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The Mage In The Iron Mask n-4


  The Mage In The Iron Mask

  ( Nobles - 4 )

  Brian M. Thomsen

  Brian M. Thomsen

  The Mage In The Iron Mask

  Prologue

  Donal Loomis was a dwarfish gnome of a man, which is not to say that he claimed any blood lineage to either the dwarves or the gnomes but rather that his overall appearance, unfortunately, seemed to emulate the least favorable attributes of both races. With his bulbous features, stunted stature, and obese waistline, he was easily considered an unsightly wart on the face of humankind.

  The jagged facial scars that decorated his hairless head, unsightly reminders of the painful removal of tell-tale tattoos, did not help the ugliness of his physical appearance. Had he not retired to "the Retreat" he would have been a focal point for ridicule and persecution almost anywhere he went.

  The Retreat, as the members called it, was originally a place of study, refuge, and retirement for those who wished to devote their lives to the study of mage-craft and other magical arts. Scholarship alone, however, ceased to be enough of a reason for being or means of survival in the dour political climes of the Moonsea region, and the elder wizards who founded the Retreat many years ago decided that it had become necessary to widen their membership to certain other members of society who might help to subsidize their institution through financial endowments, political protection (whether by favors, military aid, or just good old-fashioned blackmail), or diplomatic influence. As a result, the institute of learning and refuge also became a place of sanctuary for political outcasts whose assets or knowledge could benefit their foundation, spies from the south or the west en route to the east or vice versa (Harpers were usually particularly welcome temporary guests whose incurred debts were always paid in a timely and generous manner); or just a convenient and permanent hiding place for offspring born on the wrong side of the blanket by royals or soon to be royals whose legitimate heirs had reason to worry about potential rivals.

  As long as the accounts were met, no questions were asked, nor information given out. As a result, numerous members of the peculiar institution who had come to accept their lives of study had no knowledge of their parentage or lineage, and possessed memories solely of their lives within the monastic walls, nor did they desire such information nor opportunities for adventure. Loyola Ignato, one of the Retreat's founders and, according to legend, a mage of some note, had prided himself on his abilities to indoctrinate the young and inexperienced into the ways of life in the monastery. He was known to boast that if you gave him a youth between the ages of two and twenty, the Retreat would have him for life, and many nobles were more than willing to accommodate him. Without exception the Retreat had never lost an initiate to temporal temptations that lie beyond the monastic walls.

  Donal, however, was not one of these members for he had actually chosen the sanctuary of the Retreat (seeing few alternatives) for himself, and, furthermore, was more than partially acquainted with his own lineage and parentage, no matter how hard he tried to forget.

  The self-labeled wart of humankind rubbed the scars that adorned his bald and wrinkled pate. I wore my tattoos with pride, he thought to himself, if I regret anything it is their removal. With them, I had respect, power, and prestige despite my godsforsaken appearance.

  Donal sighed.

  And with them, I was soon a marked man, he continued in his reflection. Such is the case when one finds oneself on the wrong side of a revolution, and Szass Tam was one lich who definitely didn't forgive and forget.

  Donal had had his telltale tattoos painfully burnt off his facial skin, and had applied for sanctuary at the Retreat, supplementing the mercy and pity that the elders felt toward him with promises of devotion and the sharing of numerous secrets of conjuration. To them, he was just another poor wizard who had fallen victim to hard times and misfortune, and so he was accepted and put to work to earn his keep.

  Originally the former Red Wizard had had illusions of safety in his anonymity, and dreamt of secreting a small fortune by which he could leave the Retreat and live out his days in a secret location at a higher degree of comfort, but these hopes were soon dashed when Nathor, a fellow conspirator from that ill-fated revolution had also turned up at the steps of the Retreat.

  Donal still remembered the Thayan refugee's rant to the elders trying to make them understand his dire straits.

  "Have you gazed upon the Runes of Chaos, beheld the thing which sits upon Thakorsil's Seat, held the Death Moon Orb in your trembling hands, wielded Nyskar's Nightblades, entered the Devouring Portal and walked the Paths of the Doomed, or sat at the left hand of Szass Tam during the Ritual of Twin Burning?"

  The others had felt pity toward him, and suggested that he be taken in until he could be handed over to the authorities as a madman in need of incarceration. Donal knew differently.

  "I have done all these things," Nathor had confessed, "and each day I pray for forgiveness, and each night at sunset I pray for deliverance from the evils that stalk me. I pray, but I fear that no gods will listen."

  Donal still remembered the chill that went through him when their eyes met. From that point on, the refugee remained silent, almost as if he had gone into a fear-induced catatonic state.

  The emissaries from the asylum were due to arrive in four days.

  Nathor disappeared after three days, and was never heard from again.

  Since that day, Donal had been perplexed. An optimistic individual with a touch of cruelty might have chuckled over the situation. Perhaps Nathor had recognized him and leaped to the conclusion that he was a spy from Thay who had been sent after him. Little did the poor fool realize that he too was a wizard in hiding with probably an even higher price on his head.

  Though Donal was cruel enough to laugh at the unfortunate and mistaken Nathor (an opportunity which the much-maligned and trod-upon self-proclaimed wart on the face of Faerun would have been more than eager to seize upon), he was far from optimistic.

  Donal was a realist and realized that his days of anonymity at the Retreat were numbered, and he quickly seized upon an opportunity to remove the danger that he knew would quickly be coming from the East, and perhaps make plans for a more comfortable future.

  An opportunity soon presented itself when Donal had to take his turn as an elder of the Retreat and make the half-day journey into Mulmaster to deliver the monthly tithe. (Only elders were allowed to venture from the Retreat, as the more youthful interns were prone to distractions that might persuade them to forsake the life of scholarly pursuits, and at his eighty-plus years, Donal more than qualified as an elder).

  As per usual, Donal tried to make his journey as swift and as inconspicuous as possible. His progress, however, was held up by one of the numerous connubial festivals that was celebrated by the thrice-yearly reunion of the High Blade and his bride from the Far East, and Donal's most direct path out of town was blocked by a parade in their honor.

  Donal at the time did not expect to feel honored or blessed by actually seeing the city's nobility, but rather just waited impatiently to resume his journey. A chance view of the High Blade himself, however, quickly changed his mind, and from that point on devious wheels of planning and deceitfulness began to turn with a plan that would grant him safety and security for the rest of his days.

  Donal cursed the chill of the night air, as he checked the hiding place for the pack that held all of his worldly possessions. Everything was in order, and he hoped that the escort would arrive promptly. It had not been easy to manipulate the schedule so that the young mage-in-training, Rassendyll, would follow him on watch duty, nor had he been able to make all of the necessary other preparations without alerting any of the Retreat
's brethren to his machinations and preoccupations.

  The drug was already in the jug of ale that the watch was allowed to partake of to ward off some of the night's chill, and Donal had made sure that Rassendyll's meal had been well salted earlier that evening. Once he had been relieved of duty, Donal would join his pack in hiding, and wait for his successor on guard duty to nod off by the sleep draught, at which point he would be free to open the gate, and meet his expected escort.

  Donal had just returned to his place at the gate, when an eager young wizard crept up behind him.

  "Boo," the young mage said, startling the older wizard. "Hope I'm not late."

  Donal closed his eyes, and bit his tongue to hold back a curse or incantation of rebuke for the young wizard. After less than a moment's hesitation, he turned around, and warmly confronted the young wizard who would prove to be the means of his deliverance unto safety and prosperity.

  "My dear Rassendyll," Donal fawned, "you gave me such a fright."

  "Sorry, magister," the younger wizard replied, obviously repentant for his previous action, "but I have also shown up early for my watch."

  "How thoughtful of you," Donal replied, hoping that he had succeeded in removing all traces of sarcasm from his words despite the intent that existed in abundance within.

  "It's all right," Rassendyll replied, "I couldn't sleep anyway. My mouth has been exceptionally dry since evening meal, and no matter how many trips I've made to the well, my throat still remains parched."

  A little bit of salt and some Thayan spices usually have that effect on you, Donal replied in his thoughts, and then said out loud. "Why don't you try a sip of ale? I seem to recall a land of miners where all forms of spirited beverages were outlawed except for ale, and do you know why?"

  "No, magister," the younger wizard replied, fearing that he had just re-entered some imaginary classroom in the mind of the older wizard whose kindest of nicknames was "doddering Donal."

  "Because it was the only thing that would slake their thirst after a dusty day in the mines, that's why," Donal replied, then added, "so drink up."

  "Care to join me?" the younger wizard offered, jug already in hand.

  "I think not," Donal replied, then adding to avoid all suspicions, "I am heading to bed, and, at my age, beverages have a way of making themselves the most temporary and inconsiderate of houseguests."

  "Come again magister?"

  "They like to come and go as they please, and quite often at that," Donal replied with a chuckle.

  "Enjoy your rest."

  "And you yours," Donal replied heading back to his cell. "And you yours."

  When Donal had passed the corner of the inner hall and was thus obscured from the watchful eyes of the younger wizard, he quickly took to the shadows and secreted himself in his hiding spot, out of sight, but well within earshot. In no time at all, he heard the sound of his future salvation: Rassendyll's snoring, and the whistle of a lark.

  The lark is one of Faerun's most common birds of the morn, and since it was still well into the middle of the night, Donal quickly recognized the signal from the Thayan agents on the other side of the gate. He pursed his lips together, returned the signal, and let them in.

  "He is over here," Donal instructed, not wasting time with introductions. "Quickly bind his hands behind his back with silken cords."

  The shadowriders quickly complied; their telltale beards, and dirty and greasy manes quickly revealed their identities to the older wizard.

  Mercenaries, he thought. Dirty hands for dirty work.

  "You should also gag him," Donal instructed with great authority, now that he knew that they were merely hired help, "and perhaps put a sack over his head as well."

  They once again quickly complied, and hoisted the dead weight that was Rassendyll up onto the back of a horse, and bound him to the saddle.

  "Where is my mount?" Donal insisted, pausing only to pick up his pack. "We mustn't keep the Tharchioness waiting."

  The tallest of the mercenaries, who had remained mounted and in the shadows all during the abduction of the young wizard, stepped down from his steed as if to offer it to the self-described wart on the face of Faerun.

  "You are right," he replied drawing closer to Donal, "we mustn't keep the Tharchioness waiting."

  As he drew closer, Donal began to make out the emblematic tattoos that adorned the tall one's cheeks, and the wig that had fallen off his pate and was now resting in the cowl that drooped behind his robe.

  Donal dropped his pack, and opened his mouth as if to cry out.

  "She sends her regards," the tall one said, quickly removing a crystal wand from the folds of his robe, and thrusting it into the portly wizard's abdomen, then ripping it upward until it had succeeded in splitting the lower half of the old wizard's heart, and then adding, "but she regrets that you will not be joining us. She has this thing about traitors to the cause of Szass Tam, and specifically not giving them a second chance to betray us."

  The tall one regained his mount in as little time as it took for Donal to fall to the ground.

  As the shadowriders disappeared into the darkness, their hoofbeats diminishing in the distance, Donal quietly died with a faint trace of a smile on his cruelly misshapen lips, his final thought acquiescing to the insight of the Tharchioness, followed by a chuckle at a secret joke, and a last groan of pain that delivered him unto his expected damnation.

  Rassendyll came to in less than an hour, his body aching from the jostling caused by the steed he was bound to, and the awkward positioning of his bound body upon it. He tried to cry out, but couldn't because of the horse's bit that had been fastened to his face as if he were some uncooperative plow horse in need of direction. Had his head not been covered with a sack, he would have realized that it was still the middle of the night. As it was, the only sense left to him for observation was his hearing, and as the shadowriders rode in silence, it too didn't seem to be of much help… until, quite unexpectedly, his steed stopped in unison with the rest of the party, and a commotion seemed to break out.

  "Who goes there? Show yourselves," the young wizard thought he heard through the muffling effect of the sack. This was followed by a screech of horses, several clashes of steel, and more than a few cries of pain, as a party of superior force soon overtook his abductors, and mercilessly slaughtered them.

  Rassendyll could barely maintain his joy. He still had no idea why he had been abducted, nor how, nor where he was right now. The only thing he knew was that he was being rescued.

  "Where is Donal?" he heard.

  "Back at the Retreat. I killed the traitor."

  "Thank you for saving me the trouble."

  This was followed by one last shriek of pain, and one last whispered order.

  "Take half of the company back to the Retreat, and kill everyone. No one must escape, and be sure to leave this behind."

  Had the young wizard not been blinded by the sack that encompassed his head, he would have undoubtedly noticed the speaker (obviously the group's leader) handing his lieutenant a blood-stained crystal wand which Rassendyll, had he been conscious at the time, would have recognized as the weapon that had been used to kill the traitor Donal. As it was he saw nothing, and, petrified with fear after hearing the plans for slaughter, tried to maintain his wits in hopes that an opportunity for escape might present itself.

  A thundering herd of hooves galloped off into the distance and before he knew it, Rassendyll was once again tossed around as the party he was now an unwilling member of raced onward into the night.

  Rassendyll lost all track of time as the riders raced the dawn to their destination. As the stallions slowed down to a trot, the young wizard thought he could distinguish from the cacophony of sounds that included the clopping of the horses' hooves and the verbal spurs of the riders, a change in the ground upon which they rode, the sound of a gate being raised, and a cock crowing in the distance. As the gate closed behind them, he felt the horse that bore him stop, and felt an
eeriness at the peaceful silence that pervaded the early morn.

  The stillness of the air gave way to the distinct odors of industry, smoke, sulfur, and fish.

  They must have brought me to some city, the young wizard discerned, but where? Mulmaster? Hillsfar? If only I knew how long I had been unconscious.

  A few footsteps and the sound of a blade being withdrawn from a scabbard struck terror into his heart.

  Why did they take me all this way just to kill me? he thought, trying to make sense of his situation. Surely if they had intended on killing me they would have done so before now.

  Concentrating deeply, as the magisters had shown him, he sought out with his mind the source of the sounds. In his mind's eye he saw a one-eyed soldier with long black hair standing right next to him, sword raised as if to strike. Fear took control of the young wizard, and as his mind's eye blinked, he felt himself try to scream, forgetting the restraining bit that was still safely lodged in his mouth.

  He felt the breeze of a slash pass by his head, a moment of instability as if he had lost his balance, and then the rude concussion of meeting the cobble-stoned ground.

  "Pick him up," he heard. "It wouldn't make much sense to have carried him all this way just to let him be trampled in the courtyard by the horse that bore him."

  This was accompanied by a malevolent chorus of laughter, as rough hands wrangled him to his feet.

  "I think he's awake," one voice said.

  "Not for long," another replied.

  Rassendyll tried to brace himself for the anticipated blow, felt a sharp pain to the back of his head the likes of which he never felt before, and was consumed by the darkness that had already blinded his other senses.

  A bucket of water to the face did the double duty of reviving him and drawing his attention to the fact that the sack had been removed from over his head. His entire body ached, his arms long wrenched from their sockets by the constraints of the silken bonds. He tried to move and stretch his cramped muscles, but found his freedom impaired by what seemed to be a massive wooden yoke and frame that anchored his limbs in a semi-sitting position that provided him with no room to relieve or relax his protesting limbs and also restrained his head from moving. He thought he could discern a wooden collar that was acting as his neck yoke. The underside was tormenting his shoulders and collarbone with splinters, while the topside seemed cool and smooth as if it were lined with a metal plate. The bit had been removed from his mouth, but the tightness of the yoke further inhibited his attempts at crying out.

 
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