In the Shadow of the Mask

Rush to the Gate

The fire flickered and danced about as Aja added another piece of wood. The dense surrounds held all the light in and darkness seemed to consume it. They could only see about three feet around them and that was it. Aja warned how the darkness was particularly dark in this area of the wilderness. Even when it was day, the light barely penetrated the thick forest canopy. This was an old forest, Aja had told them, one of the oldest in Albion. It was a place of ancient creatures and their forgotten names.

“A-WWWOOOOO!” a deep howl echoed through the still night air.

Everyone looked around, save for Reaver whom was asleep.

“Was that…?” Garth looked to Aja.

She listened for a moment. Her eyebrow scrunched together. Then she leaned back into her sitting position.

“Hard to say. It’s too far off to tell,” she finally said, “Hopefully it won’t get any closer. We’ve been lucky so far not to run into any creatures or… something else.”

“Knock on wood,” Sparrow quickly tapped on the wood log she was leaning on.

“I’m sure your dog would alert us if there was anything around,” Garth looked to him.

He was fast asleep by Sparrow’s side. Not even looking up to see what was going on, he continued to sleep peacefully.

“I hope anyway,” Garth noticed that he wasn’t going to be waking up anytime soon.

“Don’t worry so much,” Aja leaned her head back, “We’re well prepared for just about anything in these woods.”

“Just about anything?” Sparrow questioned.

“What?” she shrugged her shoulders, “You can’t prepare for everything. You do the best you can and roll with the punches.”

There was no disagreeing with that.

“True,” Garth agreed.

“Either way,” Aja settled in and tipped her hat over her eyes, “we should get some shut eye... like Reaver over there. Good night you two,” she mumbled.

“Good night,” both said their good nights.

Sparrow shifted her shoulders a bit to get more comfortable. She was use to sleeping in conditions like this, but something about these woods just made her skin crawl. Everywhere she looked, there were shadows that danced about and seemed to taunt Sparrow with nightmarish ideas. Some looked like twisted figures of Hollow Men. Others were hunched over like Balverines with claws extending from their elongated arms. Yet more where in shapes of demons and monsters that were suppose to only exist in fairy tales and nightmares. They didn’t frighten her, but their demonic dance around them made her anxious.

She had to ignore the phantom figures. The night was half way over and she needed some sleep. Aja had informed them that the next few days were going to be an uphill climb… literally. They were entering the mountains that surrounded a valley where a ruined city lay. Within these ruins was where the Cullis Gate was located. She wasn’t sure what the name of the city was, but it had been abandoned for quite some time. Generations she believed. Sparrow would see for herself in a few days. It would take that just to get to the top of the mountain ridge and about half of one to get into the city. The surrounding mountains were filled with all sorts of creatures, but it was in the city that the danger was worse.

Balverines, she said, haunted the place. They hunted their prey with tact and precision. They were merciless when it came to the kill. The worse, however, was the mother of them all; a White Balverine. She ruled the clan with an iron claw, as Aja put it. She was so ruthless that any of her child that didn’t perform up to her standards; she would kill them on the spot. She’s far wilder than any other White Balverine ever seen. She’s ancient, Aja speculated, maybe one of the first people to be turned. Sparrow had asked where the Balverines came from, but Aja didn’t what to talk about it. She said it was best to keep their minds on the journey and the dangers that lay ahead. Sparrow really didn’t understand why she didn’t want to say, but she felt it was best to leave it be.

Though the shadows were still dancing their demonic dance, Sparrow closed her eyes and allowed sleep to take her somewhere else. She didn’t have to dream; she just needed to sleep.

A few days later…

The view was breath taking. From the top of the mountain, the horizon seemed endless. There was a sea of tall trees that tried their hardest to touch the heavens. The mountains in the distance where like breaking waves with their snow covered peaks. The air was invigorating and cooled the senses. It was pure and clean and had sweetness to it. The valley below held stone walls that were once buildings. The cobble stone streets had moss growing between each individual stone. Vines wrapped around columns and trees grew inside the walls, even pushing some over. What was left of walls seemed to form a circle around the central area of the ruined city. Though the city view was desolate, there was a sense of serenity to it.

“Lovely,” Aja took in a deep breath through her nose, “You won’t find places like this near towns or villages. You have to work for these kinds of pleasures.”

“But it only makes it more worth it,” Garth was even inspired by the surroundings.

“Yes, yes, it’s all good and lovely,” Reaver was not, “but shouldn’t we be moving on?”

“Just enjoy what’s around you for once,” Sparrow watched a flock of birds take off in the distance.

“I do enjoy the finer things in life,” Reaver retorted, “but like everything else, they grow old.”

“That’s what you get for living so long,” Aja snorted, “but you right. We have to get down there before the sun sets. I rather not have to deal with a nest of Balverines.”

Aja shifted her bag to a more comfortable position and started down the steep slope. Sparrow and Reaver followed after and Garth took one more longing glance at the scenery. Sparrow’s dog had already caught up with Aja and was happily walking by her side.

“Be careful down this way,” Aja would call out every so often to warn them about a misstep.

Slowly but surely they all made it down the bottom of the valley. The trees weren’t as thick as the forest, but their imposing height still blocked out the sun. The hollow buildings were like mausoleums… shrines to a forgotten city. There were no sounds… no birds… no insects…

“Hold it,” Aja stopped them.

She sniffed the air and listened carefully.

She turned to them and whispered, “While the sun is up, the Balverines will not come out. Once the sun has gone below the ridge of the valley, they will be thick. The Cullis Gate is at the center of the town. We’ll have to navigate through the ruins,” she looked through a former alleyway, “It’s been some time since I’ll explored this place. I imagine that some walls have collapsed. The gate probably won’t be a straight shot. We will proceed with caution and as quietly possible. Keep talking to a minimum and stay close. Is that understood?” she sounded serious.

They looked to one another and then back to her and nodded in agreement. Aja nodded back. She looked one more time at the sun, then proceeded into the ruins. Reaver was after her, Garth took the third position and Sparrow with her dog was at the rear. The stone walls, though lifeless, seemed to be watching them with unseen eyes.

Click… click… a stone tumbled to the ground. This made everyone jump.

“Just a stone falling,” Aja whispered.

The alleyway ended. One of the stone walls had collapsed and was blocking the way. Aja cursed under her breath. Looking down another way, she motioned for them to follow her. They would have to find another way to the gate. As they passed alley after alley, Sparrow noticed that they were all blocked by collapsed walls. It seemed so strange that they would all be blocked. Something must have happened at the center of town. Maybe one of larger buildings had fallen down, causing the smaller one to go with it. Maybe the gate was crushed along with it.

Garth stopped for a moment and looked to where the center of town would be.

“What’s wrong?” Aja noticed his distant stare.

“I… I can feel it…,” he continued to stare.

“The gate?” Aja asked.

“Yes… it’s like a pulsing…,” he explained.

“Hmm,” Aja thought for a moment, “then let’s find a way there then.”

She tugged at Garth for him to follow her. He shook his head to come back to his senses. Aja too had felt something, but it was like a fluttering in her heart. Maybe it was because Garth was more attuned with the forces of Will. Sparrow had begun to master some skills, but she was nowhere near Garth’s abilities.

“Grrr,” Sparrow’s companion started to growl lowly.

“Shh boy,” Sparrow tried to hush him.

His fur rose forming a ridge along his back. He bared his teeth and his lips curled back into a snarl. He was staring intensely into one of the building that still had a roof over head. Looking up to see where the sun was, Sparrow could see it was about to set. Looking back to the building, she could see something moving.

“Aja,” Sparrow kept her eyes on the shadows.

“I see it,” Aja growled.

A pair of glowing yellow eyes appeared from the darkness. A low growl started to go in unison with Sparrow’s companion.

“Just back up slowly and we’ll go around a different way,” Aja started to push them back.

“There’s only one,” Reaver pulled out his pistol.

“NO!” Aja tried to stop him.

BANG! One shot flew through the air and hit its mark between the two glowing eyes. The eyes went dull and fell out of sight.

“Why did you do that!?” Aja grabbed him by the collar.

“Why are you so angry?” Reaver pulled back and straightened his collar, “I killed the beast, didn’t I?”

She gritted her teeth, “Yes you did, but know every single Balverine in the Area is going to know that we’re here. If we would have backed away, it might have not attacked.”

“We don’t know that,” Reaver still defended his actions.

“A-WHOOOOO!” howls started to sound all around them.

“Damn!” Aja hissed, “We have to move now,” she listened for a moment, “They’re coming… move!” she headed down a blocked alleyway, “We’ll just have to climb over.”

Scratching and the sound of scrapping claws against stone filled the air. There was no way of telling how many there were or where they were coming from. The only thing that was certain was that they were closing in.

They hurried pass the building that had the glowing eyes. A small river of blood was running through the cracks of the cobble stone road. Aja reached the pile of stones and started to look for a steady path up. She seemed to find one and motioned for everyone to hurry.

“Go up along that way,” Aja pointed to a what looked like to be a path through the rumble, “Reaver go first and shoot whatever pops out at you.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” he held his pistol up.

“Come on boy,” Sparrow knew he couldn’t make it over quickly enough.

She picked him up and put him over her shoulders to carry him. Carefully finding her footing, she followed Garth keep her crossbow at the ready. She kind of wished that she had bought those silver tipped arrow heads, but there was no point in wishing for them now. The clawing and scratching continued as they made their way over the caved in wall. There was way too much rumble for one wall or even one building. Something wasn’t right.

“There!” Aja called out.

The center of town was just ahead. There were four moss covered stones surround a floating silver ball. It was glowing with blue energy. She could feel it better now… the pulsing energy of pure Will.

“It’s not active!” Garth approached the gate, “We need to active it!”

“Unless you know how to use Will,” Aja pulled out her pistol, “We’re not going anywhere.”

Garth looked to Sparrow. They had made an agreement not to reveal their full abilities to Aja while on the journey. People were not use to seeing Will and they weren’t sure how Aja would respond to seeing Garth summon swords from nothing. It was a disadvantage, but it was better if they restrained themselves. However, the situation was getting dangerous and the gate needed to be activated.

“Do it Garth,” Sparrow put down her faithful companion.

Garth nodded his head in agreement. He stepped within the circle of stones. Taking a strong stance, Garth took in a deep breath.

“What’s he doing?” Aja looked back.

“Getting the gate started,” Sparrow held up her crossbow, “We have to protect him until the gate is ready.”

“Why do I get myself into these situations?” Aja grumbled to herself.

“Rather exciting? Really gets the blood flowing,” Reaver took aim and fire.

“GAA RRROOOO!” a Balverine fell to the ground.

Sparrow looked back to see how Garth was doing. Blue cracks had started to form on his skin and glow through his clothing. He suppressed his Will lines while in public to avoid stares and questions. Taking in one more deep breath, Garth put his hand forward and blue lightening come forth. The lightening was so intense; it caused the hairs on the back of Sparrow’s neck to stand up. The scene was illuminated and everything could be seen.

The entire town center was cut off by crumbled buildings. Unfortunately on the wall of stone there were Balverines. They were lined up all along the wall waiting for something. Their lips were curled back and long tendrils of drool hung from their mouths. All their glowing yellow eyes were focused on them. Some snapped their jaws and chattered their teeth. Others stood still… waiting.

“What are they waiting for?” Reaver asked somewhat annoyed.

“Her…,” Aja snarled.

From the tallest building a huge figure appeared. It was twice as big as the Balverines that surrounded them. As soon as it appeared, it disappeared.

“What was that?” Reaver’s annoyance had a hint of fear.

“These pups’ mother,” Aja slowly turned around, “She’s probably not too happy to see me either.”

“You’ve taken her on before?” Sparrow kept an eye on the Balverines.

“When I first came here,” Aja explained, “Though she didn’t have this many children before… she’s been busy.”

“A-WHOOOO,” a long howl sounded.

The other Balverines threw back their heads and answered the call. Some rocks fell from the wall. Sparrow looked over to see that the large feature appeared. She was a big White Balverine. Her lips were curled back, exposing her bright, white fangs. There was a scar running down her right eye where no fur grew. She was staring intensely at Aja.

“So you remember me, huh?” Aja held up her pistol, “You want to finish what we started about 30 years ago?”

The White Balverine growled as if she was saying yes.

“Then come on bitch,” Aja taunted her, “Just you and me. Don’t get your pups involved.”

“What are you trying to do?” Reaver hissed,

“I’m trying to buy some time for Garth,” Aja hissed back.

“I don’t think she’s taking the bait,” Sparrow noticed the White Balverine’s glare.

The White Balverine raised her hand and extended her long sharp claw. The other Balverines started to advance on the center.

“Everyone take a side and defend Garth,” Aja shot an approaching beast.

Reaver and Aja were shooting them left and right. Sparrow fired her crossbow and slashed at them if they got too close. This scene was reminiscent of when Hannah, Garth and she had to activate the gate at Brightwood Tower. There were so many Spire Guards; it was amazing that they were able to fend them off for so long. Their enemies were so strong and numerous. Not unlike the current situation.

Sparrow reached for another bolt, but she was out. She was going to have to only use her sword for the rest of the fight. She brought up the blade and it seemed to glow in Garth’s lightening induced light. One Balverine leaped towards her; she thrust her sword forward and pierced it right through the heart. It screamed out in pain as the wounded started to burn where the blade entered. Sparrow pulled it out; the Balverine fell to the ground dead. In other fights with Balverines, it took several hits before they fell. The Augment that Aja gave her must have been having an effect.

“How much longer Garth!?” Sparrow called out.

“Just a little bit more!” he exclaimed.

“Define a little bit,” Reaver didn’t seem too happy.

There was no point in arguing. The gate would be ready when it was ready.

The Balverines seemed to thin out as the piles of dead bodies grew. The remaining ones stopped their charge and backed off. They growled as they retreated to the walls. The White Balverine just sat there watching the scene.

“I don’t think Momma there is happy,” Aja stated the obvious.

“It’s just about ready!” Garth called out.

“As long as they don’t do anything else, I think we’ll be okay,” Aja kept her pistol trained on the White Balverine.

The White Balverine tilted her head back and released an angry howl.

“Get ready,” Aja seemed to know what was about to happen, “She’s going to charge!”

In the blink of an eye, the White Balverine was about to pounce on Aja. Rolling forward, Aja missed the large beast’s attack. She tried to take aim before the creature could turn around, but the White Balverine knew this move. She leaped up into the air, out of sight.

“She’s learned a few new tricks,” Aja was scanning the tops of the buildings.

RIP! “GAA!” Aja fell to her knees.

She grabbed onto her right shoulder; blood started to ooze between her fingers and drip to the stone street.

“Aja!” Sparrow ran over to her.

“I’m fine,” Aja said through gritted teeth, “Just a scratch.”

“Is she alright?” Garth yelled.

“She’s hurt pretty badly,” Sparrow examined the wound.

Five claw marks sank deep into Aja’s shoulder. Each was bleeding profusely. One was so deep, Sparrow swore she saw bone.

“How is that gate coming?” Reaver decided to pop into the conversation.

“… Got it!” Garth exclaimed as the silver ball popped open, leaving only its swirling energy.

“Then let’s go!” Reaver hurried over to the gate.

“Come on Aja,” Sparrow tried to help her up.

“Go… I’ll make sure that you all have enough time,” she stood up, “I’ve had worse from this bitch of a dog.”

She must come with you…

“Theresa?” Sparrow asked out loud.

“Stop daydreaming kid,” Aja growled.

“Come on you two!” Garth yelled for them to hurry.

“DUCK!” Aja pushed Sparrow to the ground.

CRASH! Aja went flying into one of the stones that surrounded the Cullis Gate.

“AJA!” Sparrow tried to get up.

WHAM! She was slammed to the ground. The White Balverine had pinned her down. Globs of drool dripped on to Sparrow’s face as the Balverine snarled. She started to dig her claws into Sparrow’s flesh. Sparrow clinched her teeth in pain.

BANG! Reaver hit the White Balverine right between the eyes. She fell back, just a little bit, but then whipped her head back around. She released an angry bark in Reaver’s direction. The hole from the bullet was charred, but slowly healing. She turned her attention back to Sparrow.

“AAAHHH,” Aja thrust her sword deep into the beast’s chest.

The White Balverine reared back trying to pull Aja’s blade from her body. Aja fell back on to the ground. Blood was coming from her mouth and she was in pain. Sparrow pushed herself up and ran to Aja.

“You okay!?” she tried to help Aja up.

“… Got to finish her…,” Aja slowly stood up, “She can’t be allowed to live and she won’t let us go until she’s dead.”

They looked over to the struggling creature. She managed to pull out the blade and was licking her wound. She must have noticed that Aja had gotten back up and started to growl.

“Take your blade and at the right moment, swing… go for the neck… it must clean,” Aja instructed her, “it’s the only way to make sure she’s dead… you have to behead her.”

“Garth… Reaver… take my dog and Aja and go through the gate,” Sparrow called out, “I’ll finish here and meet on the other side.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Aja held her side, “I’ve got to see this through.”

“I’m staying as well,” Garth stood firm.

Sparrow’s friend started to bark as if he was saying he wouldn’t leave either.

“I’ll go on ahead and make sure it’s safe,” Reaver stepped into the glowing and swirling energy and disappeared.

“Coward,” Garth hissed under his breath.

“Get ready,” Aja growled, “she is.”

The White Balverine clawed at the ground and snorted. Blood started to drip from her nose, but she licked it away like it was nothing. Sparrow brought up her Longsword, preparing for a charge. The Balverine bared her teeth and barked at her. Taking a few steps in, Sparrow planted her feet firmly.

The White Balverine pulled back and set for a charge. She sprang forward and was on Sparrow in no time. Swinging her sword, Sparrow managed to slash the beast before she could make her own swing. The Balverine tumbled to the ground, but was quickly up on all fours. Her white fur was now turning red from the wounds that she and Aja had made. She was breathing heavier and the blood was flowing from her nose more than before. She was getting weaker and Sparrow could tell. The White Balverine crouched down once more for one more good charge. She sprang once more and Sparrow swung. At the last moment, the Balverine pulled back, just missing the blade. Swing her massive paw, she hit Sparrow in across the arm, leaving four deep scratches. Sparrow held on to her sword. She knew if she dropped it, she would be dead. The White Balverine was about to swing, but let out a yelp of pain. Sparrow looked down to see that her faithful friend had latched on to the Balverine’s legs. This was her chance.

Sparrow gripped her sword and gave one go swing. The blade hit cleanly and straight through the White Balverine’s neck. The head fell first then the body. It was done… the White Balverine was no more. Her children started to howl and cry at the loss of their mother, but none would approach.

“We should go,” Aja weakly whispered in Sparrow’s ear.

“We should,” Sparrow continued to stare at the lifeless corpse.

Putting her good arm under Aja’s, Sparrow helped her to the Cullis Gate.

“Leave me here,” Aja clinched her teeth, “I can’t come with you.”

“You’re coming with us,” Sparrow insisted.

“We’re not leaving you here,” Garth helped them both to the gate.

She tried to pull away, but she had lost too much blood to put up a good fight.

Garth helped them into the swirling energy, “Don’t worry, I’ll bring him along with me,” he patted the dog on the head.

“Be good for Garth,” Sparrow looked down to him.

He whined but stayed by Garth’s side to say that he would behave.

The energy started to twist around them as the gate activated. The scene faded and went dark. Sparrow looked over to Aja. She was slumped over and she couldn’t tell if she was breathing.

“Just hold on Aja,” Sparrow whispered, “I know this gate will lead us someplace safe… somewhere where we can get you help.”

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