Interlude II: Mask of the Ghoul
The ragged, jaunting edges of Fogtooth Mountain loomed over the Red Wolf Army as they trudged their way through the narrow ravine. Tristan reined in the black warhorse as, once again, war horns signaled the scouts had lost the trail of their quarry.
“Damn those bloody pagans!” Captain Garrett swore as Colonel Durante’s forces slowed to a halt behind the second regiment, led by General Liam.
“That’s the trouble with chasing down a smaller, lighter force that’s tactically more familiar with the terrain and mountains,” Colonel Durante replied with a hint of sarcasm. He slipped two fingers between his lips and whistled. Two war hounds, one a soft gray the other doe brown, ran through the lines of Red Wolf Soldiers towards their master. “What did you hungry devils find?”
“Looks like they caught a piece of one,” Garrett observed as he dismounted and pried a bloody rag from the gray hound’s fangs. “It’s smeared with some sort of mud or paint?”
“The Tharyn’s have camouflaged themselves,” Durante muttered and heaved a weary sigh. “We’ll be chasing our own tails at this rate.”
“Give it here.” Tristan held out his hand, and Garrett passed over the cloth, which the prince inspected. “It will certainly be hard to spot them now that night is approaching. It’s been bothering me for a while, but why did the pagans linger at the border? Normally raiding parties are gone by the time an army can even get this far. It’s almost like they were prepared and waiting for us.”
“Now that you mention it,” Garrett grumbled as he turned uneasy eyes to the mountains around them.
A flutter of wings drew the crossbows of nearby soldiers to the sky. Tristan followed the echo of wings and spotted, not the mountain eagles that had been harassing them all day, but a smaller, darker bird.
“Don’t shoot!” Tristan shouted. “It’s a crow, not an eagle.”
The archers lowered their weapons as Tristan pulled a thin whistle from inside his glove, blew on it, and held out his wrist. After the prince played the correct tune, the crow circled and swooped down to alight upon Tristan’s wrist.
“And who would be sending you messages way out here, your Highness?” Durante asked curiously.
“Lord Percy,” Tristan replied as he pried loose the string affixed to a note around the crow’s leg. “No doubt, he’s caught wind of current events.”
“Be wary of that one. Percy’s more tenacious than he lets on, and cunning like his father.”
Tristan shook his head and unscrolled the note.
“The Dowager has sent someone to assassinate you. Don’t drink water or wine. Trust no one.”
“Ha—” Tristan crumpled the note and flung it into the dense, dry shrubs.
“Bad news?” Garrett asked.
“Let’s not linger here,” Tristan replied as he cast the crow back into the sky and watched it climb up the ravine. “I’d rather not run the men ragged on a wild goose chase this deep inside Tharyn territory—or worse, lead them into an ambush.”
“Captain Connor!” Durante barked. The war hounds’ ears pricked up at their master’s tone. A young knight captain eyed the beasts warily as he moved his steed closer to the Colonel. “Send word to General Liam. We’ll withdraw back to Lafeara’s border and set camp.”
“Yes, Colonel!” The knight captain saluted and spun his bay mare towards the front lines.
“Captain Garrett,” Tristan added sharply. “Get our men into formation and make sure the scouts keep their eyes peeled. I don’t want to lose a single cavalry unit to so much as a gopher hole.”
“On it, Colonel.” Garrett turned his gray stallion towards the row of calvary behind them and selected three lieutenants to carry the prince’s order to the backline.
“Turning an army of this size around in the bloody mountain. What a nightmare,” Durante muttered and clucked his tongue as he encouraged his giant red warhorse to change direction.
“And General Liam was so confident that we’d catch the pagan pillagers by now,” Tristan agreed sarcastically as his gaze dropped to the canteen tied to his saddle.
‘I drank some earlier—I don’t feel any different—am I already poisoned, or is this canteen safe?’
“Where’s your head at, your Highness?” Durante barked.
Tristan snapped his attention back to the Colonel and sighed. “My heads a bit of a mess right now, Colonel. You know that.”
“Well, pull it out of the mud, your Highness,” Durante replied impatiently. “We’re not out of danger yet.” He slapped a hand across Tristan’s back and clucked his tongue as the giant red warhorse picked up its hooves and bucked against the Colonel’s restraining grip.
The muffled thunder of rapidly approaching hooves drew Tristan’s attention back to the forward regiment as Captain Connor reappeared.
“Colonel! Your Highness!” the Captain shouted as he waved an arm.
Tristan tightened his grip on the reins and eyed the back of Liam’s regiment that still had not turned around. “What is it?”
“General Liam asks leave to set camp here as it’s already near dusk, and the men are tired.”
“He wants to camp here?” Durante growled with evident exasperation. “In enemy territory.”
“General Liam says he can manage on his own if your Highness wishes to withdraw with the First Regiment.”
“Splitting up is an even worse idea, what has gotten into him today,” Tristan muttered. He glanced towards Durante, who glowered at the mountains around them with the same suspicion Tristan could not shake. “I don’t like it either, but he has a point. We’ve wondered in too far, and if we take a wrong turn in the dark, we might be the worse for it.”
“Understood, Commander,” Durante replied with a heavy sigh.
“Tell the General his request is granted, but I want the number of night guards tripled from each regiment and on rotating shifts. We break camp at first light tomorrow.” Tristan waved his hand, and the Captain turned around once more to relay his orders. “Perhaps General Liam doesn’t feel the need to listen to this bastard anymore,” the prince added sourly under his breath.
Tristan felt the slap aimed at the back of his head but didn’t bother to dodge it.
“Better?” Durante growled.
“Much,” Tristan replied with a wince as he shook his head. “Let’s set up camp.”
Tristan tossed restlessly for most of the night as he listened to the sounds of soldiers settling down while the night wind blew through the ravine around them. At some point, the weariness of the day’s ride pulled him into a restless dream, and he found himself in the mountains alone, surrounded on all sides by fog and angry voices.
The words slithered and echoed inside his skull even as Tristan stumbled through the rocky ravine, looking for Captain Garrett, Colonel Durante, and the Red Wolf Army. ‘How did I miss an entire army departing? And why would they leave me behind?’
Logic told him this was just a dream, but Tristan could not break free from the chill of loss, betrayal, and abandonment.
The obscure path before him turned upwards. Tristan’s gaze drifted towards the rising moon illuminated above the canopy of fog.
His chest ached as the memory of his mother’s voice, once long forgotten, returned to him—and Tristan no longer cared if this was a dream or a nightmare. He climbed the path, sword drawn, eyes warily searching the shadowed rocks and boulders as he slipped past them.
The moon glowed like an ethereal giant at the mountain’s peak, and before it stood the woman in red. Her white hair floated around her shadowed face like rays of moonlight while her scarlet gown whispered above the ground she did not touch. She extended a slender pale hand towards him and beckoned. “Come, Tristan. Your queen is waiting.”
A harsh chill encircled him as he took a step forward. Tristan stared down at small pale arms wrapped around his waist and turned to find a little dark-haired girl pressed against his back. Her face was hidden beneath her dark midnight hair, but the crown of frost she wore chilled him through his armor. Tristan struggled against her hold, but her ice-like skin resisted his grasp and held firm.
“Wake up,” the frost child whispered desperately. “Tristan. Wake up, or they will kill you.”
The strange child’s warning sparked like a cold flame across his skin as Tristan turned towards the woman in red. Beneath the shadows, her welcoming smile cracked open to reveal fanged teeth as she flew down the mountain path towards them.
Pain shot through his chest as Tristan’s eyes snapped open. The mountain, the moon, the frost child, and the sinister woman were gone—and in their place, a blue ghoul’s mask loomed over the prince as a dagger descended towards his chest.
Tristan flung his arms between them instinctively. The blade sliced through his left forearm and struck bone as Tristan thrust himself from the bed and kicked the intruder away.
The assassin dropped low with inhuman speed and took out Tristan’s supporting leg. The prince crashed onto his side, then rolled under the bed and atop his sword.
“Garrett!” he yelled and drew the blade free. The assassin kicked the cot aside and lunged after him. Tristan swung his sword in a narrow arch as he rolled onto his hip. The killer danced back and hesitated, seemingly perturbed, as the blue ghoul mask tilted to one side to examine him. “Connor!”
‘Where are my bodyguards?’
“Don’t bother,” the assassin cackled. “I took care of your knights before I came in. And yelling won’t help—” he held up a hand and tapped a wide bracelet embedded with moonstone gems “—this enchantment means no one will hear you, no matter how close they come to the tent.”
‘An enchantment? Mercy’s tit. But does that mean the magic will only work while we remain inside the tent?’ Tristan grit his teeth as he shifted into a defensive stance. ‘I just have to get past him and outside.’ His vision seemed cloudy, his focus unsteady, even his limbs were unusually heavy. Tristan shook his head sluggishly—and dodged as the assassin came at him with the speed of a striking viper.
He deflected the dagger again—but not the assassin’s second blade. Pain burned along his inner thigh as the blue mask dipped beneath Tristan’s backswing, and the killer rolled away, once more between Tristan and the tent door.
“She said you’d be drugged and unable to wake up,” the blue ghoul commented casually.
“She? Who? The Dowager?”
The assassin laughed. “Wouldn’t be much of a professional killer if I told you that, now would I?”
“Guess you’re not so confident about killing me,” Tristan taunted. “Otherwise, what harm could come from telling a dead man.”
The blue ghoul cackled as he raised a dagger, fresh with the blood from Tristan’s leg, and shrugged. “Maybe I’m just waiting for the poison to take effect while you and I exchange pointless banter. But I’ll tell you what, Prince, drop the sword, and I’ll give you a name right before I send you off to the underworld.”
Tristan growled. The burning in his left leg had gone numb too quickly. ‘Damn it, of course an assassin would use poison.’ The blurriness returned as the blue mask before him faded from two, to one, to three.
“A lesson for your next life, prince. Any assassin worth his weight in gold will prep his blade with poison. In the worst-case scenario, it will wear down a tough opponent or kill the one who manages to run away.”
“I’m not running anywhere,” Tristan growled as he shifted once more into a protective stance.
The assassin chuckled and beckoned with his blade. “Neither am I.”
‘I’m running out of time, and he knows it.’ Tristan calmed his expression as he surveyed the tent around them. ‘I said I wouldn’t run, but if I don’t get outside—well, I’m already a disgraced prince.’ He smiled and locked eyes with the demonic black gaze of the ghoul’s blue mask.
He lunged forward, but the assassin moved quicker. This time Tristan blocked both blades with his sword and then shoved his fist into the assassin’s face as flames ignited from his palm and spiraled towards the blue mask.
The assassin stumbled as he leapt back with a startled gasp. He recovered with admirable dexterity, but Tristan had already shoved past him through the tent flaps. A drizzle of rain greeted the prince before his injured leg skid across the slick mud and sent Tristan crashing down into the muck. He rolled with the momentum of his fall and came up on his knees. The tent flaps moved as the killer blurred through them.
“Garrett!” Tristan shouted at the top of his lungs as he struggled to rise. His left leg buckled as soon as he regained his footing, and then the assassin was upon him.
“Thought you said you wouldn’t run!” the ghoul hissed as Tristan deflected his attack.
“I lied,” Tristan snarled and swung his blade. His attack was slow—too slow. The poison coursing through him made the assassin’s movement increasingly challenging to follow. The blue mask moved like a blur, and then a sharp pain in Tristan’s wrist sent his Commander’s sword spiraling out into the darkness.
Tristan shielded his neck and chest instinctively and caught the assassin’s wrist by pure luck—but not before the savage impact of the blue ghoul’s attack knocked him back down into the slippery earth. His fingers, coated with mud and blood, slid free from the assassin’s blade, which buried itself into his shoulder.
Searing pain ripped past Tristan’s lips as the fire in his left arm shout outwards and engulfed the assassin’s face and arms. This time the blue ghoul did not retreat, though a strained growl of agonizing pain slipped past his emotionless mask.
Then a blurred volley of punches battered into Tristan’s face. His skull rang, his vision spun, and blood filled his mouth as he fought past the pain to remain conscious.
“Fuck!” Tristan roared. He kicked his right foot against the ground as he tried to shake the assassin free. His right arm, his sword arm, had gone entirely numb along with his left leg.
All too quickly, the magic burning from his left hand flickered out and died.
“Hell’s Teeth,” the assassin whispered hoarsely. “Guess you’re not much of a witch after all.” The blue ghoul yanked the blade free from Tristan’s shoulder and raised it above the prince’s throat. A cross-bolt hissed through the air and jammed into the side of the ghoul’s neck with a quiet yet triumphant thud.
“Your Highness!” Garrett’s voice crashed through Tristan’s pounding heart as the mirage of three—no, four ghouls danced before his eyes. Blood trickled down from beneath the blue mask as the assassin toppled over beside him into the mud. “Tristan!”
Garrett’s face was above him. Two knights raced past with blades drawn.
“Sound the bloody alarm!” Garrett snapped as he yanked the cape from his shoulders and pressed it hurriedly against Tristan’s shoulder. “And drag the physician from his bed!”
The blast of a war horn filled the cold dark sky as Garret tightly wrapped Tristan’s shoulder and then moved down to bandage his leg.
“What is it?” Durante shouted as he rushed towards them, still in battle armor. “Your Highness! How did this happen? Where is Connor?”
“Dead, Colonel,” a knight reported. “So is Sir Bennett.”
“Assassin,” Tristan whispered as he raised his left hand and tried to keep the figures before him from blurring into each other. “Poison—”
“Get my medical kit now!” Durante roared.
“Fuck. Fuck!” Garrett muttered desperately as he fumbled with Tristan’s leg. “I need another pair of hands!”
Faces merged into each other even as the knight’s voices grew distant. The poison clawed across Tristan’s skin and wrapped his body inside its deadly numb cocoon. In the suffocating silence that filled his ears, Tristan watched the frost child kneel beside him as the moon illuminated her dark hair and frozen crown.
Warm hands touched the side of his face. Tristan grasped the wrist blindly and held on desperately as he stared into the child’s frightening ice-blue eyes.
“Don’t you dare quit on me, your Highness.” Durante’s voice boomed through the fading specter. “Here, eat this—” something wet and mushy pressed between Tristan’s lips. “—don’t choke on it like a dog. Chew, then swallow.”
Tristan willed himself to listen and held onto Durante as he swallowed down the bitter taste.
“Here’s a bit of water,” Durante murmured encouragingly. “Slowly, your Highness.”
Tristan drank, and for a moment, the darkness receded. He could see Garrett shouting at the physician for not moving fast enough. The knights of the Red Wolf Army were pressed in around him with pale, shaken faces. Tristan rolled his head to the side and stared at the blue ghoul mask of his would-be assassin. Its demonic black eyes stared at him defiantly across the bloody mud, welcoming him to hell.
“Don’t trust anyone!”
“Wake up, or they will kill you.”
“If they can kill a prince—they can kill a Queen.”