Words by the Water   
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Introduction. "The City of Masks" is a common folk tale that the people of Nyermersys know by heart and which was collected by the hobbit Gerontius Bywater to add to the chapter "North and Haunted: Nyermersys" in his collection of Fairytales and Folklore of Santharia. It tells us about a trader who tries his luck in the famous "City of Death", where he wants to sell the exquist masks he makes. And then it all begins with the encounter of a beggar woman that strange things start happening...

he darkest hour had passed but the first rays of the Injčrá 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 Injčrá 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 footing.

“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 forget.

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 sobbing man.

“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 feathers.

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 gracious.”

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.


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Folk Tale written by Elendilwyn View Profile