitch black wall that you could reach out and touch.
There were murmurs of fear and whispers of “demon” from the men. Masnin himself felt a cold fear in his chest as he stared into that lightless abyss. If ever a true demon walked the world, it was this creature of darkness.
“Fear not darkness. Do not waver before uncertainty,” proclaimed Sir Iolan the paladin as he approached the darkness.
“It's just a mutant, and we’ve cornered and wounded it now. The darkness only hides it; it does not protect it from our steel. Fire into the building and finish the thing off!” he proclaimed.
His words had an effect. Men pressed forward and drew strength from each other. Masnin let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding. He relaxed slightly and got ready to move again. He still needed to impress the paladins; volunteering wasn’t enough, he would have to actually engage the creature.
The crossbowmen were still in the windows of the square. Only Sir Annis was in position to fire into the building. He raised his crossbow and fired. Nothing happened. With a practiced motion he reloaded and was about to fire again, when quick as thought the darkness flowed over him. He had just enough time to begin raising the crossbow when it engulfed him.
There was a terrible scream and a wet tearing sound. Masnin jumped in shock and took a fearful step back. It had killed the paladin so effortlessly, and he was probably next!
Men cried out in shock and quarrels were fired desperately at the living shadow. Roilg sent a wave of fire into it without apparent effect. It only illuminated the scared faces of the guardsmen with flickering orange light.
Masnin saw the dark creature subtly swell in the mage's direction and knew it was considering the mage. If the creature got to him then the fight would be over. The guards would surely flee, and they might be right to do so. The living darkness showed no weakness or fear.
Should he retreat? Nothing they’d done had seemed to work at all. Retreating was probably the smart thing to do.
What would he be running to, though? No, he couldn’t run. I would be better to die here with honor than to shame his family by fleeing.
He sprinted forwards at what he could only guess was the rear of the creature, and raised his blade. With a primal roar he unleashed all his pent up frustration and terror and channeled it into one attack. If he was going to die then there was no point in keeping it all bottled up anymore!
The edge of his sword sliced into the shadow and kept going. His heart missed a beat and he despaired. Just like the rest of his life his death would be pointless…
A sudden tug on his arms brought him back to reality, his blade had found purchase. He’d hit something!
His relief was short lived; the shifting darkness before him spasmed, and then reached out to envelop him. A second later, something slammed into him, and he was sent flying through the air.
He landed hard, and his armor scraped against the rubble and cobblestone that littered the street.
Masnin didn’t know how long he lay there stunned and staring up at the night sky, but when he finally got to his feet he found the situation had gone downhill.
Roilg was down, and lay crumpled up against a nearby wall, while a guard stood over him protectively. Masnin wasn't sure why the creature hadn't finished the mage off.
Without the power of the mage, the men were retreating from the unseen thing. Several braziers had been tipped over in the struggle, and their fiery contents had spilled across the road. Even with the very earth aflame no light penetrated the mass of shadows that moved among the guardsmen.
Masnin backed away and waited for someone to do something; for someone to bring order to the confusion. No one stepped up. Sir Iolan was nowhere to be seen, and Sir Annis was dead. The only one of their group he could see was Rusk, who seemed even less inclined to action than him.
The other knight noticed Masnin though, and quickly made his way over to him. Rusk kept one eye on the creature as moved. Masnin watched him come over numbly. He was tired and sore, he couldn't imagine what he could possibly do to help the situation.
Surely this was more than the gods could demand of him. He had been brave and valorous. It hadn't been enough. All he'd accomplished was to watch brave men die futilely.
Surely if the gods wanted more from him, they would send him a sign; a light to guide him.
Rusk was only a half dozen feet away from him when he stumbled and fell. His feet slipped out from beneath him and he landed on his ass with a crash.
Without thinking, Masnin moved to help the other knight up, and offered the only remaining knight a hand.
“What a cursed night,” the other man said raggedly. “I slipped on some unlucky man's blood. I'll take that as an omen. It's time to go.”
Masnin stopped and considered this. As Rusk regained his footing, the young knight's gaze took in the square. The creature remained standing in the centre, and the remaining men were more concerned with retreating safely than attacking it. All around the square dark liquid pooled around the cobbles of the street.
It was blood, too much blood. It couldn’t all have come from the soldiers. Masnin glanced down at his blade. It was faint, but the reflective surface of the steel was marred by dark red liquid.
“It can bleed…” Masnin exclaimed with sudden hope. It only seemed invincible!
“What?” asked a confused Rusk. “Did you land on your head earlier?”
“There’s flesh beneath the darkness; it’s bleeding!” Masnin said again, louder and clearer this time as he held up his sword for Rusk to see.
The other knight’s eyes widened as they took in the blood that stained Masnin’s blade. The fluid was clearly visible as the nearby flames reflected off the steel. Masnin didn’t wait for a reply. He yelled and charged the beast again.
The only way the mutant could be bleeding and yet still standing was if the veil of shadows that surrounded it were much bigger than the actual creature, and almost all the attacks were missing it. That meant it couldn’t be much bigger than a man.
The beast froze and stopped chasing a fleeing guard, as it somehow sensed Masnin’s approach. The young knight eyed the swirling darkness before him as he moved. He would probably only have one chance at this. Where was the actual beast?
Once again as he neared the darkness stretched out and consumed him. Masnin was instantly blinded. His heart pounded in his chest and his throat felt tight, but he took several steps deeper into the darkness.
He heard a scratching noise, and instantly he struck towards it. He felt his blade bite deep, and heard an inhuman screech echo through the darkness. Then something smashed into his breastplate and knocked him backwards. His blade flew loosely away from his numb hands.
He was sent sprawling across the ground, but he ignored the pain and pushed himself up onto his side. He needed to see the creature.
A little over a dozen feet away the dark mass of shadows that concealed the mutant was writhing energetically, but it was also shrinking. As Masnin and everyone else watched, the creature’s magic disappeared to reveal what lay beneath it.
Long twisted limps with tight membranes that stretched between them framed a skinny body, and a truly hideous face. Several arrows protruded from its flesh, and its furry hide had a long bleeding gash across it. It twitched there on the ground and its wings were tattered. The mutant was a giant bat!
Masnin collapsed again, and sighed in relief. As he lay there on the cold stone ground, the young knight breathed in the cool midnight air. This was what knights were meant to do, slay monsters. Masnin felt his earlier fear and frustration slip away as he reveled in his victory. He had been a hero and a true knight!
Even if he didn’t end up becoming a paladin, he would still always know that his life hadn’t been wasted.