he darkest hour
had passed but the first rays of the Injèrá had yet to fall upon the still
waters of the river. Water had spilled from the heavens the night before and it
had rained furiously, causing the river to swell like a pot of water with one
drop too many. The winds had howled through the gaps in the trees, filling the
night-air with the whistling of leaves and the cracking of branches. All who
dwelled in the city that night were glad to be home but few, if any, slept well.
However, at that hour between dark and light, all was silent. Too silent. The
emptiness of sound hung like a plague upon the land and such was the state that
dwelled about the city when the first rays of the Injèrá hit the deep blue
waters by the Northern Harbour.
The morning silence was broken by the boatman’s oar, pushing the water back as
he rode towards the Dragonthorn bridge. The lantern that hung on the bow shone
through the mist that had settled like a cat curled upon a ledge, silent and
unmoving, cutting a path of vision through the white curtains that hung heavily.
From a distance, one would have seen a ghostly figure floating on the water’s
surface, waiting to be granted entrance to the city and on such a morning, it
would be hard for anyone to determine whether the boatman belonged to the realm
of the dead or the abode of the living.
It was a morning
like any other. The city of Nyermersys was bustling with the morning activities
of its inhabitants. The streets were lined with stalls displaying items of all
kinds for sale, from the mundane to the eccentric, vegetables and fruits, pots
and pans, clothes and trinkets; there was plenty to see and plenty to buy. The
morning scene was almost carnivalesque with people bargaining to get the best
deal, shouting out to friends on the street—a morning walk through the town of
Nyermersys would be no disappointment to the passing traveler.
Seyjer was strolling through the old city market browsing through what was
offered for sale, hoping to find something unique that he could take home to his
little sister. Every time he traveled, he would bring something back for her, a
gift to make up for his frequent absence in her life. He was a trader and was
always on the move. He had come to this town to see if he could find a merchant
interested in the masks he had made—lovely things they were, exquisitely painted
with fine details that could depict at a glance the character that the mask was
meant to portray, a frivolous duke, a coquettish princess, a brooding clown,
animals of all kinds, all of which done to perfection under a loving hand.
However, just when Seyjer was about to return to the tavern he was staying at,
he tripped over a sleeping beggar woman. She was leaning by the corner of a
wall, inconspicuous and easily missed by a passing glance. Unfortunately for
Seyjer, he had not been watching his way and missed his footing when he stepped
on her outstretched leg. Although good-natured to most people, Seyjer had little
patience with the unfortunate of society. He had seen too many of such people
and half of them were cheats and thieves who made it their business to rob
traders like himself. In disgust, he kicked away her leg when he regained his
“Respect your elders, young man. If I were you, I would not go round incurring
the wrath of street dwellers. They are not people to be trifled with,” said the
woman without even looking up, her words catching Seyjer by surprise. However,
instead of an apology, he told her to mind her position and disappear to the
back alleys where her appearance would not be a pain to the eye.
Unperturbed by his comment and still looking down, the woman stretched out her
hands and replied, “Be generous of heart young man, you will be blessed,” which
just about tipped the cap off Seyjer’s growing annoyance, causing him to snap.
“I have met enough people like you. Don’t think that I don’t know what you are
up to, purposely tripping people like me in hope of a few sans. Forget it! I am
no fool to fall for your trap.”
It was then that she grabbed one of his legs and stared him straight in the
face. The face that was in front of him was grotesque beyond anything he had
ever seen before. Masses of hair were covering parts of her face, masking the
full effect of her sallow skin that was rotting away with disease tearing at the
sides of her chin.
“First the warning, twice the charm, ignore both and the curse will come.” With
those words she released her hands and half crawled and hobbled away, leaving
Seyjer in shock both from the sight of her face and the words that she left
behind. Even though he tried to convince himself that it was just the insane
ramblings of a crazy old woman, he could not help but feel uneasy with
everything that had happened in that short span of time. His foot was sore where
the woman had grabbed and bending down to nurse the ache, he found a bruise that
was shaped like a rat, glowing purplish and red where it hurt most.
Seyjer was no fool. Widely traveled, he recognized enchantment when he saw one
and what was insane ramblings a moment ago now became the reality of a curse
inflicted on him. However, what the curse would do or what a rat meant was
indecipherable to Seyjer, this being his first trip to Nyermersys. He panicked
and ran in the direction the old woman had gone with every intention to ask for
her forgiveness but she was gone and he had no idea where to find her. With fear
biting in his stomach, Seyjer made his way back to the tavern, increasingly
tired as the mid-day heat started to warm the streets. He went back to his room
and fell asleep almost immediately, dead to the world.
It started with an itch where the bruise was and then it spread to his whole
leg, causing him to wake in the middle of the night, cursing at the irritation.
As he got out of bed and looked around for some water to pour over the sore, red
from his scratching, he noticed that his night vision had improved tremendously.
He could see everything in his room without the need of candlelight. He was
hungry too and he could not help but smell the food left in the tavern kitchen.
Leftover food he thought and instinctively found his way down to the
kitchen. In his hunger, he forgot his itch and as if it was the most natural
thing in the world, he raided the larder and stuffed himself with bread and
stale meat until he was quite satisfied. Then, without thinking more about it,
he went back to his room and slept.
The next day there was a huge commotion in the tavern. The larder was a mess,
with food strewn all over the floor. The situation had left the tavern owners
quite stupefied for which thief would simply raid a larder and neglect the
things of greater value. There was talk of enchantment but since no reasonable
cause could be found, the tavern owners decided to ignore it as they have learnt
that sometimes it was in one’s best interest to see and know nothing.
Seyjer slept through the commotion, covering himself completely with the blanket
to avoid the day-light coming through the window. Even when he momentarily
awoke, he found his head throbbing with pain and his senses dulled, forcing him
to choose slumber. Even the storm in the night could not rouse him from his
half-dead state. It was only in the hour just before dawn when he woke again
with a start, his senses alert and his whole body itching. This time, it was not
an itch that needed to be addressed by physically scratching at the bruise that
was growing bigger by the hour; it was a desire Seyjer felt to get out into the
streets to acknowledge a calling in the night.
Something was calling him and it was not something that he had any power to
ignore or resist. As if in drunken stupor, Seyjer stumbled out of the tavern and
into the streets, following blindly the compulsion within. Unlike the
carnivalesque gaiety of day, Nyermersys at night bore the sinister trappings of
a painful past. The colourful potted plants that lined the balconies were
non-existent. In the dark, the walls showed no colour, choosing instead to
announce its age by the varying shades of grey caused by peeling paint and
blocks chipped by long exposure to the harsh weather conditions. A city of two
faces—beautifully masked in the day, a circus and a feast for the eyes—unmasked
in the night to reveal the scars of the past, one that people would rather
Seyjer found himself walking towards the North Harbour guided by his instinct
and excellent night vision. As he made his way through the streets, he walked
through puddles of water left by the earlier storm, causing ripples and
distorting the full moon that was reflected in each. There, at Dragonthorn
bridge, at the crack of dawn, stood a man who was clearly waiting for someone.
“Welcome traveler,” said the boatman in a melodic voice, trance inducing in its
rhythm. “Welcome chosen one of the Goddess Queprur.”
“Queprur? Am I dead?” mumbled Seyjer, rubbing his temples in an attempt to clear
the fog in his mind? “I don’t understand. Who are you?”
The boatman smiled and replied, “I am the servant of the Goddess Queprur and one
who lives in the neither realms. Today I have been sent to welcome you to our
world that walks between the dead and the living. Your skills are admired by the
Goddess and she wishes you to be in her service.”
Seyjer understood none of it but anything with Queprur meant death and he wanted
nothing to do with it. Jilted awake from half-drunken state, his body responded
to the name of death instantly.
“No!!!” he yelled and turned away, fighting the compulsion to walk towards the
boatman. He ran as fast as he could, not knowing where he was going, wanting
only to put as much distance between himself and the man who was neither alive
nor dead. As he ran, the buildings grew bigger and bigger and it was not long
before his legs bucked out under him and he fell forward. Stretching out his
hands to break his fall, he saw that in place of hands he now had paws. His
vision was failing and soon, a rat stood where a man used to.
Alarmed by his near blindness more than his transformation, Seyjer sought the
comfort of a piece of wall and began to run along it. His last memories were of
his sister before it became a single-minded desire to reach a destination.
Soon he was joined by hundreds of rats, rats from the drains, the houses, the
forest and every nook and cranny that existed in the city. They ran together
with a common destination imprinted in their minds—the pest pillar. As more and
more rats gathered in the main city plaza, Seyjer found himself quivering in
anticipation, his fur standing on its ends as he waited. Who or what it was he
was waiting for was unknown to him. All he knew was that it would bring relief
to his being.
He did not have to wait long. The mass of rats parted to reveal an aisle leading
to the pillar, packing each side of the aisle more tightly and squeezing Seyjer
somewhere in between. Soon he saw the boatman making his way down the aisle.
Halfway through the boatman stopped, turned in his direction, looked at him, and
then bent and reached over to pick him up.
As if that was the signal that the rats had been waiting for, they erupted into
a frenzy, pushing and shoving each other in a bid to get closer to the boatman,
filling the night air with their squeaks and chatter.
“Silence!” commanded the boatman and in an instance, the rats stilled and
observed him with their keen eyes and their whiskers twitching.
“Pitied and protected of the Goddess, she has heard your pleas for absolution
from pain and has granted you a form that is free of diseases for nights of your
lives in return for the worship of her being,” orated the boatman. “You have
fulfilled your yearly duty to present yourself. Now go in peace to live out the
rest of your days and we will meet again when a year has passed.”
Slowly the rats dispersed leaving Seyjer alone with the boatman who then bent
down gently to release Seyjer onto the streets. Before Seyjer has a chance to
run, the boatman uttered a charm and Seyjer returned to his human state, his
body crouched close to the ground with the memory of its rat-like state.
“You have been cursed,” said the boatman in an emotionless voice that still
retained its melodic quality. “You have also been blessed by the graciousness of
the Goddess in her admiration for you.”
Seyjer started to cry, something he had not done since he was a boy at the
deathbed of his parents. “Why me? I don’t understand.” he sobbed.
A moment of sympathy passed through the boatman’s eyes as he looked upon the
“You brought it upon yourself, insulting the weak and diseased,” the boatman
replied. “The plague has long gone but the disease still lives in the
unfortunate few. Those afflicted seek absolution from the Goddess and she frees
them from pain in the night through the form of a rat. Keeping her promise to
her priests, the disease stays with its barrier and does not spread.”
The boatman paused and then continued, “… Unless it is delivered in the form of
a curse, which is the second gift the Goddess has bestowed upon the afflicted.
They are able to pass on the disease if another being chooses to treat them with
disrespect, the way you have done.”
“I didn’t mean it!” cried Seyjer desperately. “I was just impatient. Please
understand, please remove the curse!”
“I cannot revoke what has been given but I am here to offer you a proposition
from the Goddess. Should you choose to accept it, you will live a life that is
slightly better than one that is cursed.”
Seyjer’s heart dropped with the knowledge that what is done cannot be done. A
moment of silence passed as his mind tried to struggle with the reality of his
condition before he gave in and said softy, “tell me what I must do...”
“Come with me to world of the living dead. You will feel no pain and your
physical body will not perish. Your duty is to the afflicted. Make masks for
them to hide their rotting faces. Mask the city so that no one will know who is
and is not afflicted by the disease.”
“No…” Seyjer whispered. “Is there no other way? I want to live. I have not had
enough of life…”
The boatman was silent and then turned to walk the way he came, leaving Seyjer
staring at his back. Mist started to form and like a cat that curls around its
owner’s foot, it wrapped its arms around the boatman’s body and soon, both the
mist and boatman disappeared altogether. A gentle breeze caressed Seyjer’s cheek
and whispered in his ear, “Mask the city.”
Dawn was breaking and light was beginning to seep through the cracks in the
clouds. As if a spell was suddenly broken, Seyjer felt a sharp pain shoot
through his bones and his knees crumbled, forcing him to collapse on the ground
in pain. Wanting to seek the comfort of his bed, he half crawled, half stumbled
all the way back to the tavern.
The city was just beginning to wake when he reached his room. No one took any
notice of him, assuming he was just another man who had too much to drink in the
night. With a mustering of whatever strength he had left, he made a rush for the
bed, only to fall a ped away from it. As he raised his head from the floor, he
saw in front of him his bag of masks that he had placed under the bed, masks
that he had intended to sell. At that moment, he knew what he had to do.
He reached out for the bag, barely reaching it, pulled out the first mask that
his hand touched. He struggled to get onto his feet and made his way out of his
room and onto the streets. People were starting to avoid him, they could smell
the stench of rotting skin emanating from his body, but he was oblivious to
their treatment of him. He was focused on finding the old woman who had cursed
him. She was the antidote to his pain.
He found her exactly where he first met her and collapsed on his knees in front
of her. He held out the mask and said, “Forgive me for I did not know. I am
wrong and I will suffer the consequences of my action. Please accept this mask
as a token of my apology.” He could not bring himself to look her in the eye as
he passed her a beautiful mask painted in shades of green and adorned with white
The old woman’s face shone with delight for it was the most beautiful mask she
had ever seen. She took it and replied, “You will be blessed for you have been
Her words worked like a charm and his pain lifted immediately. Seyjer got up and
started his walk back to the tavern. As he passed by a shop, he looked into the
windows and was shocked to see that he had no reflection. He immediately looked
at his palms and then used them to feel the rest of his body. His physical being
was as real as it ever was and he no longer felt sick and inflicted. But the
reflection, he thought. How can it be… unless what the boatman said is
true, I now belong to the neither realms. No…
He ran back to the tavern, picked up his whole bag of masks and started giving
them out to every diseased person in the city. Beautiful masks of all shapes and
sizes, some of beasts, some with faces of the different creatures in Santharia,
every one of them until he had nothing left. The streets of Nyermersys were
filled with colour as all the diseased put on their masks. It hid their
hideousness and gave them confidence to walk the streets unashamed.
When Seyjer had nothing left, he went back to his room and looked himself in the
mirror. All he saw was the reflection of the room looking back at him. He
touched his empty reflection and wept. As his tears formed a puddle on the
wooden floorboards, a mist started to form in the mirror and when he saw looking
back at him, the face of the boatman.
“The Goddess is pleased. You are free to live life as you wish but every year,
on this day, the Day of the Dead; you will need to return to Nyermersys with a
mask for every diseased person in the city. If you fulfill this, you will live a
life free of disease. Death will not seek you as you have been claimed and what
is not alive cannot die. Fail your promise and you will live an immortal life
plagued with pain. Go with the blessing of the Goddess.”
The face of the boatman disappeared along with the mist and Seyjer saw in the
mirror his room again. That very day, he left the city. He was never seen again
but every year, on the Day of the Dead, they say a stranger gives out masks to
the ill and afflicted in the city. As years passed, it became fashionable to
wear masks on the Day of the Dead and on that same day, no one can tell who is
diseased and who is not. For that one day in the year, nobody looks down on the
weak because with their masks, everyone is equal.