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Pathfinder Tales: The Wizard's Mask
By Ed Greenwood
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2013 Paizo Publishing, LLC
All rights reserved.
Hard Times in Halidon
The only man still alive in the room smiled behind his dark mask.
The warning was encrypted, but Molthuni codes had never risen above simple. Always the same pattern, always strict adherence to unimaginative authority, leaving many holes for a clever rat to slip through.
And although more than a few things had slipped away from him recently, he was still a clever rat.
He read the Molthuni intelligence report again. Bluntly flattering. No wonder Tarlmond had laid a trap for him.
The man Tarram Armistrade always wears masks, and so is most widely known as "The Masked." Nethran gives his name as "Armistrode," but this is now considered a misreading of a handwritten ledger entry. Has gone by several other names, including Bellowbar, Jalosker, and Markant.
Makes his living as a thief; successful, is wanted for many crimes in Cheliax. Many small thefts within our borders probable, but none proven. Suspected of involvement in the Five Dragons thefts.
Is swift to violence and must be considered dangerous.
Tall. Agile. Speaks courteously and in cultured sentences; can and has impersonated nobility, law-officers, priests, and officials. Observant, and remembers what he sees.
Some recent accounts report that his face has been damaged or altered in some manner.
Recently seen in Canorate and Braganza. Apprehend on sight for interrogation, but slay without hesitation if difficulties arise.
Ah, yes, those oft-arising difficulties. Annoying things.
It had been a nasty little trap. A needle tipped in soporific poison, thrusting up under the seat-cushion. If his long-ago preparations for getting past the defenses of the Five Dragons hadn't left him immune to that particular poison forever, he might be slumped helpless in that chair right now, lost in dreams, waiting to be awakened by the ungentle handling of cold-faced men in blood-red Molthuni tabards, eager to take out their frustrations on the dangerous fugitive known as The Masked.
If Tarlmond had been a better actor, if the man had been better able to leash his own anger and keep it off his face ... but he hadn't.
The Halidon merchant's fury at discovering just how badly he'd been hoodwinked had fairly bellowed across his cozy office at his arriving guest. The Masked would have had to be blind and deaf not to notice the blazing glare, the tight-lipped smile, the greetings curt even for Molthune.
Luckily, he wasn't either of those things. Yet.
His good mood turned bitter.
As if he needed to be punished. If he could have undone that theft — years ago, now — he might still have a face. He might be able to live a comfortable life without the constant threat of pursuit — and by those far more dangerous than any Molthuni investigator.
Who would have thought such danger lurked in masks? Masks!
Bejeweled, darkly elegant, one even sporting feathers. He should have known a wizard's mask would harbor magic.
He should have done so many things differently.
And if so, what then? He might have died years ago, drowned in boredom behind a desk in some ledger-cluttered shop cellar room, in one of the more crowded and noisome cities, keeping track of "chamber pots, black" or "false noses, flesh-hued."
False noses like those he no longer bothered to use, because there was nothing left to keep them from sliding down to plummet from the chin he no longer had.
It had been the easiest of mistakes. He'd needed to see in the dark in order to make his escape, and so had put on the one mask of his newfound loot whose magic was supposed to help with that.
He'd taken it off again soon enough, but "soon enough" had been too late.
The curse had begun. Slowly wiping away his face.
Someday, a dying sage had warned him, it would leave only eyes staring out of a blank, smooth sheet of flesh. Noseless, mouthless, and chinless. He'd go mute, reduced to breathing through his skin, with an endless, droning whistling. He'd be something people would recoil from, or else draw sword and hack at in terrorand revulsion. A walking worm that would quickly starve to death.
He wasn't that far gone yet. He could still fare well enough far and wide across Golarion, in increasing desperation to find magic to halt and reverse his curse. Nothing he'd yet found even slowed what was happening to him.
"Yet I remain Tarram Armistrade," he told the dead man on the floor gently. "For now."
His once-handsome face was a ruin, nose gone and mouth a mere slit in a chinless slide of flesh. He covered it with masks that had no magic, because leaving the mask on hastened its foul work.
Yet he dared not leave the cursed mask hidden, for any harm done to it happened to his face, too. Usually he wore it like some sort of hidden codpiece, under his clothes, where it was least noticeable. Where he was wearing it right now.
"Though more truly," he added to the sprawled and forever silent Tarlmond, "I am now The Masked."
It was a matter of necessity. If he went around unmasked, he'd no doubt be mistaken for a monster and slain by the first warrior he passed. The laws of Molthune allowed citizens who perceived danger to slay "horrible monsters." Molthuni law was so clear-cut and brutally simple. Pity for everyone that most people weren't.
The Masked looked around the room and smiled, though he took little pleasure in it. Cozy rooms like this one, chambers of wealth that stank of power and ill-gotten gains, were where he flourished these days. While his victims fell.
Enough self-pity. He took up the poker and stirred the small fire in the grate to spitting, popping vigor. He dropped the intelligence report onto its flaring flames, pinned it there with the point of the poker, and watched it curl and blacken into ash.
When nothing recognizable was left, the tall masked man turned to survey the shelves behind the desk again, peering at the lowest-down tomes.
Escolarr Tarlmond was as predictable as he was greedy. That particular fat volume. Sigh.
When purchasing a false book as a treasure-coffer, even a dolt should be aware that to buy one out of a shop window in Canorate, from a shop that made scores of identical volumes, meant that many would recognize your hiding place for what it was at a glance.
There'd be a removable floorboard somewhere in this room, too, and a rather better coffer beneath it. With another poisoned needle, no doubt. Best toyed with at leisure, elsewhere, so take the second and leave the first. Between the book coffer, Tarlmond's purse, and the gems that undoubtedly rode in a hollow boot heel, no one would notice the missing floorboard stash.
But first, there was still business to attend to.
Molthuni sword-tutors taught too many showy flourishes. Tarlmond had taken so much time singing his blade free of its scabbard, and needed so much room to do so, that it had been simplicity itself to step inside the man's reach, thrust the elbow of his sword arm away with one hand, and throttle the merchant with the other. A quiet and bloodless death, but it leftThe Masked needing to account for — or conceal — the congested purple of the dead man's face.
He caught up the decanter that held Tarlmond's best wine, splashed it generously over the corpse's face, front, and hands, then arranged the remains with that purple face in the fire, a goblet in one dead hand and a stool overturned where it would look as if the drunken merchant had tripped over it and ended up in the fire.
Finding the right floorboard, and its spring-dart trap — my, but Tarlmond had been a nasty, suspicious man, and Halidon was better off without him — took but a moment. The coffer thus gained was smaller and lighter than most, which was even better. Into the padded underarm sack it went.
The Masked shot a last, careful look around the room, and found nothing that could be linked to a tall masked visitor. Closing the door softly behind him, he strolled out and down the stairs, not hurrying.
The first faint wafts of burning flesh preceded him. It smelled like boar, reminding The Masked he was hungry — but the reek of Tarlmond's perfumed hair oil, rising to overtake it, was just horrible.
Yes, Halidon was much better off without him.
Tantaerra Loroeva Klazra had run out of curses days ago. The abominable creaking of the ill-maintained wagon had long since half-deafened her and brought on a ringing headache that felt as if someone had put a metal bowl over her head and started tapping it with a hammer.
She could tell by the color of the road-mud passing slowly and lurchingly beneath her that the caravan was far west of Canorate now, up out of the low river-vale farms and close to the Backar Forest. The roadside was littered with twigs and withered leaves fallen from carts that would soon have been snatched up for hearth-kindling, back where she'd come from.
Come from? Hah! Escaped from.
She'd come from Nirmathas, too long ago. Canorate had only been where she'd lived — existed — as a slave.
A small, puny, but useful slave.
If she hadn't been short and gaunt, even for a halfling, she could never have fit between the rotten wagon floorboards and the ramp-boards slung under the decaying conveyance on open frames — recently repaired frames that were probably the stoutest, best-built part of this damnable, never-to-be-sufficiently-cursed wagon.
A turnip wagon, no less, its old sides and bottom too full of cracks to haul grain any more. Which at least made it unlikely anyone would soon be needing to haul forth the ramp-boards that were serving Tantaerra as a floor. Turnips got forked out of wagons, or clawed into sacks and the sacks tossed down.
She hated turnips.
Still, being wedged here like an opportunistic rat won out over being a Molthuni slave. Just about any situation would — and Tantaerra had been one of the luckier slaves. Her master, back in Canorate, had been a maker and seller of knives, specializing in throwing knives. She'd been his sharpener, errand-runner, and demonstrator of the art of hurling and catching razor-sharp knives. Which had made some Molthuni wary of kicking or throwing handy objects at a scuttling, skinny, two-and-a-half-foot-tall halfling.
Not that she'd spent most days doing much more than running the grinding wheel or scampering along the highest shelves, fetching down blades to save Hroalund the puffing work of moving his stockroom ladder. And happily eating the apples and wedges of cheese he literally tossed her way.
That had all ended, very suddenly and not long ago, the day someone had killed old Hroalund in a dispute over prices.
Tantaerra had taken his smallest, most exquisite throwing knives — the little adorned ones he sold to women of wealth, to wear hidden under their garments as sharp little surprises for those who offered unwanted attentions — strapped them all over herself, and gotten out, far and fast, seeking the caravan yards. Slaves were blamed for murders all too often, and she'd no desire for that painful a death.
So she'd left the grandest city in Molthune the way most vermin did, hiding under a turnip wagon and living like a rat, foraging by night when the wagon stopped. Whatever she could find — ground-grubs one night, and handfuls of grass too often. Sometimes she stole from the caravan as well — anything but turnips. Halfling slaves were always hungry, but she wanted food, not turnips.
Well, the sun was lowering; it would soon be foraging time again. The puddles passing under her were starting to stink of more than ox-dung and horse heaps, too, and her wagon was starting to rattle over larger rocks, the broken and half-buried remnants of flagstones. They were coming to some sort of settlement.
That meant more danger for her than the open road, yet it might be a good thing in the longer run. The wagon's groans were deepening, which meant she might soon have to find a different home — if somethingright beside her didn't break with sudden violence and maim her in an instant.
Oh, life was such an endless parade of amusements ...
"Ho, Yarlin! Get that banner up! Halidon's garrisoned, and I'd rather not be wearing half a dozen bolts before nightfall!"
That gruff shout came from almost beside Tantaerra, as the head of the caravan guards rode past.
Halidon. She'd heard it mentioned once or twice during her years in Canorate. A small place — logging village, most likely, as it stood at the edge of the Backar Forest. A usual waystop because it was near mid-journey, when taking the most direct roads between Braganza and Canorate.
So they were that close to Halidon. Good. This gods-cursed wagon just might make it.
The wheel that was thankfully farthest from Tantaerra rode up over a particularly sharp stone and then thumped down its far side — and the axle that had been spitting grease all over her for days shivered and split, from the hub of the wheel halfway to where a certain small and uncomfortably cramped halfling was grimly watching it from.
The wagon — and the caravan it was part of — lurched right on. No one had heard, of course. No surprise there. This lot saw and heard nothing that didn't jump up and dance for coin under their very noses.
The constant groaning of the wagon was different now, as the dying axle added its own protest to the general din. A sort of rising, wobbling, wandering shriek that — oh, how could they not hear it?
When someone stuck his head in and under for a look, a certain non-paying passenger would be discovered. Though there were halflings in Molthune who weren't slaves, Tantaerra had never known any personally — and stowaways of any height were rarely greeted with much kindness. Moreover, to a certain breed of merchant, a female slave — even a two-and-a-half-foot-tall halfling, well out of girlhood and approaching middle age — would be something to cage and make use of.
Neither the wagon in front of this one nor the one behind had ramp boards or anything else slung underneath. The wagon three back trailed a broken-off length of rusty chain and the dangling remains of a ramp-board frame, but she doubted they'd carry much more than the weight of a few spiders or flies before tearing free and falling to the road.
The light was failing, the sun sinking low, and by the rattling of slowing iron-shod wagon wheels and the clip-clop of hooves rising ahead of her now, there was less mud and more stone underfoot. Voices, too, and some excited shouts. Children.
The caravan had entered Halidon proper. Which meant, the gods being the gods, that it was just about time for this axle to —
Tantaerra dropped and rolled even before the far wheel came off the separating axle and the wagon lurched and then sank down into a nightmare of splinters, amid a chorus of surprised and angry shouts.
She had a glimpse of the wheel wobbling away on its own, bouncing and swaying like a drunkard leaving a tavern late. Then her own hasty escape snatched her view of it away. Out and back, to scuttle like a crab under the next wagon and hope its oxen weren't fast enough when stamping at her to —
"Hoy! You! Crannor, what's that? It just went under your wagon! Like a halfling, but smaller!"
Like a halfling, but smaller.
Tantaerra growled silently at that and kept scuttling, running on hands and knees just as fast as she knew how, trying to —
"There! I saw it! Over there, under Derethrai's wagon, now!"
"What's all this?" Sharper voices, and unfamiliar, not from the caravan. She risked a look.
Molthuni soldiers. Big, clomping hobnailed boots, dark breeches, blood-red tunics, helmets too big to stay on without chinstraps, and spears. Led by an officer without a spear, who was instead carrying some sort of short battle-hammer with a wicked-looking spike where its pommel should be.
"Stowaway, or a thief, under the wagons. It broke yon turnip cart, somehow."
Oh, aye. Blame me for your born-of-neglect breakdowns, now!
"'It'?" the Molthuni officer snapped. "Some sort of beast?"
"Don't rightly know, yet. Small, and fast — and some thing's been stealing food from us, all the way from Canorate! If you'll look under that wagon!"
"Trail thefts are your problem, citizen, not the duty of the soldiers of Molthune to ..."
Boots, tramping closer, the sharp points of spearheads dipping down into view, and Tantaerra had run out of wagons.
Cursing silently, she doubled back. The one place they'd not be so enthusiastic when thrusting spears would be in among the mud-spattered legs of the oxen at the front of each wagon. Oxen cost coin, good coin, and so did harness, and —
"Hah!" One of the soldiers, too dim-witted not to thrust his spear right into the snorting, stamping midst of the oxen. "I see it — a boy, a really small boy, a — no, a girl! Barefoot —"
"Croel, haven't you ever seen a halfling before? Slave Pits of Absalom, boy, but they're — mind! You'll have —"
Whatever else the older soldier might have been going to say was lost in a dozen shouts of alarm. An ox had felt the burning bite of a careless spear-slice, and tried to rear back and kick out at where the pain had come from. The wagon it and three fellow beasts were yoked to shuddered under its buffeting, and frightened and angry muffled shouts arose from within it.
Excerpted from Pathfinder Tales: The Wizard's Mask by Ed Greenwood. Copyright © 2013 Paizo Publishing, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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