The Mask of Mask (updated 01/21/2023)

Salmakia

Explorer
9. The Prancing Rosebush
Ewan didn’t want to depart Onoln without discovering whether his homestead was safe, but after their experience in the forest he had to admit that to make another go at returning home would be folly. They had managed to escape largely unscarred mostly through luck, and he knew that if they were forced to run from half a dozen ghouls that assuredly whatever was deeper in the forest would be more than a match for them. Besides, Callista was unwilling to spare any of the city’s rangers for what would likely be a suicide mission when all their work was needed to gather food. Still, it was with a heavy heart that he agreed to proceed onward to Xey, although he vowed one day to return and bring holy wrath down upon whatever evil was infesting his forest.

As fate would have it, there was a caravan leaving for Xey the very next day, and Burny approached its leader – an Aarakocra named Qeeww – to see if she had any use for guards along the road.

“The route is fairly safe,” she said, “and times being what they are I don’t have much to spare for guards. Have you any other skills you can lend us?”

“Three of our party are trained healers,” Burny said, “and we’re all adept at foraging for food. We also have a druid in our company who can provide magical sustenance for a score of folk each day.”

Qeeww nodded and let out a pleased chirp. “Very well then. I can offer you each two silver pieces a day if you provide the services you’ve suggested.”

Doing some quick math, Burny accepted, and the next day the party set off with the caravan. The ride was largely uneventful, the road between Onoln and Xey being a safe and well-traveled one. Burny occupied his days by creating illusory shows for the children travelling with the merchants, and found that many of the adults were in desperate need of a little light entertainment as well.

At night, he studied August Firestorm’s spellbook and worked tirelessly on a spell of his own devising. Night after night he would magically freeze a bit of water, chisel runes into it with his dagger, and speak words of power. And, night after painstaking night, the ice would sublimate instantly leaving him with singed hands and nothing to show for his effort. Althea began laying out poultices before going to sleep so that Burny might have something to ease his burns.

“It’s just not exact enough,” he swore.

“What?” inquired Veu, who had taken to spending many hours with the gnome while practicing her own magic. She had also, with Burny’s permission, begun crafting a forgery of August Firestorm’s book, although the wizard was careful to make sure she only copied the mundane text and not the magical runes hidden within.

“My dagger. I can’t get the precision I need in the runes. I’ll need some sort of specialty tool. I’m also beginning to suspect that I can’t use magically created ice to create more magic. It’s just too unstable, although I’ll need to do some more testing to confirm. I need to find some natural ice somehow. But travelling to the tundra would take weeks!”

Veu nodded as she continued carefully drawing a perfectly looped letter “L.” She doubted that she’d ever really understand Burny’s drive to experiment. With her calligraphy, she took comfort in knowing exactly what the finished product was supposed to look like.

***​

After two weeks of traveling, the city of Xey appeared on the horizon. It was a large city, filled mostly with stout brick and wood buildings and surrounded by a sturdy wooden wall. As they approached, they noticed that, surprisingly, no guards were checking incoming or outgoing travelers. Caravans leaving or entering Ekrido could expect to be searched thoroughly for smuggled goods, and even Onoln had a guard posted at the gate to maintain a semblance of order. Here there were sentries upon the wall, but the only individual greeting the incoming caravans was a lone crier, who announced in a grandiose voice:

“Welcome to Xey! Please keep your valuables where all may see them, spend gold freely, and please dear Mask do not bring the law into our fair city or I swear you will be run out. Please visit the casino if you wish to get rich in gold, the temple if you wish to get rich in spirit, and the talking frog fountain if you wish to get soaked!”

Approaching the crier, Metis asked him if he might know anyone named Curtis. The man bestowed upon her the smile of a magician who knew without doubt that his audience was momentarily to be astounded and delighted, and answered:

“Are you, by chance, referring to Curtis Rosencrantz, the daring rogue with a finger in every pie and an ear to every wall? Curtis, who knows the name of every good thief in Xey and all the no-good ones too? Curtis, who once swindled a dragon out of its scales using only his good looks and natural charm? Or perhaps you’re referring to somebody else…?”

“No,” Metis answered stonily, “I think that’s who we’re looking for.”

“You can find him at his inn, the Prancing Rosebush,” the man replied, dropping the showman act suddenly. “It’s right on the waterfront. You can’t miss it.”

Metis thanked him curtly and rejoined the group.

“It’s been a joy having you with us,” Qeeww was saying to Burny and the others. “Your illusions are truly delightful, and your company as inoffensive as any I’ve met. Our caravan will be returning to Ekrido in three days. If you have any business in that fair city you are welcome to accompany us, and I might have a little extra silver for you depending on how business goes here in Xey.”

The company thanked the cheerful Aarakocra, and assured her that they might very well be returning to Ekrido in that timeframe depending on how their own business in the city of thieves progressed.

Walking through the city toward the waterfront, they were at first struck by the simple nature of the houses and shops surrounding the thoroughfare. This city had none of the opulence and grandeur of Ekrido – no gilded spiral staircases or magically lit shop windows to catch the eyes of travelers. A superficial glance would have suggested that there was no great wealth in the city, but closer inspection revealed a sturdiness and a careful craftsmanship to all the buildings that would have been inconsistent with an impoverished area.

The truth was that Xey was an economically prosperous city, but, due to its reputation, no one dared flaunt their wealth. And, with a fear of having too much gold just sitting around in a city that worshiped Mask as its patron deity, wealthy individuals funneled their coins back into the economy, hiring builders and artists for their own homes or funding public work projects. Somehow, the city of thieves managed to have one of the lowest poverty rates, comparable even with Dargate, the exquisite city of the elves to the west.

Emerging from the tangle of streets onto the wharf, Ewan’s stopped suddenly, his jaw slack and his eyes wide.

“Are you all right?” Althea asked, concerned that he’d seen something.

“What is that?” asked the cleric.

Metis looked at him curiously. “What is… oh, right. You’ve never seen the Great Lake before.” For Xey, along with the other port cities of Fasa and Agoby, was situated on a massive inland body of water. It was to here that all rivers eventually flowed, and, with the exception of a small island several miles out, no land was visible across its murky depths.

“It’s beautiful,” Ewan breathed, awestruck at the sight.

The party gave him a couple moments of indulgence, each of them secretly wishing that they could experience the magnificence again for the first time, before proceeding down the boardwalk.

The Prancing Rosebush was, in fact, impossible to miss: a massive sprawling structure with multistoried edifices containing rooms to let all centered around a bustling tavern. Entering through the main door, the party was assaulted by the smell of strong ale and the clamor of voices from scores of travelers seated all throughout the establishment.

They had decided that Veu would accompany Metis to seek out Curtis, as the rogue was the most well-versed at dealing with those who flirted with the underside of the law, and so the other three found a table and enjoyed some of the cheapest ale they had ever tasted.

“Excuse me,” Metis asked, approaching the bartending, “is Curtis here?”

“Is ‘e here?” the bartender scoffed. “Never leaves. Some say ‘e never sleeps,” the man whispered confidentially. “That’s ‘im over there at table five. The bugbear.”

Glancing over, the two of them spotted the object of their search. Laughing heartily with some of his patrons, Curtis Rosencrantz was indeed a bugbear with carefully groomed silver fur. He sported a sleeveless tunic over which he flung a dashing purple cape, and there was a wildflower tucked behind one ear. He commanded both an ease and an intensity that made him simultaneously blend in and draw all attention towards himself. He was electric.

Metis waited for a break in his conversation before sliding in. “Excuse me, Curtis? I was wondering if you could help me.”

Curtis turned smoothly. “That is what I’m known for. But I make it a point never to do business with those I do not know.”

“I’m Metis,” said the Triton.

“Veu,” added the rogue.

“Charmed,” Curtis nodded. “Now, what is it I can do for you?”

“Is there somewhere private we can talk?”

The bugbear smiled. “Ah, a matter of import. I’m intrigued already. Come, we will use the conference room.” Excusing himself from the table he had been engaging with, he led Metis and Veu to a back room behind the bar. He locked the door and placed a small brown pyramid on the table. “There,” he remarked, “now we won’t be interrupted or overheard.”

Metis took a deep breath. “I think you might know my sister. Ariadne?”

Curtis’s face switched from charming to serious in an instant. “Ah. You’re Arden’s sister. She told me you might be calling.”

“I received a letter from her telling me that you might be able to help me find her?”
“Yes, she was staying here for a time. But I’m afraid she’s gone dark. And when one with Arden’s talents go dark, well, there is little that even I could do to find her. I’m sorry.”
“Her… talents?”
“Has your sister not told you of her profession?”
“No. What does she do?”
“If she has not informed you then I am sure she has her reasons. And I hold Arden in too high regard to violate her confidentiality, even though you are her sister.”
“I understand,” said Metis, disappointed though she was.
“She did pen a letter to you before she left. I have it here. It is in some sort of code, which I assume you know how to read.”

Taking the letter, Metis saw that it was the same cipher/Primordial hybrid as Ariadne’s previous one. Only this time the druid knew how to crack the code:

My dear Meti,
Events are transpiring even faster than I’d anticipated, and, Curtis having received no answer to my previous letter, I regret that my only recourse is to pen this second letter hastily and hope that you eventually make your way to Xey. I have not even the time to commission a courier, and besides I fear even writing to you at our shop once again would endanger you more than I could bear. I do hope you can forgive me for my absence, although I know that, were I in your position, I would be still much angered at the one who abandoned me. Knowing the immoral acts our parents committed to try and bend your mind to their will, there are many days I cannot forgive myself for the choice I made. But I suppose there is no use wallowing in the past. What’s done is done, after all, and all that can be thought of is the future. When it is safe for me to do so, I will seek you out. Until then, know that I am, most fondly, and forever, your friend and sister,
-A


Seeing the dejected look on Metis’s face, Curtis smiled inwardly. Perhaps he could profit off of this situation indirectly.

“I know this must be hard for you,” he began, “and I do hold Arden in the highest esteem. So for her, I am willing to go the extra mile. There is an object I can give you that would allow me to instantly alert you should I receive any word of your sister’s whereabouts. However it is very valuable, and I would require a task in return.”

“What sort of task?”

She really is guileless, thought Curtis. He wondered where she and her sister had diverged in that regard. “A week ago I made a deal with a drow from the Underworld named Seelar Stellwither. He only paid me half of the hundred gold he owed me. I want you to go collect the rest. Kill him or not, that’s up to you, but do make sure to at least rough him up a bit. Nobody crosses Curtis Rosencrantz and walks away easy.”

Metis gulped. That was exactly the sort of task she’d been hoping Curtis wouldn’t propose. “Can I get back to you? There are some other interested parties I would need to consult with.”

Curtis sighed. He hated dealing with people who couldn’t commit. “How long?”
“I’ll let you know in half an hour.”
“Very well. We shall meet back here in thirty minutes.”

***​

After sharing the task with the rest of the party, Metis excused herself, left the tavern, walked to the end of a pier, and dove into the lake. The workers on the dock were so accustomed to seeing aquatic beings climbing in and out of the water that they didn’t bat an eye. Releasing most of her air, Metis allowed herself to sink down to the muddy bottom. It didn’t have the dark solitude of some of the lagoons back in Liport where she’d grown up and it was far more polluted than even the river in Ekrido, but it was water nonetheless and submersing herself felt like a necessary escape.

What was her sister doing that was so secret and dangerous? Ariadne had clearly trusted Curtis which made Metis want to do the same, but he was the worst sort of rogue and the druid had no desire to hurt anyone, whether or not the individual in question had reneged on a bargain. Conflicting thoughts swirled in her mind, but she allowed the stillness of the lake to lull her heartbeat into a resting pattern. Eventually, the answer became clear. She wanted to find her sister, and she was willing to do whatever it took to succeed. She had no doubt that she was strong enough, and, now that her resolve was set, she believed nothing could stand in her way.

Emerging from the lake and reentering the Prancing Rosebush, Metis found that the company had come to the same decision.

“We think it’s a test,” Burny said. “I doubt Curtis really cares about the 50 gold, he just wants to see if you’re worth bothering with.”

“All right,” said Metis. “We do it.”

Convening in the back room once half an hour had passed, Curtis smiled to hear their decision. “I thought you might be interested,” he said. “I’ve taken the liberty of preparing a map of the Underworld for you. I assume that none of you have been before? If any of you had I probably would have heard about it.” The last was said with such confidence that none doubted the boast.

“What’s the Underworld?” asked Burny.

“Not even heard of it?” asked Curtis. The party shook their heads, and the bugbear grinned magnanimously. “I hope you don’t mind if I overly enjoy this moment then,” he continued. “It isn’t often I get to share one of my greatest pleasures with the unenlightened. The Underworld is one of the greatest phenomena of the known world. It is the city below Xey, and is where all the real business here takes place.”

“So a black market?” asked Burny.

“Oh, well assuredly there is a black market in the Underworld. But it is so much more than that. A thriving ecosystem of trade and negotiations where anything can be purchased if you know where to look. It is also home to our dear cousins who suffer from an affliction of sensitivity to sunlight, many of whom are nonetheless delightful associates.”

Curtis proceeded to explain some of the finer points of navigating the Underworld – which areas to avoid and which were safe – as well as the standard knocking patterns to pass through locked rooms. “After all, many of the corridors in the Underworld cut through the basements and cellars of the surface city. If nobody answers your knock, though, I’m afraid you’ll have to find a different way around. Breaking and entering is scandalous after all.”

And even with all of them carefully scrutinizing their host, none of those present could quite tell whether he was being serious or not about that last point.
 

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Salmakia

Explorer
This week has been so busy I didn't even realize that Saturday had come and gone until just now. Haven't had any time to write recently, but hopefully things will slow down a bit soon!
 


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