The Mask (2159 words)
Deep within the maze of fog choked streets known as the Warrens, the oldest and rankest part of the Many Shadowed City of Shaual, past seedy whore houses and wine sinks, crumbling hovels, rickety lean-to’s and innumerable vague and impoverished shrines to little, nameless gods, sat a tavern of ill-repute. Those who lived near its soot-coated walls never ventured inside, nor wasted a moment more than necessary outside of its doors. For the tavern in question, The Gaudy Gull, bore with it a palpable sense of danger, reflected in the menacing stares of the patrons, such as they were. And at the Gull congregated the worst Shaual had to offer, spending blood stained coin to drink their fill between quest, contract, writ or assignation.
One such man stood alone, propping up the bar, his dark mood plain for all to see. None bothered him. They all knew better. For he too bore a grave reputation, and was quick to anger.
“Piss and thunder!” Aarald roared, slamming his fist on the bar and rousing Peck, the landlord, from a lazy slumber. “Just hand it over Peck, I’m done waiting!”
“Now, now…er, Aarald. Peace, my friend” the fat landlord stammered. “I got two down for this one, and we wait ‘til mid-eve before calling it, you knows the rules.”
Aarald just stared, while Peck shrank from his gaze, back to absent-mindedly wiping down the bar, dirty rag clutched tight in trembling fingers. He willed the other to arrive with every fibre of his being. Anything to get Aarald gone. The man more than scared him, Peck was not afraid to admit. His wishes did not go long unanswered, as at ten to mid-eve, the door slammed open, letting in the cold night air and sending lamp flames a-gutter. Silhouetted by the night, stood a man with four legs. Peck rubbed his eyes in disbelief, Aarald just groaned.
“It had to be you, didn’t it?” he muttered.
“Who else, my dear, irascible friend?” the man declaimed, stepping awkwardly into the light, hobbling with one leg cast and crutches gripped under his arms. “Who else, but I?” he gestured grandly to the assembled crowd, “The marvel of magicks most foul and arcane, the eradicator of beasts most terrible and occult, from the sunny isles of the Painted Lands to the accursed, blackened shores of Old Asahn, I have seen it all. So I ask you again. Who else, but I?”
“They say the mask is tainted with the black touch of the magae who sought to bridge the gulf between life and death.” Aarald replied, his calm tone belying the irritation and anger that frothed beneath the surface.
“Pah! Mummer’s tales, fit only to scare babes fresh from their mother’s breast. Wood and bronze, my friend. That’s all the mask is. Wood and bronze, aged and worn and largely worthless, but for lingering tales of it’s otherworldly past piquing the interest of certain money-laden collectors. Thank the gods for fools and their money, eh?” and at that, the man laughed a hearty bellow of a laugh, clapping a stout hand to Aarald’s shoulder.
“And then there are the guardians, of course. But, I suppose they are mere pilferings compared to the vaunted legend of Calisto, notorious magae rogue of Shaual.” Aarald sneered, “Although quite how you intend to clamber up the Dead Peak on one leg is beyond me.”
“Oh, my dear Aarald. Obviously, I am in no state to go a-venturing across the wastes.”, he chuckled, “No, that would not do at all. I have employed a second, as is my right.”
“You pisssing…” Aarald bit back the curse, forcing his anger to dispel. “Well, it matters not. There’s no man in Shaual who is a match for Aarald.”
“Maybe, maybe not. Care to make a wager?” and there was that sly smile Aarald despised. “Half the reward to whomever ends up with the mask.” Calisto said, extending out his hand to seal the deal.
“Done.” Aarald replied, as he shook the magae’s hand. “So, where is he? Your second, I mean.”
“Hmm? Oh, it’s a ‘she’. And besides, she left hours ago.”
Glaring bloody murder at Calisto, Aarald fished out a handful of coppers, threw them in Peck’s general direction and rushed out of the door, out into the cold, mid-eve streets of Shaual, tendrils of fog grasping about his ankles and the sound of Calisto’s smug laughter ringing in his ears.
Dawn finally broke as Aarald trudged on through the swathes of fetid marshland west of Shaual. Of Calisto’s second there was no sign and the land was still as far as the eye could see, save for a half-dozen hawks that circled hopefully above, keen eyes searching for prey. Far in the distance rose the Dead Peak, a grey, squat blotch of mountain that blended with the pale and dull morning sky. Aarald’s thoughts turned to the mountain and what he would find there. The tales were numerous, but he doubted if more than a tenth of them were true. What he did know was that there was a monastery there. A ruin of a doomed magae sect, and within, the Necri Mask.
As if bidden by his thoughts, a foul wind rose, choking and ridden by the stale smell of death. Aarald covered his mouth and blinked tears from wind-stung eyes. A hawk screeched far above, and Aarald sensed something deathly amiss. He drew his blade and turned, just in time to catch the rusty, crumbling edge of a sword against his own. His eyes travelled down the obviously ancient blade to a set of skeletal fingers, protruding from a swirling mess of pale mist. He recoiled in terror, and with rasping, clacking whispers, the creature emerged from the haze, it’s blade rearing back for another blow.
Aarald struck first, his sword tearing through the rusted blade and connecting with the skeletal form’s collar bone, shattering the monster in twain. It writhed on the floor, and Aarald allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction that quickly turned into dismay as the fog grew and, all around, the clacking of bone on bone could be heard. Aarald broke into a run, foul marsh water splashing round his ankles and his eyes trained on the sun, shining dimly through the fog. After minutes that seemed like hours, he broke from the fog to find himself mere steps from the base of the Dead Peak.
Eager to leave the marsh behind him, he scrambled up the crumbling mountain, the barest hint of a path marking the route the doomed magae once took to their secluded monastery, littered here an there with shards of weathered bone. His eyes were drawn inexorably upwards as he climbed, seeking a glimpse of his destination among the desolate, rocky expanse of the slope before him. Again, hawks shrieked above, but this time no mist rose, nor any skeletal assailants freed from poorly dug graves. The rest of his climb was surprisingly uneventful, as the air thinned and the incline of the mountain grew ever steeper. Sparing a glance behind him, Aarald saw the marshes far below, covered in a blanket of silently undulating grey mist.
Within an hour he had gained the summit, and there, sitting proudly astride the mountaintop, was the ruined monastery. He had to stop himself from just running in there, so eager he was to retrieve the mask and be gone from this eerily still place, but caution was called for, lest any of the skeletal apparitions encountered upon the marshes lurked within. With silent, tentative steps, Aarald stealthily crept through the stone doors, smashed open wide by some long forgotten force. Inside, the place was a maze of low corridors, through which Aarald had to crouch. He drew his blade, even though he’d have little room to swing it in here.
Soon, he spilled from a cramped corridor into the domed hall he had noted outside, afternoon light streaming in through a hole in the ceiling and shining directly upon a pedestal of darkest obsidian. There, the mask sat. Wood, coarse and still bearing it’s bark, with burnished bronzed details that exquisitely caught the light. With a furtive glance about him, Aarald gingerly stepped over to the pedestal, wary of setting off any hidden trap to skewer him, or signal that might rouse more foes from the dead. But as his fingers grasped the mask, and lifted it free; nothing. Aarald barked a laugh, before stowing the mask and making his way back outside.
Rushing out into the daylight, he pulled up short as, there, sitting before him was a hawk. It regarded him with quizzical eyes, before letting free a loud squawk and taking flight. Aarald watched it disappear into the distance, before making his way back down the Dead Peak. But as he carefully descended the slope, a sickening familiar sound arose. A clack, clack, clacking of bone on bone, as all about him skeletal frames rose and assembled. Rejoined fingers taking grasp on half-buried blades. Horrified, Aarald broke into a run, not caring if he broke his neck as he madly sought escape from this accursed peak. He hit the marsh at full pelt, tumbling head over heel and finding himself upended into the stinking, fetid waters.
He slowly rose, but found his progress strangely impeded. Looking down, he saw skeletal hands rising from the depths, clutching tight about his legs. With a cry of revulsion, he lashed out with the flat of his blade at the bony fingers, shedding them like dried mud on leather before scrambling to his feet and running, half stumbling from the marshes, sight turned firmly to the eastern horizon, the sky darkening now in the late afternoon as he hurriedly made for home, with more than a few horrors in his heart as he tried to banish memory of the Dead Peak and the skeletal minions that rose from its accursed corpse.
Peck fretted, and when he fretted, he washed down the bar, trying to avoid the utterly disarming and peculiar gaze of Calisto. He had hobbled in around lunch time, taken a seat at the bar and waited, reading from a book in some funny script Peck didn’t recognise. Said he was “waiting for a delivery”, and Peck could only assume he meant that mask him and Aarald were arguing about. He didn’t fancy having that accursed item in his place if even one of the tales about it were true. Just thinking of it made Peck shudder. At that moment the door slammed open, startling Peck something fierce. Calisto didn’t turn immediately, a wry smile plastered to his lips.
“So, it seems that even the high-and-mighty Calisto makes mistakes from time to time” Aarald laughed as he shouldered his way over to the bar. “I saw not a single sign of your second. A poor choice indeed, whoever the unfortunate lass was.”
“You should pay more attention, dear friend. She saw you, on at least three occasions.” Calisto smiled amiably.
“Ah, but no matter how stealthy, she failed in the end! I have the mask, I’ll have the reward, and I’ll be taking my winnings too, if it pleases you.” Aarald was beaming from ear to ear, relishing a rare opportunity to lord it over Calisto.
“Certainly,” Calisto replied, “half the reward amount, as agreed.” He tossed the coin purse over, still smiling as Aarald judged it’s weight. “Now, the mask please, dear friend”
“What?” Aarald replied with a laugh, “Give it to you, when I’ve yet to collect my reward?”
“But you already have your reward” Calisto said, his smile turning into a predatory grin. Aarald stared uncomprehending.
“Oh dear, do I have to spell it out?” laughed Calisto. “I took out the commission. I put up the reward. I bet you half that, when all is said and done, the mask will be in my hands. So it will be.” and there was that grin again.
“You…arrogant…manipulative” Aarald spluttered, at a loss for words. “Piss and thunder! You conniving son of a whore!” he yelled, his face turning purple with rage, before finally breaking into laughter.
“Oh, you’ve played me for a fool! Peck, a drink for me and this devious bastard right here” Aarald demanded, stamping his fist on the bar for emphasis. As the drinks arrived, he slid the mask over to Calisto and the pair walked (and hobbled) from the Gull, beverages in hand, leaving a bemused Peck in their wake. For once, the streets were lit by sunlight, unobscured by layers of soot and fog, and the air smelt fresh and clean, or as clean as it gets in the Warrens
“But there’s one thing I don’t understand…who was this mysterious second of which I saw no sign?” Aarald asked.
“I already said, you met her on three occasions.” Calisto grinned, as high above, circling the city of shadows, a hawk screeched her goodbyes.