…the Pont’s death had a rippling effect within weeks. Street criers, barkeepers, farmers, nearly all the voices of the common folk rang with skepticism and mistrust toward the mighty churches that once provided structure and safety. We proved one of them could bleed. On the subject of blood, bandit tribes had grown more aggressive, rallying together under the banner of, “The Brotherhood of Truth” and staging a coup of the outlying city of Shassul. Viscond DeMoreal, purported (and later certainly proven) to be the wealthiest man in town, issued an unusual cry for aid. Having escaped the city by means mysterious, the bard now faced a veritable army between him and his estate. More precious than any work of art, vault of gold, or even loved one was a Mask, rumored to be the source of Viscond’s outrageously good fortune. Privately, the search for this mask would be my primary motivation in the events that followed, though I was still blood-bound by the Cult of Lejac to serve Count Mordrey’s interests and maintain order in the region.
My foolish hunting of the Gelder Hind remains a great thunderhead that still lours above me. But even the immensity of that error, and the grave consequences that followed still yielded to me the smallest of victory: less than a dram of powdered Gelderhorne – like fly’s honey if one were to venture at attracting a greater liege of the Underplanes.
On the topic of consequences, this little quest did a fine job of illuminating common boons and banes of such dealings.
There are innumerable fairlytales and warnings on the topic, but experience is always the better tutor. More on this to come. In short, the town of Shassul was under recently established vicegrip of this ragtag band of bandits, led by the enigmatic Pale Knight, rumored to have bleached his black armor bone-white by absorbing the souls of his fallen enemies. By some odd coincidence, my new traveling companion, Albrecht (proving himself a very doughty warrior on this little venture), told me that his survival of a bloody betrayal in a lord’s court had earned him the moniker of “Red Knight” to those who know him. Clearly, one of these knights was due for a change of attire.
Despite our motivation (Albrecht’s still remains murky at the time of this penning), the Brotherhood of Truth were unlikely to hold the gates of Shassul open to us, despite any insistence. But another power was at play. A band of militia comprised of followers of Morbrek, the god of Ill Fortune made their way into Anea, parading a pair of Brotherhood raiders they’d captured. One was immediately executed before a roaring crowd by a cleric who called himself “The Unfortunate One.”
A brief appraisal would mark these men as blind zealots, but understanding the specifics of their practice would prove vital of our success. Firstly, they believed that overcoming life’s trials and woes (bestowed upon us by Morbrek, a sentiment I contend, for mankind certainly seems more than capable of performing that task) were instrumental in the strengthening of one’s character. Regarding misfortune as a hidden blessing is a useful philosophy to a man who has received little more – exactly to whom our cleric was preaching. Like any charlatan-priest, he promised the common man a reversal of fortune, but something in the marrow of his message struck true to me. Certainly not unrelated to my recent sojourn in prison. Nevertheless it made lying to the man much easier, my words being backed with some conviction, if not even sincerity.
These priests too were aware of Viscond and his magic mask. It’s not difficult to imagine that an item that grants unnatural good fortune would be an affront to priests of Morbrek. So, there I and Albrecht were: trapped between a band of militant zealots and a professional charlatan, each lying for the reclamation of an item of power.
After enduring Viscond’s (hardly) woeful tale, he entrusted me with the key to his estate, a small but elaborate figurine in the shape of a sundial, suspended on a silver chain. With key in hand, the Red Knight and I sculpted a plan to pledge our support to the Unfortunate One and his band, join the next raid on Shassul, then slip away from the fighting to steal away to Viscond’s manor and claim the mask for ourselves. Though it took some time to convince the high priest of our loyalty, we were soon on the road toward embattled Shassul. After a brief sortie with some Brotherhood scouts, we arrived outside the walls of the city at nightfall on the second day. It was after the skirmish that I began to suspect that my companion may be a particularly exceptional warrior, but that was to be illuminated soon.
As Albrecht and I peers across the drab battlements of the beleaguered city, I thought I noticed the visage of a man bedecked in armor, moon-white as the stories promised. Previously that day, I saw a fallen hawk’s feather along the trail, pointing exactly west. This was an exceptional omen of fortune, but I kept that insight to myself. When a man learns of his fortune, he has the unhealthy tendency of leaning toward it, which may damage him in the process. As we discussed battle plans with the Unfortunate One, it was by no means a leap of imagination to convince the cleric that his place should be at the fore, where the peril was greatest. We, meanwhile, would infiltrate the city from the south, with the promise of rejoining the priest’s forces, but with the intent of making our way into the manor instead. Enlisted to aid us was a man called Sen, who masked his face with dark cloth and bore a strange, curved sword.
Another exchange of service was to take place. The dark warrior had more wit than expected; he was banded to these cultists for his own reasons, like ourselves. His beloved was in the unfortunate state of being held captive by a member of the Brotherhood called the Thin Man, who supposedly had a penchant for torture and depravity. After glimpsing the ghostly armored figure atop the wall, I had little reason to doubt his tale. Having scouted some of the town, Sen told us that she was held somewhere in the market district. This would take us afar of our intended goal. Furthermore, the market was not far from the city gate, close to the influence of the Pale Knight. I was still lightheaded from the wormwood draught I imbibed earlier to better perceive motion upon the walls (or so I claimed to my companion), but I felt some sympathy for Sen’s tale. He was a man teetering on cliffs of desperation, and if his state were some elaborate ruse by the high priest of suss out deceivers, then so be it.
As (mis)fortune would have it, we encountered the Pale Knight en route to the market. He appeared like a vision, a gust of wind the pulls upon a curtain and pours white light into a dark, private room. As one would expect, the two knights parlayed before battle. First, the Pale Knight made plain his intents. Disillusioned by lords and their petty feuds, he decided to pledge his blade to the very people of the land. This coup, he hoped, would be the start of a new society unfettered by the old systems of power. What he failed to mention was that his Brotherhood had already slaughtered rich and poor folk alike in the name of this conquest. I looked to my companion, still a stranger to me, as he took a moment under the moonlight to gather up his words. Albrecht swiftly denied his suit for peace. In a moment, his warhammer was in his hand. As the Red Knight raised his weapon, a sudden gust of wind ran through the city like a midnight rider. Against the moon, I saw a hawk’s feather lift into the air, the same fair omen I noticed on our way to Shassul. When I looked back, the Pale Knight was dead on the ground. As he fell, small spirits like candlelights lifted from his armor and vanished into the night. Without much more ceremony, the three of us carried on toward the market.
The Thin Man had barricaded himself in the trade center, with only a few of his loyalists left to guard him outside. Without their general at the fore, the battle was likely favoring Morbrek’s cultists. The men were dispatched quickly, and the wooden door protecting the torturer did little to impede Albrecht’s insistence. Sen’s revenge was swift and terrible, and his beloved was quickly in his arms. Noble enough to carry out his end of the bargain, the dark warrior led us to Viscond’s manor. I expected I would not see the man again, and bid him my thanks and farewell.
The manor was unguarded, strangely still in the wake of the battle, now barely within earshot. In fact, the place seemed largely undisturbed as we approached the old oaken door toward the back of an elaborate grounds. I thought for a moment that Viscond’s promise may have been hollow, and that the trinket he gave me back in Anea would be as worthless as any discarded scrap of tin one might find in a gutter. I did not wonder long, as the doors swung open upon our approach. Viscond was indeed a man of means. Lush, green carpets, sprawing frescoes upon the walls, a stair that spun upward toward two perhaps three floors above. But I could feel something pulling me downward.
There was no vault, no labyrinth laden with traps. There, hung upon a wall in a squad basement illuminated only by a pair of torches, was the Mask of Xel’Chala. I learned its name so quickly because it introduced itself to us. Like some twisted actor’s visage, it was a thing of duplicity. One half a smirk, the other a foul grimace, dripping with a dark ichor. Viscond’s good fortune appeared to be the arrangement of a pact, this mask acting as a vessel by which a greater power might commune with us mortals. It did not take Xel’Chala to offer me a similar deal, likely assuming his original debtor to be slain. It was in this moment that I was visited by a series of conundrums. Firstly, it seemed that whatever power the mask might offer me would come at a great cost to my personal liberty, perhaps even sanity. What worth is power if one does not have the sense to wield it? However, was a pact of this nature not the very reason I slew the Gelder Hind and placed such a bevy of misfortune upon me? Surely wrestling my will from Xel’Chala’s grasp would be an easier matter than contending with the entire Cult of Lejac, who still sought vengeance. I reflected on the day. All we had struggled through was the result of downtrodden folk seeking greatness, a seat at the table. If this mask could change Viscond from a drunken lout to one who held men’s desires in the palm of his hand, then it might change a farmer into a general, a king. With this aid, I may earn myself an ally powerful enough to fight the cult. That was how I came to possess the mask.